Monday, November 07, 2011

Seven billion: too much of a good thing?


According to the best available estimates, the global human population reached seven billion individuals last Monday (give or take a few months) and continues to rise by about 10,000 each hour. We took all of human history to reach one billion around 1800. We then took a leisurely 120 odd years to reach two billion in about 1923. The third billion came in 1959 after 46 years; the fourth in 1974 after 15; the fifth in 1987 after 13 and the sixth in 1999 after 12. Since we've just taken another twelve to rise to seven billion, it may appear that human population is growing faster than ever before in history. In absolute terms, it is. The cause is not rising fertility but declining mortality. We are living longer and more are surviving childhood to raise children of their own. Yet in relative terms, we have passed our peak growth back in the 1970s. The annual rate of growth has been slowing since then as fertility rates are plummeting. Sixty years ago the average adult female gave birth to six children, now it is only two and a half. Yet sixty years ago the global average life expectancy was 48, now it is about 68, with infant mortality having declined by two thirds.

Longer, healthier lives; fewer tragic losses for parents; smaller families (largely reflecting more educated and affluent women, greater social security for the elderly and less manual labour): these are all good things. More human beings created in the image of God, more neighbours to love, more brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. This is a thing of wonder.

And yet, seven billion of us live on a single planet, with a single atmosphere, single ocean, and finite land area with limited supplies of fresh water, fertile soil and biodiverse ecosystem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? For some people, this issue is "the elephant in the room" of ecological discussions (for some reason, this seems to nearly always be the phrase that is used). More mouths to feed means more food, means more land devoted to agriculture, means more forests cleared, more fertilisers disrupting the nitrogen cycle, more stress on water supplies, more trawlers scraping the bottom of the oceanic barrel, more rubbish, more carbon into the atmosphere and more demand on finite resources. We are invited to conduct a thought experiment in which every square metre of the surface of the planet contains a human: a ridiculous impossibility. So at what point do we reach too much of the wonderful thing known as homo sapiens? We love water, but too much is a destructive flood. Have we, in our enormously successful filling of the earth, now become a human inundation?

Such questions are always controversial, not least amongst Christians who (rightly) cherish children as gifts from a loving Father. But raising such questions in a simplistic manner can actually serve a dangerous hidden agenda. When you start crunching the numbers, the key figure in ecological degradation is not seven billion, since seven billion are not created equal (at least in terms of ecological impact). A single affluent Australian may have a total destructive impact on the planet that is more than one hundred or even a thousand times greater than a typical rural African. Taking carbon footprints as an example, the average US baby will be responsible for more carbon emissions in their first year of life than an average Ethiopian in their entire lifetime. The Bangladeshi with ten children may still have a far smaller drain on the planet's resources than a childless European businessman. And so, if we only look at population and ignore consumption, then the problem becomes Africa, where birth rates are highest.

Yet Africa contributes a relatively tiny share of the total demand on the earth's systems. In absolute terms and especially per capita, the developed world still bears the lion's share. Again, to pick a single statistic (which turns out to be reasonably representative of other metrics): globally, the wealthiest 11% contribute 50% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions while the poorest 50% contribute 11% (a surprising, but very memorable symmetry).

Therefore, the first issue is and must remain consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption, consumption. Or as Monbiot puts it, it's not sex, it's money. Too narrow a focus on population enables those of us who are wealthy to ignore the very real threat our lifestyles and economic system are to the planet and all its inhabitants. In some cases, a population obsession may even be a mask for xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments that have little to do with ecological concerns.

The much-feared "population bomb" is already being de-fused. As mentioned above, fertility rates have fallen rapidly across much of the globe to levels now only just above replacement (2.5 children per women; replacement is considered to be 2.1). While each billion has taken fewer years to add than the last, the rate of growth has been in decline for about four decades and the ongoing growth is largely the result of so many young people being born in the last few decades, giving the system a certain momentum. Where we end up is currently estimated to be around ten billion (give or take a billion or two, largely depending on how quickly African women receive access to adequate education and healthcare). As countries develop out of absolute poverty, first death rates decline, then birth rates, until population levels stabilise. This has been (or is currently) the experience of every nation thus far and is known as the "benign demographic transition". The demographic transition refers to the shift from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. It is labelled benign because it means that human populations will not continue expanding exponentially like bacteria in a petri dish (another image much loved by certain demographic doomers).

What is less often noted is that the benign demographic transition assumes that the nations currently still experiencing high fertility rates will see them decline as their affluence increases. Thus, we avoid a population explosion though a consumption explosion. The benign demographic transition may not be so benign after all if the model of development used to bring it about assumes that everyone ought to be living like us.

I do think that "the more the merrier" is true, yet on a finite planet, I believe it most prudent to pursue this diachronically, not synchronically. That is, the way to welcome the most humans onto the planet is probably not to try to do so all at once, lest we exacerbate the damage we are presently doing to the globe's carrying capacity and so reduce the possibilities of future generations. In considering this damage, population is a secondary issue, yet it is an issue nonetheless. Since we still walk a path of high consumption and great inequality (and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future) then efforts to slow population growth sooner rather than later are one way of reducing the damage being done to the planetary conditions necessary for human flourishing. Of course, these efforts must remain subordinated to tackling over-consumption (which is the primary issue) and never be allowed to become an excuse to shift our own weighty responsibilities onto the poor.

Ultimately, it is possible to live a flourishing life not mired in stupid poverty without it costing the earth. A good life need not be a life of high consumption. The other alternatives are to abandon any notion of justice and expect the poor to stay poor, to institute draconian population controls or to abandon any attempt to pass on an earth anything like the present one to our children. Very significantly lower per capita consumption in the rich world is the only path that enables the simultaneous pursuit of both ecological responsibility and social justice for those living in absolute poverty in a world of seven billion and rising. Fortunately, it is also the path to greater joy.

20 comments:

byron smith said...

I suspect that this post may need a companion piece to address the personal issue of fertility (though that is a huge topic and perhaps not one I'm willing to bite off just this minute). The pointy part of my answer is that I believe it is critical that marriages, Christians and all humans (perhaps in that order) are open to children while viewing them as pure gift (never deserved or earned), though this need not mean only my own biological children. I touched on some of this in my series on children.

byron smith said...

Guardian: The world at 5 billion. A piece from the archives reflecting on an earlier milestone.

Eclipse Now said...

Great article raising some important issues. However, I disagree with the almost puritanical insistence that it is all down to "consumption, consumption, consumption". You've ignored the other elephant in the IPAT living room, Technology! Please don't misrepresent the formula by omission.

The formula is Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology.

So if we have a huge population all very rich and consuming heaps with the wrong coal fired power stations and mining technologies, we're in big trouble. Everything is magnifying the errors of the other.

So just as more people multiplies the mouths that feed and consume goods and services, the wrong Technologies ALSO multiply the damage done. Your reference to carbon emissions will serve. What if the first world switched to 100% clean nuclear power? Global warming would cease, from our part that is. What if we adopted New Urbanism and gradually, over time, shrunk suburban sprawl to half, a quarter, or even an eighth of today's size? Local farms and forestry and food would regenerate the soils, soaking up carbon emissions.

Technology can multiply or divide the damage done. What if the right technologies could eliminate environmental damage, and maybe even one day start to reverse it?

//Thus, we avoid a population explosion though a consumption explosion. The benign demographic transition may not be so benign after all if the model of development used to bring it about assumes that everyone ought to be living like us.//
Or, we could avoid a population explosion through a BENIGN consumption explosion, if those needs were met through sustainable Technologies. I'm hopeful that clean nuclear power that burns nuclear waste is nearly available, and that the Ecocity movement is starting to change ideas about how we live in the landscape. Soon we'll have a civilisation running on clean power and renewable materials. I'm excited that we might actually make it, from a Technology point anyway.

So the gospel challenge in the future might just be, if we are incredibly fortunate, how to preach to a fat and insanely wealthy and self satisfied population. And that may create another brand of societal horror: that of a superficial, overly clean, overly sanitised world where the horror of our sin and mortality is covered up, much like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. What would I prefer? Not starving would be a good start! Beyond that, it's up to the wisdom and providence of God.

byron smith said...

Dave - Thanks for pushing me on this as it has given me a chance to reflect further on the articulation of my point. The IPAT formula has come in for more than a little criticism over its illustrious career, and I've realised that I think I also want to criticise it. In short, what I call "consumption" is, I think, not directly equatable with the "A" of the formula, but is actually closer to a combination of A and T (though perhaps not a perfect overlap). Affluence is not the same as consumption. Consumption, I take it, is not simply the total amount of material that enters my body (which would be a very limited and food-centric view of what is ultimately a very broad metaphor), but is something like the sum of all the inputs required by my interactions with the material world. So I would argue that someone who shifts from a Hummer to a bicycle while still travelling precisely the mileage has thereby reduced (quite significantly) their level of consumption. Consumption is not the distance travelled, but the sum of resources required by my moves from A to B to C to A.

So someone who downsizes from a 5 bedroom McMansion with poor insulation, A/C and radiators, water-guzzling showerheads, single-flush toilets, etc. to an eco-flat built according to new urbanist principles has not simply shifted their technology, but also their consumption, even if their level of affluence has remained the same.

My critique of IPAT is that affluence is only broadly correlated with personal impact (even when technological factors are considered) since what it fails to include are lifestyle choices and habits (perhaps a more nuanced version of affluence might include these, but then I would suggest that "affluence" is no longer the best term for this).

byron smith said...

Al Jazeera: Famine in the Horn of Africa: Malthus beware. In the Horn of Africa, population growth is not the main cause of famine. Some compelling points here.

byron smith said...

En Passant: Is the environmental crisis caused by the 7 billion or the 1%?

"What we do say is that in an ecologically rational and socially just world, where large families aren’t an economic necessity for hundreds of millions of people, population will stabilize. In Betsy Hartmann’s words, “The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets. Take care of the population and population growth will go down.”

"The world’s multiple environmental crises demand rapid and decisive action, but we can’t act effectively unless we understand why they are happening. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious time on ineffective cures; at worst, we will make the crises worse.

"The too many people argument directs the attention and efforts of sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect. At the same time, it weakens efforts to build an effective global movement against ecological destruction: It divides our forces, by blaming the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause.

"Above all, it ignores the massively destructive role of an irrational economic and social system that has gross waste and devastation built into its DNA."

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Population and the environment. I enter into length discussion in the comments with a couple of interlocutors who emphasise population, and at least one wants to see "draconian laws" introduced to curb fertility.

byron smith said...

Yale360: A good summary of the demographics.

byron smith said...

Clive Hamilton: What we do in Woolies matters more than what we do in bed. A somewhat misleading title, given that Prof Hamilton does indeed think that population in the developed world matters quite a bit. Some good points made in the comments about the significance of a third aspect: politics.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Ehrlich says 2bn is optimal population. I'd like to see the assumptions behind these calculations. He claims he's only talking about basic needs, though then goes to say that 4-5 billion would be possible.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Royal Society report calls for both population stabilisation and big cuts in consumption to avoid "a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills".

Howard Gardella said...

God created our Earth full of all we need for food but we grow corn mostly with lots a chemicals and modify the DNA then feed it to cows and all who will eat it in every form thought of. Cows eat grass and then there waste is a good fertilizer, just the way God made them. Feed a cow corn and e-coli bacteria thrives in there intestines, and there waste is now dangerous and toxic. So corporate says to make sure no one gets sick from our ignorant ways we will process all hamburger meat with ammonia hydroxide to make sure we kill everything in it. Then we can safely eat what? Satan is the deceiver of the Nations or the people of Nations maybe a better way to say it the point is most of us think there is not enough to feed or to have energy or water or good land to grow food and on and on because it is always portrayed as to be "true" but is far from the truth. If we farm as we aught without pesticides and restore the land organics utilizing what is known today that protects crops without toxic chemicals, then we will always have rich crops from rich soil. We do not Need chemical pesticides but most will say yeah right. Who is deceived?

byron smith said...

Grist: Security and rising populations.

“About 80% of the world’s civil conflicts since the 1970s have occurred in countries with young, fast-growing populations, known as youth bulges, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Population Action International.”

byron smith said...

Guardian: A review (and another one) of the "play" Ten Billion, which is basically a lecture from Stephen Emmott, a Cambridge scientist who describes himself as a "rational pessimist" and lays out the daunting, perhaps impossible, task before us.

He concludes that the only solution is radical cultural change with widespread embrace of lower consumption and fewer children (this is pretty close to what I think, with nuances regarding children - see this post), but thinks it is not going to happen (this is also basically what I think, though with all kinds of nuances about it still being worth trying - see here).

byron smith said...

Hans Rosling: Why do so many think that population growth is an important issue for the environment? Don't they know the facts of demographics?

"So when I hear people saying that population growth has to be stopped before reaching 9 billion, I get really scared, because the only way to achieve that is by killing."

Or by preventing everyone from having any babies.

byron smith said...

BBC: Can we be sure that the world's population will stop rising? This article isn't looking at the possible limits on the demographic transition if development is undermined by hitting ecological limits (as I alluded to in my post), but is looking at new trends towards rising births in developed countries.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Chinese thinktank opens the door to a relaxing of the "one child" policy.

byron smith said...

An article sceptical of the demographic transition, arguing that the true cause of lowered fertility rates is not increasing wealth, but female education and (especially) access to contraception.

byron smith said...

Yale360: Now we're heading for 11 billion, not 9 billion. The UN revises its estimates and forecasts based on 2010 data and finds higher fertility rates than expected.

byron smith said...

MoJo: How the RCC almost embraced contraception.