Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Seven Billionth Baby

There has been a lot of press coverage in the past few days about the fact that Earth’s 7 billionth baby will be born sometime toward the end of this month. This has spawned a raft of articles about population, population control, the use of Earth’s resources, climate change and peak oil . . . and so on.

Below is an opinion piece written by Roger Martin, chair of the charity Population Matters. It is reproduced with kind permission of Roger Martin, and was originally printed in The Guardian of 25 October 2011
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Why current population growth is costing us the Earth

Our population is rising while our ability to sustain life on Earth is shrinking – we must change before nature does it for us

The 7 Billion Day is a sobering reminder of our planet's predicament. We are increasing by 10,000 an hour. The median UN forecast is 9.3 billion by 2050, but the range varies by 2.5 billion – the total world population in 1950 – depending on how we work it out.

Every additional person needs food, water and energy, and produces more waste and pollution, so ratchets up our total impact on the planet, and ratchets down everyone else's share – the rich far more than the poor. By definition, total impact and consumption are worked out by measuring the average per person multiplied by the number of people. Thus all environmental (and many economic and social) problems are easier to solve with fewer people, and ultimately impossible with ever more.

Since we passed one billion in 1800, our rising numbers and consumption have already caused climate change, rising sea levels, expanding deserts and the "sixth extinction" of wildlife. Our growth has been largely funded by rapidly depleting natural capital (fossil fuels, minerals, groundwater, soil fertility, forests, fisheries and biodiversity) rather than sustainable natural income. Our global food supply is heavily dependent on cheap oil and water. Yet peak oil means rising prices, while irrigation is quarrying out vital aquifers in many countries.

Thus our population rises at the same time as the number of people Earth can sustain shrinks, while spreading industrialisation and western consumption patterns only accelerate this process. The poor should get richer; but high birth rates, compounded by resource depletion and environmental degradation actively hinder development.

The crunch point is that indefinite population growth is physically impossible on a finite planet – it will certainly stop at some point. Either sooner through fewer births by contraception and (non-coercive) population policy, the "humane" way – or later through more deaths by famine, disease, war, the "natural" way. As Maurice Strong, secretary general of the 1992 Earth Summit put it: "Either we reduce our numbers voluntarily, or nature will do it for us brutally."

Some people, notably George Monbiot, argue that western over-consumption is the sole culprit, so criticising expanding population means "blaming the victims". Of course he is right that our self-indulgent lifestyles are grossly inequitable, and must become much more modest – each additional Briton has the carbon footprint of 22 more Malawians, so the 10 million more UK people the ONS projects for 2033 would equate to 220 million more Malawians. But all poor people aspire to become richer; if they succeed, their numbers will matter immensely.

That is why Population Matters campaigns to stabilise the UK's as well as the global population, effecting a culture shift in favour of smaller families here, while massively increasing the priority and resources for family planning and women's empowerment programmes in developing countries, enabling the 215 million women with an unmet need for contraception to control their own fertility.

Perhaps we can feed 9.3 billion people in 39 years' time – I don't know. We're barely feeding seven billion now. But Norman Borlaug, accepting his Nobel peace prize in 1970 for his "green revolution", said: "I have only bought you a 40-year breathing space to stabilise your populations."

On a finite planet, the optimum population providing the best quality of life for all, is clearly much smaller than the maximum, permitting bare survival. The more we are, the less for each; fewer people mean better lives.
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Thanks to Roger for permission to use this piece.

For further reading see:

The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population by Vanessa Baird

Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash by Fred Pearce

Click here to read a review of Fred Pearce’s book.


  1. Thanks for posting Roger Martin’s opinion piece. However, I would like to suggest that we critically examine the straightforward correlation Martin draws between human numbers and environmental degradation.

    His argument rests on neo-Malthusian assumptions, so it requires a little context. In eighteenth century England, when the enclosure of the commons caused tremendous suffering, starvation and social upheaval, a Reverend named Thomas Malthus wrote a story about the relationship between nature and human beings. He provided a mathematical narrative of two curves, describing an exponential increase in population and a linear increase in food production, to visually represent the inexorable and explosive divergence of 'the power of population' and 'the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man' (Malthus, 1798). Abstract 'Man' and abstract 'Nature' were thus helplessly locked into a fundamentally antagonistic relationship. In this way, scarcity was predetermined. Private property and class society were inevitable and necessary: the forces of the free-market would bring regulation and personal responsibility to this naturally-ordained chaos. Since the eighteenth century since the eighteenth century, his story has spawned countless offspring – tales of human floods, tides and swarms, population explosions and bombs, petri dishes, germs, cancers, spaceships and lifeboats pushed under as 'Others' clamber aboard. It has been developed, reconstituted and perpetuated, with different groups cast in the role of the 'over'
    in 'overpopulation'. We need to examine these narratives, asking who and how they have served. Malthus’ story was notably revived and revised in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s with the development of 'Environmental Security'. I suggest that simple horror stories, where more people equal scarcity, hunger, environmental degradation and violent conflict, function as a political strategy. They naturalize and justify structural violence by attributing suffering and environmental degradation to the innate disposition of the poor to reproduce beyond their means, while distracting attention from the real roots of scarcity, poverty, hunger, conflict and environmental degradation – an unjust and inequitable social and economic system.

  2. 1. ‘Indefinite population growth’?
    The apocalyptic visions of indefinite population growth upon which Martin’s argument relies are highly questionable. Population growth rates actually peaked in the 1960s due to rapid declines in death rates and increases in life expectancy. Since the 1960s, increasing education, birth control, urbanisation and women's employment have led birth rates to fall in almost every part of the world. The average is now 2.7 children per woman. In fact, European countries such as Italy and Sweden are concerned about declining populations. The overall world population is still growing, and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, but the United Nations anticipate that it will stabilise and fall to 8.3b in 2175 (UNDESA, 2009).

    2. ‘The more we are, the less for each; fewer people mean better lives’?

    This logic rests on IPAT (to which a whole section of the Population Matters website is dedicated). 'IPAT' refers to an equation formulated by Ehrlich and Holdren (current science advisor to Obama, check) in the mid 1970s. It states:

    Environmental Impact = Number of People x Goods x Pollution
    Persons Goods

    or I = PAT, where I = units of pollution.
    The impact of humans on the environment (I) is a product of the number of people (P), the amount of goods per person (A), and the pollution generated by technology per good consumed (T).

    Contra Martin, I would like to challenge this simplistic equation. By taking the mean average of peoples' contributions to environmental degradation, IPAT functions to obscure inequalities of social class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and location. The reality is that the richest fifth in the world consume 66 times as much resources as the world's poorest fifth. The equation perpetuates the notion that environmental degradation is a general human problem – natural and inevitable without discipline and control, just like the growth of bacteria on a petri dish, thereby legitimizing elite rule. It does not permit the possibility that scarcity, poverty, hunger, conflict and environmental degradation are conditions for, and effects of, a time and culture-specific social and economic system. Like Malthus, Hardin and the many misguided conservation and development campaigns founded on their assumptions, IPAT leaves no space for collective, intelligent action. People are a figured as stupid, an inherently destructive planetary disease. It also fails to take into account pollution from military etc.

  3. 3. ‘All poor people aspire to become richer; if they succeed, their numbers will matter immensely’

    Again, this assertion is highly questionable. ‘Development’ is not inevitably a universal and uniform process, whereby everyone in the world eventually drives an SUV, takes regular short flights and eats hamburgers every day. It is it is important to consider the ideological function the ‘development’ story has both within and between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. In 1949, US President Truman made his inauguration speech before Congress, defining the largest part of the world as ‘underdeveloped’. For the first time, a new story was told, explaining inequality by figuring heterogeneous humanity as a multitude of ‘peoples’, each located at a point on the one-track road to ‘Development’, where ‘[G]reater production is the key to prosperity and peace’. It has been argued that Truman’s re-conceptualisation of the world can be seen as the founding myth of a new type of USA-led global domination: an ‘anti-colonial imperialism’, presenting the world as a series of homogeneous entities, bound together through economic interdependence, rather than the political dominion of colonial times. Moreover, while it is undeniable that poverty is concentrated in the global South, and that perhaps we cannot speak of absolute poverty in countries with welfare states, it is also important to consider how the development story functions domestically. In 1999, then UK Prime Minister Blair confidently told the Labour Party Conference: ‘the class war is over; we are all middle class now’. Such a statement is patently untrue. In fact, according to the well-known Gini coefficient, the inequality gap only grew under New Labour (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2009). In a Glaswegian school, boys may spend an afternoon diligently copying the Rostow Model from the whiteboard. Those from Lenzie can expect to live, on average, 28 years longer than their friends from Carlton, just a few miles away (WHO, Social Determinants of Health, 2008). Likewise, the life expectancy of a child born in Hampstead is 11 years longer than that of a child born in King’s Cross, just 5 stops on the Northern Line. Wealth does not appear to be trickling down.