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It was World Population Day on 11 July. Instituted by the United Nations in 1989 to bring attention to high population growth, its original purpose is now largely irrelevant – though you might not think so from some media reports.
According to a piece in The Guardian, World Population Day focuses attention on “the urgency of our impending population crisis”:
“…there has been a deep and potentially catastrophic failure by the west in promoting a measure on which the future health of our planet depends: limiting numbers of our species.
…By 2050, the Earth’s population will have hit 9.7 billion and it will continue to rise, reaching a figure of about 10.9 billion by 2100.
These are the kind of population numbers we associate with simple organisms swimming in a pond.”
Yes, the world’s population is growing at the moment, but that growth is slowing (and is contributed to in part simply because people are living longer than ever before). In fact, fertility rates are near or below replacement level in all world regions except Africa, where growth is also slowing. Countries where women give birth to fewer than 2.1 children on average (the rate necessary to sustain the current population and perhaps even the existence and cultures of those countries) now include all of Europe and Northern America.
As a result, for the first time in modern history, the world’s population is expected to stop growing by the end of this century, according to new data from the United Nations. In fact, some demographers dispute that the world’s population will keep growing even that long. And once the world’s population starts to decline, that decline could be very rapid.
I have noticed that many journalists and world organizations have come to increasingly realise over the last decade or so that many of the world’s countries are actually in trouble because they are not having enough babies. They ponder instead what has caused a culture seemingly so unsupportive of the family.
For instance, The National Geographic (among others) ran a Population Day article discussing concerns about how the world will continue to support its large numbers of elderly people, with such low birth rates contributing to an uneven population structure:
“For almost all of human history, the Earth’s population has skewed younger. But since the last World Population Day on July 11, a major shift occurred: There are now more people age 65 and older than there are under age five.”
Moreover, the world is today is much more cognizant of the many atrocities committed in the name of population control – despite the fact that they still go on today. Let’s not forget that in 1983 the United Nations gave its first ever population awards to both the Chinese minister for population and the Prime Minister of India for their work initiating family planning and sterilisation programmes which would go on to terrorize thousands of lives. (That year alone a record number of birth control surgeries were performed in China, including 16.4 million female sterilizations and 14.4 million abortions.)
Yes, we must be concerned for the protection of our environment as The Guardian implores. But it is arguable that having fewer babies wouldn't even help the emissions issue. For instance, regional population economics researcher, Lyman Stone, argues:
“There is only one way to effectively prevent, alleviate, or reverse dangerous climate change: technological, geographic, and social advancement. Population has little to do with it — especially not in the US.”
And more importantly, even if it did, people are innovative and there are many amazing technologies being created – each baby born is a potential innovator!
With our capacity for complex reasoning and abstract thinking skills unique to humans, we are certainly not anything like “simple organisms swimming in a pond”. We are unique. We have dignity. And huge unforeseen innovations, such as new, unexplored energy sources and farming practices, have proven doomsday prophecies wrong time and time again.
Shannon Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.