Like cockroaches, the appeal of population control is hard to kill. Popular political theories that have zero merit can be like cockroaches hard to kill. They live on and on through their collective effort and consciousness, revived anew by each generation. One such theory, and a prime candidate for the best (or worst?) of them, is the notion of global population explosion. A truly miserable cockroach of an idea.
Our planet currently sustains a human population of about seven billion. On current projections this will grow to nine billion by 2050. If you’re afraid of big numbers then you’ll be impressed by the argument that our planet is almost at breaking point and the need for population control is urgent.
Thomas Malthus, the original economist doom-sayer, is famous for predicting a population apocalypse in his publication An Essay on the Principle of Population. Writing in England in the late 1700s, his pseudo-scientific theory confidently predicted that unchecked population would be the death of us all. Unless some form of birth control was enforced, the population would grow much faster than its capacity to feed itself. The logic of his mathematically-based theory was irresistible and government action followed. But as we now know, technological development saved the day. Innovation in food production outpaced our propensity to reproduce. And now our biggest worry is not malnutrition but obesity and food waste.
You might have thought that the evidence of history would have settled the argument but here we are again in the 21st Century facing advocates of the same old theory dressed in new clothes for a new audience. Now the focus is not so much on famine and malnutrition but on global warming and environmental degradation.
This was the subject of last month’s BBC Radio 4 programme Glass Half Full in which a panel of academics and thinkers discussed whether ‘A global population of nine billion is sustainable’. Population campaigner, Robin Maynard, opened the debate predictably aligning population growth with legitimate concerns over the environment. In Maynard, the cockroach of population control lives on. It was left to Joel Kibazo former Director of the African development Bank, to make the case for humanity with three simple arguments;
Population growth is fastest in the developing world. But with growth and prosperity, we tend to see a rapidly falling birth rate. Lower birth rates tend to follow closely in the wake of economic development. Kibazo illustrates his point by revealing that his grandfather had thirty five children whereas Kibazo himself has just two. This is a fairly typical pattern in terms of a fertility choices across the world.
If global population is a problem don’t blame Africa, China or India. For example, the UK’s per capita CO2 emissions are approximately ten times Nigeria’s (2013 data). So if you are sincere about limiting population growth as a route to tackling climate change, focus on Europe and America.
To address climate change, what’s needed is not fewer people but more innovation- both technological and political. Better to concern ourselves with ensuring growth, being environmentally responsible and let the head count take care of itself. A child born in a Nigerian village is not a drain on the earth’s precious resource. She is an asset. She has unlimited potential to think, produce and innovate.
A final word on population. The current famine in South Sudan appears to present us with a Malthusian challenge to population optimists. But bear this in mind. Food is scarce in one country and at the same time abundant in others. This is not a population problem. If the stricken population of South Sudan could afford to buy food from abroad, they surely would. This is a problem of poverty and distribution.
The population controversy will no doubt live on, encouraged by those who revel in their sense of entitlement to the best of the world’s resources. Neither analysis nor evidence nor Baygon will deter them.
Ref: BBC Radio 4, Glass Half Full – A global population of nine billion is sustainable.