Population and the environment


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

One spectre that has long haunted the environmental debate is that of population size. Partly, that controversy seems to derive from some of the extremely dodgy characters who have made it a top concern. Plenty of very ill-informed commentators have based doomsday scenarios around population growth figures. Still, there are reasonable people taking a similar line and it does seem intuitively obvious that fewer human beings would put less strain on limited resources, all else being equal. Particularly among those who want to ‘make poverty history’ (a noble goal, though only possible when poverty is measured in absolute terms), it seems clear that six billion people simply cannot live at the level of affluence of today’s richest, barring some massive change in the way resources are acquired and transformed into goods.

The classic environmental liberal argument says that as people become richer, their family sizes start to fall. This may be because they are better educated and women gain both access to birth control and the knowledge and freedom to use it. It may be because people in relatively undeveloped economies use large families as a strategy to avoid poverty in old age. With the advent of banking, pensions, and the like, the need to do so diminishes. The evidence for slowing population growth is certainly strong, with the UN projecting that the human population will peak sometime around 2050.

For me, the absolute number of people on the planet is obviously far less important than the conditions under which they live. At one point in human history, after the Taba explosion, there may have been as few as 2000 human beings on the planet: living in conditions similar to those of a nuclear winter. Obviously, population size and quality of life are not perfectly correlated. By that metric, population can perhaps best be thought of in terms of the effect it has on people’s lives: especially those of women and the poor. The Rawlsian strategy of focusing on the effect on the least advantaged does have an intuitive moral appeal to it.

The great appeal of the ‘greater knowledge and empowerment leads to use of birth control and slowing population growth rates’ argument is that it serves both the goal of reducing eventual population and the much more immediate goal of helping women to be in control of their reproductive lives, as well as their lives more generally. Given how a hugely disproportionate amount of injustice is directed towards women worldwide, and given the huge inherent dangers in childbirth, even in the rich world, this seems an almost universally appealing kind of development.

One last fallacy should be addressed, in closing, though it’s one well covered enough already that I doubt it will be unfamiliar to anyone. It’s not the countries that have hundreds of millions of poor people that are using the majority of available resources. Patterns of consumption are not only too high, when it comes to limited resources, but dramatically skewed towards the richest consumers. Each year, humanity as a whole uses as much oil as forms naturally in about 400 years. Taking a look at who is benefitting from that, it is unjust as well as unsustainable.

I suppose the safe, but less than entirely satisfying, conclusion is that we can’t take an issue like population and make sweeping generalizations about it, without more cautious consideration of what the important aspects of the situation are and how they relate to moral judgments and non-moral facts. Still, it’s not a thing we should shy away from discussing, just because some of the questions and implications are uncomfortable.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

B January 6, 2006 at 12:10 pm

A middle of the road statement of the conventional wisdom.

While it’s ok to re-state things that are accepted by most reasonable people, it might be a good idea to contribute something new.

Milan January 6, 2006 at 12:16 pm

I’d say it’s merely one form of the conventional wisdom: a kind of synthesis between the cheerleading liberal position and the social green view, less taken with the logic of markets and perpetual growth. The bioenvironmentalist position would obviously be something quite different.

While I do have some problems with Peter Dauvergne’s categorization of different strains of the environmental discourse, it is a useful starting point.

Anonymous January 8, 2006 at 5:22 pm

People love to worry—maybe it’s a symptom of ageing populations—but the gloom surrounding population declines misses the main point. The new demographics that are causing populations to age and to shrink are something to celebrate. Humanity was once caught in the trap of high fertility and high mortality. Now it has escaped into the freedom of low fertility and low mortality. Women’s control over the number of children they have is an unqualified good—as is the average person’s enjoyment, in rich countries, of ten more years of life than they had in 1960. Politicians may fear the decline of their nations’ economic prowess, but people should celebrate the new demographics as heralding a golden age.

. January 3, 2008 at 11:26 am

If most of the world’s 6.5 billion people were in cold storage and not metabolizing or consuming, they would create no resource problem. What really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.

The population especially of the developing world is growing, and some people remain fixated on this. They note that populations of countries like Kenya are growing rapidly, and they say that’s a big problem. Yes, it is a problem for Kenya’s more than 30 million people, but it’s not a burden on the whole world, because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per capita rate is 1.) A real problem for the world is that each of us 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does.

. February 1, 2008 at 3:27 pm

The Threat of Population Growth Pales Beside the Greed of the Rich

I cannot avoid the subject any longer. Almost every day I receive a clutch of emails about it, asking the same question. A frightening new report has just pushed it up the political agenda: for the first time the World Food Program is struggling to find the supplies it needs for emergency famine relief. So why, like most environmentalists, won’t I mention the p-word? According to its most vociferous proponents (Paul and Anne Ehrlich), population is “our number one environmental problem.” But most greens will not discuss it.

Is this sensitivity or is it cowardice? Perhaps a bit of both. Population growth has always been politically charged, and always the fault of someone else. Seldom has the complaint been heard that “people like us are breeding too fast”. For the prosperous clergyman Thomas Malthus, writing in 1798, the problem arose from the fecklessness of the laboring classes. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenicists warned that white people would be outbred. In rich nations in the 1970s the issue was over-emphasized, as it is the one environmental problem for which poor nations are largely to blame. But the question still needs to be answered. Is population really our number one environmental problem?

None of this means that we should forget about it. Even if there were no environmental pressures caused by population growth, we should still support the measures required to tackle it: universal sex education, universal access to contraceptives, better schooling and opportunities for poor women. Stabilizing or even reducing the human population would ameliorate almost all environmental impacts. But to suggest, as many of my correspondents do, that population growth is largely responsible for the ecological crisis is to blame the poor for the excesses of the rich.

. February 1, 2008 at 3:28 pm

Many economists predict that, occasional recessions notwithstanding, the global economy will grow by about 3 percent a year this century. Governments will do all they can to prove them right. A steady growth rate of 3 percent means a doubling of economic activity every 23 years. By 2100, in other words, global consumption will increase by about 1,600 percent. As the equations produced by Professor Roderick Smith of Imperial College have shown, this means that in the 21st century we will have used 16 times as many economic resources as human beings have consumed since we came down from the trees.

So economic growth this century could be 32 times as big an environmental issue as population growth. And if governments, banks and businesses have their way, it never stops. By 2115, the cumulative total rises to 3,200 percent, by 2138 to 6,400 percent. As resources are finite, this is of course impossible, but it is not hard to see that rising economic activity — not human numbers — is the immediate and overwhelming threat.

. February 2, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Population: The elephant in the room

John Feeney

Uncontrolled population growth threatens to undermine efforts to save the planet, warns John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he calls on the environmental movement to stop running scared of this controversial topic.

. February 2, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Too Many People?

By Robert Rapier

“I have seen estimates that suggest that the world could sustainably hold around 2 billion people that consume as the average Westerner does (even that seems high to me) but 40 billion if the world consumes what the average African consumes. If the typical Western diet was primarily vegetarian, the carrying capacity would go up. I have seen estimates of arable land in the world between 3.5 billion and 7 billion acres. Therefore, there is around one arable acre on earth for every person on the planet. Is that enough to feed everyone? It is, with the caveat that the number of arable acres per person vary wildly from country to country. But taken as a whole, on a vegetarian diet there would appear to be enough land area to feed the population. To do it sustainably would take a lot of physical labor, though.”

. May 26, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Bio-powered Europe

Sometimes people ask me “surely we used to live on renewables just fine, before the Industrial Revolution?” Yes, but don’t forget that two things were different then: lifestyles, and population densities.

Turning the clock back more than 400 years, Europe lived almost entirely on sustainable sources: mainly wood and crops, augmented by a little wind power, tidal power, and water power. It’s been estimated that the average person’s lifestyle consumed a power of 20 kWh per day. The wood used per person was 4 kg per day, which required 1 hectare (10 000 m2) of forest per person. The area of land per person in Europe in the 1700s was 52 000 m2. In the regions with highest population density, the area per person was 17 500 m2 of arable land, pastures, and woods. Today the area of Britain per person is just 4000 m2, so even if we reverted to the lifestyle of the Middle Ages and completely forested the country, we could no longer live sustainably here. Our population density is far too high.

. August 27, 2009 at 4:22 pm
. September 11, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Africa’s population
The lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah

Aug 27th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Africa’s fertility rates are falling. Can the continent take advantage?

CAREFULLY stepping round another heap of fetid refuse in Sodom and Gomorrah, it is easy to despair of Africa’s future. Accra’s notorious slum is aptly named. Here, about 30,000 families (no one knows for sure how many) crowd into a warren of hastily thrown-together shacks on the fringes of Ghana’s capital: there is no power, sewerage or running water, diarrhoea and other diseases are rife and deadly fires rapidly take hold. It seems to contain all that is wrong with modern Africa—too many people, deep poverty and the failure of inept or corrupt governments to do anything to help. Yet Sodom and Gomorrah also has a more hopeful story to tell.

Africa is undergoing a “demographic transition”. As our briefing shows (see article), African women are now following their sisters in Asia and the rich world by bearing steadily fewer children. Admittedly, Africa is lagging behind Asia by about 20 years, and the continent’s fertility rates are still high, but the trend is clear. In Mozambique in 1950 a woman had, on average, 6.5 children over her lifetime; now she has five. In Ethiopia the figure has dropped from seven to five; in Côte d’Ivoire it has almost halved from its peak; in Botswana it has more than halved. The only exceptions are war-torn places such as Congo.

Africa’s population
The baby bonanza

Aug 27th 2009 | JABI, SOMALIA
From The Economist print edition
Is Africa an exception to the rule that countries reap a “demographic dividend” as they grow richer?

IN JABI village, on the Juba River in southern Somalia, the mothers are mostly girls. They marry as early as 14 and have their first baby soon after. Their duties barely advance them above a donkey: childbearing and rearing, working in the fields, fetching water from the crocodile-infested river, sweeping faeces from the straw huts. Most have been raggedly circumcised. They have no contraception. There is no school. How many women in the village have died giving birth? “We cannot count the number,” blurts out Asha Hussein; she and the other women weep.

To most people, this is the familiar Africa, a place of large families and high fertility, a continent in which societies are under extreme stress and where the young massively outnumber the old. Teeming, environmentally degraded, ravaged by poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS and civil war, Africa appears the most plausible candidate ever to suffer a Malthusian disaster.

. September 11, 2009 at 2:29 pm

“Africa today produces less food per head than at any time since independence. Farms are getting smaller, sometimes farcically so. Dividing village plots among sons is like cutting up postage stamps. The average smallholding of just over half an acre (0.25 hectares) is too small to feed a family—hence the continent’s widespread stunting.

Forests in Kenya have shrunk by at least 60% since 1990, mainly because more people are cutting down trees for fuel. It is doubtful whether Kenya’s government is strong enough to save the Mau forest on which Nairobi depends for water and hydroelectric power. And if Kenya cannot save a forest on which its capital depends, what hope is there for Congo’s rainforest?”

. September 18, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Fight climate change by giving condoms to poor: Lancet
Last Updated: Friday, September 18, 2009 | 11:28 AM ET
The Associated Press

Giving contraceptives to people in developing countries could help fight climate change by slowing population growth, experts said Friday.

More than 200 million women worldwide want contraceptives but don’t have access to them, according to an editorial published in the British medical journal, Lancet. That results in 76 million unintended pregnancies every year.

If those women had access to free condoms or other birth-control methods, rates of population growth would slow, possibly easing the pressure on the environment, the editors say.

“There is now an emerging debate and interest about the links between population dynamics, sexual- and reproductive-health and rights, and climate change,” the commentary says.

In countries with access to condoms and other contraceptives, average family sizes tend to fall significantly within a generation. Until recently, many U.S.-funded health programs did not pay for or encourage condom use in poor countries, even to fight diseases such as AIDS.

. September 23, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Give women choices
By Economist.com | WASHINGTON

Two points worth making here. One is that Mr Mulligan seems to be arguing that we shouldn’t improve education and access to contraception in developing nations, where population is growing most rapidly, because that would limit population growth, which drives technological development. This is, in a word, offensive. I have no idea why any economist would feel good advocating for measures that deny women the opportunity to get an education, work, and use family planning to take control of important life decisions.

Secondly, Mr Mulligan has taken a rather know-nothing view of population growth. In developed countries, the demographic transition (where declines in death rates are ultimately followed by declines in birth rates) was associated with increased investments in human capital for women and children. Family planning allowed women to participate in the workforce and increased household incomes, while smaller families sizes enabled parents to invest more in a child’s education, better preparing them for skilled work later in life.

. September 29, 2009 at 10:10 am

Kenya’s heart stops pumping

By James Morgan
BBC News, Kenya

High in the hills of Kenya’s Mau forest, some 20,000 families are facing eviction from their farms – accused of contributing to an ecological disaster which has crippled the country.

The authorities are to start the process of removing them any day now. Farmers will be asked to surrender their title deeds for inspection.

If their documents are genuine, they have a chance of being resettled or compensated.

If not, they will simply be told to go.

“We are afraid. Not only me, but all of us here,” says Kipkorir Ngeno, a teacher and father of six.

“They call us squatters – a very bad name. But this is my land. It is not illegal.”

. October 14, 2009 at 7:35 am

Food production ‘must rise 70%’

Food production will have to increase by 70% over the next 40 years to feed the world’s growing population, the United Nations food agency predicts.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation says if more land is not used for food production now, 370 million people could be facing famine by 2050.

The world population is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.1 billion by mid-century.

Climate change, involving floods and droughts, will affect food production.

The FAO said net investments of $83bn (£52.5bn) a year – an increase of 50% – had to be made in agriculture in developing countries if there was to be enough food by 2050.

. November 9, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Fertility and living standards
Go forth and multiply a lot less

Oct 29th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Lower fertility is changing the world for the better

This link between growth and fertility raises awkward questions. In the 1980s the link was downplayed in reaction to Malthusian alarms of the 1970s, when it was fashionable to argue that population growth had to be reined in because oil and natural resources were running short. So if population does matter after all, does that mean the Malthusians were right?

Not entirely. Neo-Malthusians think the world has too many people. But for most countries, the population questions that matter most are either: do we have enough people to support an ageing society? Or: how can we take advantage of having just the right number for economic growth? It is fair to say that these perceptions are not mutually exclusive. The world might indeed have the right numbers to boost growth and still have too many for the environment. The right response to that, though, would be to curb pollution and try to alter the pattern of growth to make it less resource-intensive, rather than to control population directly.

The reason is that widening replacement-level fertility means population growth is slowing down anyway. A further reduction of fertility would be possible if family planning were spread to the parts of the world which do not yet have it (notably Africa). But that would only reduce the growth in the world’s numbers from 9.2 billion in 2050 to, say, 8.5 billion. To go further would probably require draconian measures, such as sterilisation or one-child policies.

The bad news is that the girls who will give birth to the coming, larger generations have already been born. The good news is that they will want far fewer children than their mothers or grandmothers did.

. April 28, 2010 at 10:55 am

Bomb Scare
The world has a lot of problems. An exploding population isn’t one of them.

Ever since Parson Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his 1798 essay on population, it has been trotted out by millenarians and self-styled Cassandras as the basis for predicting famine and global woe. Malthus’s arguments were resurrected as a best-seller for the modern era in the 1968 overpopulation-panic classic The Population Bomb. More recently, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs has cited Malthus to explain the dire state of Africa, and Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson to predict a coming 20 years of global misery. The recent food crisis — which pushed 100 million-plus people worldwide into absolute poverty — has elevated Malthus’s reputation as a prognosticator to the Delphic levels of a Nostradamus or an Al Roker.

But despite his centuries-long global celebrity and recent revival, the parson’s predictions have been wrong from the start. He was wrong about the future of his native Britain. And he was wrong about the future of everywhere else.

Malthus’s argument, laid out in his Essay on the Principle of Population, begins with condescending absolutism: The quantity of land is the ultimate arbiter of how much can be produced, and the unwashed masses will always breed until they’ve used up the maximum productive capacity of the land. This leaves populations condemned to live on subsistence incomes, with birth rates matched by death rates, in turn determined by the difficulty of acquiring food. The only way to improve lives, Malthus concludes, is to shrink population sizes. Offering relief to the poor simply creates more miserable paupers.

Within Malthus’s lifetime, however, the quantity of land stopped being the primary determinant of a country’s output: We began making a lot more stuff in a lot less space. The world’s output in 1820 was smaller than South Korea’s GDP today, according to statistics from British economist Angus Maddison. Global agricultural output has tripled since 1950 alone, while global GDP has increased eightfold. Out of 140 economies tracked by Maddison between 1950 and 2000, all expanded, and only four didn’t at least double in size. Eighty-eight percent saw rising incomes per capita (so much for a subsistence income), and none saw a decline in population. All those extra people can’t eat the industrial and services output that accounts for the majority of GDP growth, of course. But with the money they make, they can tap into what is now a $600 billion global trade in agriculture.

. September 8, 2010 at 10:54 am

Rethinking China’s one-child policy
The child in time
Thirty years on, some want to scrap the repressive policy. The problem may be to get people to have more—not fewer—babies

Aug 19th 2010 | Beijing

Southern Weekend had already taken up the cause in March, describing the hitherto little publicised case of Yicheng county in the northern province of Shanxi. Yicheng, it said, had been trying a two-child policy for 25 years. Despite its more relaxed regulations, the county has a lower-than-average population growth rate. It also has a smaller-than-average imbalance between boys and girls. Elsewhere a traditional preference for boys, combined with the one-child policy, has resulted in widespread abortions of baby girls.

In many other areas, something more like a two-child policy has been emerging. Rural residents are usually allowed to have a second if the first is a girl (typically after a gap of four years). Ethnic minorities can have more. Many places have started allowing parents who themselves lack siblings to have two offspring. A senior family-planning official said in 2007 that in effect the one-child policy applied to less than 40% of the population.

The government, however, shows little inclination to scrap it. September 25th will be the 30th anniversary of an “open letter” by the party that is often seen as marking the policy’s launch. The letter spoke of having a one-child strategy for 30 or 40 years, encouraging some to hope that it might end as early as this year. In February, however, an official said it would remain unchanged at least until 2015.

. September 24, 2010 at 10:31 am

“The fact is that Malthusian thought has exerted a disturbing, and sometimes deranging, fascination since Thomas Robert Malthus published his original treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). With what looked like irresistible logic, Malthus argued that population growth, which people had regarded as a sign of human flourishing, was a harbinger of “misery and vice.” That’s because humans would, unchecked, breed like blowflies, and their “redundant population” would exhaust whatever subsistence was available. There was ample reason to dread what Malthus, courting another sort of redundancy, called “the future fate of mankind.”

It followed, as night followed day, that measures to help the “common people,” like the poor laws, would only increase their overall distress, even if they “alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune.” Suddenly, the moral order was turned upside down: Helping people was really hurting them, and vice versa.

The influence of these arguments was galvanic, and as much cultural as political. The fictional responses to Malthus—which shifted from disdain to horror to clinging embrace, and then to something more complicated—amount to a barometer of humanity’s own assessment of where it stands in the natural order. What was scarier, the specter of teeming hordes of humans devouring the planet—”actuarial terror” is how a scholar of romanticism aptly characterized Malthus’s peculiar power—or the sort of measures that might be taken to prevent this?

It’s no surprise that the enlightened literati during Malthus’s lifetime arrayed themselves against him. He seemed to be justifying a callous indifference toward the worst off. “Sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus,” Shelley thought, were “calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph.” Then, too, the standard narrative of the 19th-century novel was the so-called marriage plot—so it was awkward that, by Malthus’s logic, it might be better to burn than to marry.”

. January 8, 2011 at 6:32 pm

“THE biggest myth is that if we save all the poor kids, we will destroy the planet,” says Hans Rosling, a doctor and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “But you can’t stop population growth by letting poor children die.” He has the computerised graphs to prove it: colourful visuals with circles that swarm, swell and shrink like living creatures.

For the past four years Dr Rosling’s mesmerising graphics have been impressing audiences on the international lecture circuit, from the TED conferences to the World Economic Forum at Davos. Instead of bar charts and histograms, Dr Rosling uses Lego bricks, IKEA boxes and data-visualisation software developed by his Gapminder Foundation to transform reams of economic and public-health data into gripping stories. His aim is ambitious. “I produce a road map for the modern world,” he says. “Where people want to drive is up to them. But I have the idea that if they have a proper road map and know what the global realities are, they’ll make better decisions.”

. September 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm

The main function of marriage in most traditional societies is to bring up children (romantic love rarely has much to do with it). Not surprisingly, changes in child-bearing have gone along with changes in marriage. The number of children the average East Asian woman can expect to have during her lifetime—the fertility rate—has fallen from 5.3 in the late 1960s to below 1.6 now, an enormous drop. But old-fashioned attitudes persist, and these require couples to start having children soon after marriage. In these circumstances, women choose to reduce child-bearing by delaying it—and that means delaying marriage, too.

. June 23, 2014 at 3:44 pm

For many years the United Nations’ population forecasts—the gold standard in the demography business—have assumed that, in the long run, fertility the world over would converge on the replacement level and populations would stabilise. But fertility rates everywhere have been declining for decades. Even in Africa, where large families are still the norm, the number of children per woman in 2010-15 is forecast to fall to 4.7, compared with 5.7 in 1990-95. Global average fertility is already down to about 2.5.

In a growing number of countries the fertility rate has now fallen below replacement. In China it is around 1.5 (though official figures put it slightly higher) because of the one-child policy in force since the 1970s, which has also messed up the balance between boys and girls. For Europe as a whole it is 1.6, and well below that in several southern and eastern countries. In Japan fertility has been declining for decades, to 1.4 now, and the population is already shrinking. South Korea, at 1.3, has the lowest rate of any big country. Numbers are also slipping below replacement level in less wealthy South-East Asia. Quite soon half the world’s people will live in countries where the population is no longer reproducing itself.

. July 6, 2014 at 10:20 am

Having fewer people works

SIR – It is time you abandoned the bugbear of the declining dependency ratio between the numbers of those working and those supported by them (“Quality time”, May 31st). The fact that “fewer babies mean fewer workers later on” is manageable. Productivity is increasing because of improved education, not only of people through schooling but also through better computers and advances in robotics.

As just one example, self-driving vehicles, already in sight, will release millions of truckers, cabbies, bus drivers and car commuters for more useful work. Actually, unemployment appears a greater worry than a workforce deficit, as we will need the labour of ever fewer people to support our dependents. Perhaps you could point that out to the national leaders misguidedly trying to increase fertility.

Humanity is already putting a greater load on the ecosystem than it is able to carry sustainably. Shrinking national populations are not merely no bad thing, as you suggest, but actually essential.

Sir Adrian Stott

. November 2, 2014 at 1:21 am

The Climate-Change Solution No One Will Talk About

Studies have shown that improved access to birth control can be a valuable tool in slowing global warming, but many politicians are afraid to broach the subject.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Previous post:

Next post: