Like many others, the US-based Center for Biological Diversity was aghast at the arrival of the 7 billionth person today. “Overpopulation and overconsumption are the root causes of environmental destruction. They’re driving species extinct, destroying wildlife habitat, and undermining the basic needs of all life at an unprecedented rate. It has to stop.”
Their solution? Handing out “endangered species condoms” to cut down on human beings and increase Mississippi gopher frogs.
While this is a particularly misanthropic gesture, newspapers around the world saw October 31, the date designated by the United Nations for the population milestone as an inspired choice. Like Halloween, people scary.
“Everywhere people go, mass extinctions follow,” says Australian scientist John Alroy. “Continuing population growth is a multiplier of every one of today’s converging sustainability pressures, including climate change,” writes Jonathon Porritt, a former chairman of UK’s Sustainable Development Commission.
Well, the alarmists got one thing right: the future does look scary –not because there are too many people, but because there will be too few. And the dismaying thing is that nearly all journalists were gullible enough to follow the agenda of a scare campaign run by the Malthusian miserabilists at the United Nations Population Fund (UNDP).
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made an absurd link between the arrival of the seven billionth person to the Occupy Wall Street protests. “As the world population clock ticks past 7 billion, alarm bells are ringing. The gathering force of public protests is the popular expression of an obvious fact: that growing economic uncertainty, market volatility and mounting inequality have reached a point of crisis.”
Sustainability issues are real enough: threats to biodiversity, water shortages, energy shortages, and environmental damage and food supplies require creativity and coordinated international action.
But vilifying human beings as ecological toxins is worse than misanthropic; it’s dumb. Global figures blur enormous diversity among countries, ages, and ethnic groups. They ought to provoke inquiry, not regurgitation of UN press releases. Here are a few questions about the problems and opportunities for a world with seven billion people that alert journalists should have asked.
What are the UN’s assumptions? Demography is an inexact science. In May the UNDP released three estimates for its population forecast: a medium projection, which is the most probable, based on historical trends; a high variant, which is half a child above the medium, and a low, which is half a child below. Some journalists seized upon the high variant, which yields a world population of 15.8 billion in 2100. They could equally have focused on the low variant, which slumps to 6.2 billion.
Broadly speaking, the medium variant projection for 2050 is accepted by other demographers – about nine billion.
However, the UNDP’s analysis incorporates some controversial assumptions. For one, it disregards uncertainty about life expectancy. If this increases, the population will rise. It also assumes that countries with below replacement fertility will rise to a replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Is this likely or just hopeful? Similarly, it assumes that countries like Afghanistan and Niger, with very high fertility rates will decline towards a replacement level of 2.1. Demographic theory supports this pattern, but it is not written in stone.
Are the UN’s figures reliable? Broadly speaking, yes. But the figures which appear in newspapers have significant limitations. Take China’s population – about one-sixth of the world. The experts cannot agree what its level of fertility was in 2000. It was assumed to be about 1.9, but it could actually have been as low as 1.2. This has huge consequences for predicted levels of population. By the end of the century it could sink to half the level of 2000.
How dynamic will 9 billion people be? Population alarmists are only interested in people as carbon footprints and assume that each of them blights the environment to the same degree. But from a social point of view, the key figure is the number of productive people in a country – the working age population between 15 and 60. The truly scary thing happens when the proportion of working people shrinks.
Countries with sub-replacement fertility will be forced to support legions of elderly invalids as the population ages. As Philip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, puts it, “The planet may be bursting, but most of this new population is made up of people who have already been born. So get ready for a planet that’s a whole lot more crowded — with old people.”
How dynamic will the economy be? Can economies struggling under the burden of caring for the elderly be dynamic and forward-looking? Japan was the first major country in the world to enter population decline. Is it any surprise that its economy has stagnated for the last two decades?
“Rising debt burdens and shrinking labor markets have already slowed economic growth and suppressed any hope for a major long-term turnaround,” writes Joel Kotkin, executive editor of NewGeography.com, and author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. “The same will happen to even the best-run European economies, just as it has in Japan, whose decades-long growth spurt ended as its workforce began to shrink.”
How caring will society be? Families in countries as diverse as Korea and Singapore and Spain and Germany are having only one child – the Chinese population ideal achieved without a whit of coercion. So, as in China, the only relatives many children will have are their parents and grandparents – no siblings, no cousins, no aunts and uncles.
Furthermore, many women are choosing childlessness. In an increasingly atomistic society, who will cherish them in their declining years? In France, or Singapore or the United States, childless men and women may have an adequate social support network. Japan is creating cuddly robots, but will they be able to afford them in China? In Tunisia? In Thailand? At the moment almost half the world lives in countries with sub-replacement fertility. The future for people with small families looks bleak and lonely.
How will the world cope with the old age tsunami? The test of every society is how it cares for its most vulnerable. It’s hard enough in advanced economies with traditions of respect for the law to give the elderly and infirm the care and respect they deserve. There have been warnings of a tsunami of elder abuse in the US and the UK.
But in China, the problem will be absolutely overwhelming. By the 2042, almost one-third of China’s total population will be over 60. The burden of supporting four aged parents and one child will crush some couples. According to the Chinese magazine Economic Observer, the government plans to build 3.4 million nursing home beds over the next five years – they are unlikely to be palaces for the twilight years. With China’s scant respect for human rights, how can pressure for euthanasia, legal or illegal, be resisted?
How will the world political balance change? According to the UN’s figures, about half of the 2.3 billion increase in the world’s population over the next 40 years will come from Africa. Six of the 20 most populous countries in 2050 will probably be in sub-Saharan Africa: Nigerian, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. They will be bursting with young people. It is impossible to imagine that their governments will not want a greater say in world affairs, no matter how difficult their domestic problems may be.
What is the future of immigration? In the United States, Europe and Australia migration is a huge political issue. Governments are fighting to protect their borders from unwanted migrants and to preserve their cultural identity. But as their workforce ages, will they be forced to import young workers from countries with dynamic population growth – mostly Africa? Will we see the Africanisation of the world?
What ideals will motivate people in 2050? The world may well become more religious. As Philip Longman points out, “adherents to fundamentalism, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims, tend to have substantially more children than their secular counterparts”. People with a religious outlook have confidence in the future and are less afraid of bringing children into the world.
This may already be happening in the United States, where support for abortion is slipping because more and more young people have religious values – because their parents had more children.
As a demonstration of the power of progeny, the Amish, an American fundamentalist Protestant group renowned for using horse and buggy and shunning technology have grown from about 5,000 in 1900 to more than 250,000 today. The average Amish family has five or six children. The creed of secularism could wither away; at the very least it will be severely tested.
The most serious problem a world of seven billion people faces is not too many people, but too high a proportion of old people. The social and political changes of demographic are not dramatic but day by day they are changing our world. This the real story behind the seven billion. And the scariest thing of all is that almost no one cares.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.