When we watch farmlands or forests being paved over for new housing, or see images of starving children, it’s hard not to think that there may be just too many people, that we have “exponential” population growth. This leads soon to the idea that we need to “do something” about population.
That view has a long history, including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Thomas Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. There may well be negative effects and ultimate limits, but most of the blame assigned to population today would be better assigned to overconsumption.
How we understand the causes of present problems such as climate change, depletion of natural resources, hunger, and war is important, because different causes call for different remedies. An article by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, via Population: Overconsumption is the real problem – opinion – 27 September 2009, summarizes well the major issues here.
The population “bomb” is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did – mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more “doing something” about global population might achieve.
Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean. There are holdouts in a few Muslim countries – but not Iran, where fertility is 1.7 – and many parts of Africa
Thus, even if we have too many people, the rate of growth is decreasing, and all the indicators point to further reductions accompanying development. So, if the problem is not exponential population growth, what is it? Pearce goes on to point out that
the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.
Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.
Pearce talks mostly about climate change, but his argument holds for other aspects of environmental stress, including the basic issue of hunger. Overconsumption in the rich countries occurs through waste, a diet heavily based on meat, and simply too much eating. A study directed by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, indicates that up to fifty per cent of all food ready for harvest in the US never gets eaten. That amount alone is enough to address worldwide hunger needs.
There’s no doubt that we’d do better to balance our population with the available resources, but before we criticize the mote in the eye of starving villagers in Africa, we might well consider the beam in our own.
- Connelly, Matthew (2008). Fatal misconception: The struggle to control world population. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Jones, Timothy W. (2005). Using contemporary archaeology and applied anthropology to understand food loss in the American food system. Tucson: University of Arizona.
- Pearce, Fred (2009, September 27). Population: Overconsumption is the real problem. New Scientist, Magazine issue 2727.