Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The population question

Last week I reported on the Zero Growth Economics Conference (see post below). One of the issues that was raised a number of times, from varying perspectives, was the question of global population.

There’s a rather macabre but fascinating website on world population that displays a clock/calendar, ticking and counting the increase in world population while you’re looking at it (derived statistically, of course). It’s interactive so you can move backwards or forwards in time to see past world population, or projected future numbers.

The current figure is something over 6.9 billion (that’s US billions – ie: 6.9 thousand million). Various projections suggest that world population will peak at around 9.1 or 9.2bn by 2050, and then flatten off and start to fall (although the website above gives a different result).

Here's a useful global population growth graph, and a graph showing world population in age profile. This second graph shows the profile in 1960 and also in 2003. In these images you can see the post-war baby bulge working its way through, and then the secondary bulge of their children, and now there is a smaller number of infants – hence, as that smaller number reaches adult childbearing age, we get the conditions for the global population to peak and then decline.

Ok – that’s enough statistical stuff! The first of the two graphs above shows the difference in population growth between the industrialised and developing parts of the world – and herein lies the nub of the issue. The developing countries have overall a larger, and faster-growing population; but the industrialised world lives a much more lavish lifestyle. So, although the total carbon emissions of poor countries are high, the emissions per person are of course very much higher in the rich world.

In terms of justice, rich countries should reduce our emissions drastically so that poor countries can have the breathing space to acquire a decent modest standard of living. But in terms of realpolitik there is a real problem about how to ‘sell’ this idea to the rich. The two models that try to get to grips with this are Cap and Share and Contraction and Convergence – both of which are ways of trying to achieve global justice in terms of both economics and carbon emissions.

And this brings us back to the population question: the poor are more numerous but the rich are more profligate – who should reduce their numbers? And how do we even start to have a sensible conversation about this when we have hanging over our heads the shades of both eugenics and the drastic Chinese one-child policy?

In the issue of New Scientist that came out on the day of the conference (26 September) there was a major feature on world population – unfortunately I can’t give you a link to read this series of articles, as you have to be a subscriber to get full access on the NS website. So here’s a summary.

Alison George (‘7 billion and counting’, p.35) gives an overall introduction, ending with a quote from Tertullian, an early Christian, writing in the 3rd century:
We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us; already nature does not sustain us.
This was when world population was around only 250 million – just a little over 3½% of today’s figure.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich (‘Enough of us now’, pp.36-37) argue that,
With more than a billion already going hungry, limiting population growth has to be a priority.
On the page is a quote from Jared Diamond:
“We often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies . . . they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax; we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even for now, for only one billion people.”
Then on pp.38-39 Jesse Ausubel (‘Ingenuity wins every time’) explains why he believes that technological innovation will come to our rescue – no need to worry. He is an environmental scientist, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York City. He was one of the main organisers of the first UN World Climate Conference. Who am I to disagree with such an eminent scientist? But I do disagree. I just can’t see that we can innovate in sufficient quantity and quality, quickly enough, and sustainably in terms of raw materials. On the page is a quote from journalist Brendan O’Neill in Spiked :
“You can bet that when these well-to-do worriers about the human plague on the planet talk about burdensome people causing ‘congestion, overcrowding and loss of green space’, they aren’t talking about themselves, or their friends, or their neighbours.”
Next, Fred Pearce writes on ‘The greedy few’ (p.40) and concludes,
“Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.”
He has a new book coming out in February 2010, Peoplequake.

And to round off the section, Reiner Klingholz writes on ‘The era of decline’ (p.41) discussing the societal problems that come with a declining population – fewer people in work to support a larger ageing cohort. He concludes:
“Countries that learn to live in prosperity with an ageing, stagnant population, or even one that is shrinking, will be the trendsetters for a sustainable future. Europe has the chance to develop a blueprint for these modern societies – for economies that found their wealth and well-being not on growth but on sustainability.”
On the Tuesday immediately following the Conference, George Monbiot’s regular column in The Guardian also tackled population as its topic: ‘Stop blaming the poor. It's the wally yachters who are burning the planet’. He takes a very similar position to that of Fred Pearce in New Scientist. Writing of the very rich, Monbiot says:
“The owners of these boats do more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes than most Africans do in a lifetime. ”
He goes on to argue that the rich should curb their emissions and stop calling for the poor to have fewer children. The letters page the following day included five responses to his article under the heading, ‘Planet's problems are multiplying’. The first two letters come down one on either side of the argument; the other three say, in different ways, that it’s both-and, not either-or. But on the same day as these letters, the paper carried a major article, across two pages, headlined, ‘By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry’, discussing the effects of climate change on world food production, which will decline even as population carries on rising.

So, how are we to approach this? How do we have a thoughtful and rational public debate about it? How can we put together justice, political realities, climate change, peak oil, population growth . . .? Is there ‘a Quaker view’ on all this?

Please post a comment, and let’s start practising how to talk with each other about this very difficult topic.


  1. >Is there ‘a Quaker view’ on all this?

    Yes I think so - one way to write the Quaker thing is - bearing witness to the transforming power that calls us through repentance into a new kind of life, in which we find ourselves moving into fair share. Unless we repent of our collusion in this broken all-consuming society, our failure to rebuke and confront the greedy and wilful for example as John Woolman did, and ask for divine assistance, how will be be moved out of our greedy comfort?

    When we experience the New Life as a community, when we have transformed lives to show, then we can invite others to experience the transforming power that creates those new lives out of our broken self-will.

    I get stuck because I am overwhelmed by the cumber of modern life; because I don't know how to get the help I need to make the actual changes; because I am too unwilling to suffer? But divine assistance is the unlimited resource which I rely on, and which has been sufficient to bring me this far.

    I was readin QF&P 23-22 and 24-31 this week, don't know if anyone else will find them to be useful.

    You might think, what has this to do with what you're writing above, but my perspective is that the heart of the Quaker way is the transformed life; if we are faithful, our lives look different; we make justice with our lives. I don't see how the Quaker message has anything else to say - the role of our preaching is as George Fox was said to do - lead people to their Guide and leave them there; our lives must show that we have something to say.

  2. On 9 December 2009, on BBC TV, there was a documentary on population - asking 'how many people can the world support?' - presented by David Attenborough.

    He looked at air, water, food, land, wildlife, waste disposal/pollution.

    The world population is currently about 6.8 billion, projected to rise to over 9 billion by 2050.

    At current consumption rates, if they were sustainable, he calculates that the earth could support:
    18 billion people living as they do in Rwanda
    15 billion people living as they do in India
    2.5 billion people living as we do in the UK
    1.5 billion people living as they do in the USA

    But of course, present levels aren't sustainable - we're already in 'overshoot' and using up the earth's 'resources' and 'services' faster than they can be replenished - overall, we (humanity) are living as if we have 1.5 planets.

    Attemborough says there are three ways we can address this:
    - we can reduce consumption
    - we can use new technologies
    - we can reduce population

    And, he says, we probably need to do all three.

    He is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust http://www.optimumpopulation.org/