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Not a population bomb, more a damp squib

Credit: Getty Images / Alexander Spatari

Credit: Getty Images / Alexander Spatari

February 1, 2019   3 mins

One of the nastiest arguments against foreign aid is that any help for poor countries will only encourage overpopulation.

As well as being monstrous, the argument isn’t even right in its own terms. Recent decades have demonstrated beyond doubt that achieving humanitarian aims with regard to the food supply, healthcare, education and economic security brings down the birth rate. Reduction in population growth follows development, not the other way round.

Globally, the human population – currently at the seven billion mark – is still growing. The UN predicts it will hit eleven billion by the end of the century. However, as Max Roser of Our World In Data explains here almost of all of that projected growth is accounted for by reduced mortality, not increased natality. Indeed, Roser shows how we’re getting close to ‘peak child’ i.e. a maximum in the number of babies being born each year. At that point, births will cease to contribute to global population growth, which will instead be entirely accounted for by people living longer (especially by surviving their vulnerable early years).

The fact that people from developing countries are getting the better of war, famine, pestilence and (premature) death cannot and should not be held against them.

If our numbers do reach 11 billion by 2100, it will therefore be for the right reasons. However, according to fascinating article by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson in the Guardian, things could turn out even better:

“Jørgen Randers, a Norwegian academic who decades ago warned of a potential global catastrophe caused by overpopulation, has changed his mind. ‘The world population will never reach nine billion people,’ he now believes. ‘It will peak at 8 billion in 2040, and then decline.’’

“Similarly, Prof Wolfgang Lutz and his fellow demographers at Vienna’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis predict the human population will stabilise by mid-century and then start to go down.

“A Deutsche Bank report has the planetary population peaking at 8.7 billion in 2055 and then declining to 8 billion by century’s end.”

It’s not that these forecasts are expecting more people to die, but, rather, fewer to be born. The UN disagrees, because they prefer to base their models on established trends:

“‘We imagine that countries that currently have higher levels of fertility and lower levels of life expectancy will make progress in the future in a similar manner, at a similar speed, to what was experienced by countries in the past,” John Wilmoth, director of the UN Population Division, says. ‘It’s all grounded in past experience.’”

That’s not unreasonable, but the dissenting experts point out that the development that led to falling birth rates in the past is increasingly taking place in a new and game-changing context:

“In 2007, for the first time in human history, the majority of people in the world lived in cities. Today, it’s 55%. In three decades, it will be two-thirds.

“A lot happens when people move from the countryside into the city. First, a child changes from being an asset – another pair of shoulders to work in the fields – to a burden – another mouth to feed.”

The impact of economic growth is therefore compounded by the impact of urbanisation.

As Bricker and Ibbitson point out, many of those moving to the rapidly expanding cities of the developing world still have strong links to the “immemorial, agricultural, subsistent and patriarchal” communities they came from. But with each generation those ties will get weaker – as they did with great rapidity in earlier waves of urbanisation elsewhere .

There are other forces accelerating the pace of cultural change – not least the spread of communication technologies. For instance, in Kenya, “over 75% of the population have mobile device subscriptions.”

A richer, more urban and faster-paced developing world leaves less need, space and time for large families. Indeed, it begins to look increasingly like the developed world where birth rates are generally below replacement level – often worryingly so.

In fact, in the most populous non-western nations, the convergence has already happened:

“China, the world’s largest country, has a fertility rate of 1.5, lower than Britain’s. India, soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, is at the replacement rate of 2.1 and falling. Brazil, the fifth most populous country, has a fertility rate of 1.8.”

Stable or declining population trends appear to be ‘baked in’ across most of the world. Africa, however, is the ‘swing continent’ – and what happens there over the coming decades will be the biggest influence on many more billions of us there are by 2100.

That said, westerners shouldn’t forget that the burden each of us place upon the planet should be weighted by consumption level – and that we’ve been consuming a lot more, for a lot longer, than anyone else.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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