“Population as a problem is over…” (?)

So said Tim Worstall (author of Chasing Rainbows: Economic Myths, Environmental Facts [2010]) on this bIog last October, after I dared to criticise his Prometheanism (i.e. the belief that human ingenuity – rather than nature’s bounty [Cornucopianism] – will enable us to solve all our Environmental/Limits to Growth problems). Since last October, population growth is a subject I have touched upon several times – particularly in relation to reviewing Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1996 book Betrayal of Science and Reason in a series of posts last December… However, on this occasion, I am very grateful to JPGreeenword for reminding me that I wanted to blog about this issue in response to a couple of recent items on the BBC News. These related to a meeting convened in London last week by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government’s Department for International Development. At this meeting, the co-convenors pledged to help get contraception to an extra 120 million women in areas like northern Nigeria by the end of the decade. People who warned of the problem of population growth decades – if not centuries – ago are routinely dismissed as doomsayers whose prophecies failed to materialise. However, some critics are willing to admit that concerns were warranted in the past but insist, as Tim Worstall did, that the problem will solve itself through the education, emancipation, and empowerment of women to exercise choice in controlling their own fertility and reproduction. I agree wholeheartedly that what you might call the Three E’s are indeed the key to solving the problem of population growth; but I would warn against any sense of complacency regarding the prospects for our actually solving the problem. For starters, if we are to get population control under control without the use of unsavoury or autocratic solutions (such as China’s infamous one child policy), we must address the reasons why poor people in rural communities have large numbers of children: Two of the most obvious being the need for help on the farm; and the need for support in old age. Over and above that, things may start to get a little “uncomfortable” if we question whether there are in fact more people living in an area than it can physically support… Given that relocating the people does not solve the problem of their being insufficient fertile land on which to raise livestock and/or grow crops, either the numbers of people must reduce or we will have to accept that charity is likely to be a perpetual necessity… As evidence of this, I present the following: “One out of every 10 couples in Nigeria uses contraception – but in Jigawa, a rural state in the north I visited, the rate is 1%.” Jane Dreaper, BBC Health Correspondent, BBC News. ‘I want to stop giving birth’ after nine pregnancies (10 July 2012) “This is about access to services, and the empowerment and role of women – not just in society, but also in their households.” Dr Muhammad Pate, Nigerian health minister. Contraception: Rural Nigeria’s family-planning challenge (11 July 2012) The United Nations has estimated that the Global Population could stabilise at just over 10 billion before the end of this century; but then again it may not: Even the UN admits that it all depends upon the Three E’s… The global population could peak and start declining; it could stabilise; or it could just keep growing to 15 billion or more. The population of Nigeria alone could grow from 160 to 400 million by 2050. Or could it? Somewhat remarkably, the UN projections (published over a year ago) do not seem to acknowledge the finite capacity of either the Earth’s natural resources or the human ingenuity that can be deployed to mitigate those limits; and fail to acknowledge that more-and-more people being fed off less-and-less land is not sustainable indefinitely. In addition, these UN projections do not take any account of the likelihood that ongoing anthropogenic climate disruption will – as we have seen this year – have a significant adverse impact upon our collective capacity to grow food. I am sorry to have to say it once again but, we were warned this would happen; and we were warned that the longer we put off dealing with limits to growth issues, the more likely we were to be confronted with more than one of them simultaneously (i.e. Meadows et al, 1972, 1992, 2005). And so it has come to pass: Banks have lent imaginary money to fund quantitative economic growth that has now stalled because the global debt burden has grown so large that it almost bigger than the value of all the Earth’s natural resources (even if we could or should exploit them). The fanciful bubble of perpetual growth has well and truly burst; and has been replaced with a global debt crisis – a workable solution to which seems to be very hard to find… Just take a look at this scary series of graphics illustrating our predicament. Despite having no money left to spend on it, we now face the most costly environmental protection programme in human history; and the longer we delay making a start on it the greater the final cost will be. And yet the arguing goes on about who is more to blame; and who should be first to spend the money… In the history of irresponsible ancestors, this current generation is set to become the most irresponsible; we have known for decades that what we have been doing is unsustainable and yet we have refused to change course. Apart from being insanely selfish, there are two words that define this perfectly: Intergenerational Injustice. In the Middle Ages they exhumed bodies and chopped off their heads for much lesser crimes. Therefore, if they wish to ensure their mortal remains are not disturbed in the future, I would recommend that all our current political leaders choose to be cremated and have their ashes sent into space… As if we had not found enough ways to burn fossil fuels, Richard Branson should soon be able to oblige with his new venture – Virgin Ejaculactic


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Economics, Energy Crisis, Environment, Financial Crisis, Growthmania, Intergenerational Injustice, Limits to Growth, Politics, Sustainable development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “Population as a problem is over…” (?)

  1. Schalk says:

    Yep, there will be some serious misery in Africa this century since almost all the global population growth is expected to occur here: a quadrupling from 1 billion to almost 4 billion by the year 2100. This might seem beyond belief to westerners, but large families are ingrained very deeply into African culture. Women and children are still seen as a form of wealth. Just take my home country, South Africa, as an example of how far we are from resolving this cultural fallacy. Even though SA is a fully industrialized country, we have a president who has 5 wives and 20+ children. What kind of example does that set? Although I still see per-capita overconsumption as the primary problem (and the one that we can actually do something about), overpopulation certainly is a large factor. Where rich countries consume the earth through per-capita overconsumption, poor countries consume the earth through overpopulation. It must be something in human nature that consistency pushes us over the brink in some form or another.


  2. Pingback: The future is already here « Anthropocene Reality

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