Fixating on population growth numbers is misleading, contends statistician Hans Rosling in a recent lecture ‘Don’t Panic: The truth about world population’.
We have already reached “peak child” and so demanding a halt to population growth is senseless because “most of the remaining population growth is an inevitable fill-up of remaining adults” living longer lives.
As US economist Nicholas Eberstadt observes, population growth “was not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits – rather, it was because they finally stopped dying like flies”.
During the 20th century, the number of people jumped from 1.6 to over 6 billion. Yet despite dire warnings the health and wealth of the majority improved dramatically. “Fifty years ago, some people said people in Asia will never get out of extreme poverty just as people say about Africa today,” noted Rosling.
Moreover, the benefits of reducing population growth are exaggerated, argues Matthew Connelly, author of ‘Fatal Misconception’, a history of population control programs. He contends that good governance, education, and infrastructure are far more effective weapons against poverty. Famine and conflict are less about the numbers of people than about bad decisions, culture and glaring inequalities.
When it comes to resource depletion, the extra billions will barely make a difference, because they will be amongst the poorest 40% of people who consume less than 5% of natural resources, writes Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont. “However, resource use and pollution could be cut in half if the richest 700 million lived at an average global standard of living,” he notes.
The new billions also have a negligible effect on climate change. “Almost all the fossil fuels are used by the three richest billions, more than 85%,” says Hans Rosling, “and in the next decades it is economic growth by the next 2 billion which will increase fossil fuel use.”
There will be an estimated 2.2 billion new middle-class consumers in Asia alone by 2030, according to global consultants McKinsey.It is not a “population explosion” that we should worry about but a “consumption explosion”.
Current patterns of consumption are arguably robbing the poor and future generations of natural resources. If we ate less red meat, for example, or turned fewer food crops into vehicle fuel, feeding 9 billion people would be less problematic.
In this world view, the real question is not “are we too many?” but “are we too greedy?”