Seven billion strong, and still growing

Happy birthday to the seventh billion member of the human race. Possibly. According to the UN, today is the day the population will hit seven billion. Probably in South East Asia, and more likely to be a boy than a girl (as slightly more boys are born – between 103-106 for every 100 girls).

The exact day is not particularly important. The specific date provided by the UN for this momentous occasion is more designed as a hook for the media and others (hence this post). But a more serious challenge comes from those who believe the UN has over-estimated population growth, with long term consequences for global population over the next century or so.

Estimated population growth rests upon a set of complex models around human fertility and behaviour, combined with raw data on actual births and birth-rates that for many of the most populated areas on earth is patchy at best. If those models are wrong, even by a small amount, projected growth rates can be seriously skewed. For example, Zhongwei Zhao at the Australian National University in Canberra argues that the census data which suggests the average birth rate in China is 1.2 children is closer to reality than the official adjusted rate used by the UN of 1.5 children. By 2030 that relatively small discrepancy translates into a potential over-estimate of 100 million. Enough mistakes and the total figures become potentially seriously inaccurate.

Other demographers suggest that the 7 billion mark won’t be reached until 2013, with some suggesting this could be as much as eight years away. According to the UN, by 2100 the population will be over 10 billion and possibly still rising. But other models suggest population growth will have peaked before 2100.

To an extent it is a case of you picks your model, you takes you choice. But the problem is that predictions of population growth feed into political discussions on environmental degradation and collapse of ecosystems, mass starvation as the world struggles to feed itself, increased conflict over ever more scarce natural resources (including land and water), mass migration, and all the other calamities associated with a Malthusian meltdown.

As with forecasts of demographic trends, the carrying capacity of the world is a hotly debated topic. We know very little about the optimum size of the population, especially when we add into the mix the new technologies that allow for more humans to be sustained in a  given area of land, or changes to ways of living that might have the same effect. Earlier beliefs that the size of humanity had reached a critical level and levels were not sustainable were proven wrong by technological shifts that allowed for increased food production: from the emergence of settled farming; the adoption of the use of the plough in fifth millennium BC Mesopotamia; the use of guano collected from ‘mines’ on islands off the coasts of South Africa and Latin America in the nineteenth century; through to the heroes of the twentieth century such as Norman Borlaug.

It may be that technological shifts are no longer capable to coping with future rises in population. Or that the impact of climate change will undermine current and future systems for providing for all inhabitants of the world. But this is far from certain.

Matthew Connelly’s excellent Fatal Misconception: the Struggle to Control World Population (2008) has charted both the evils and fruitlessness of official efforts to control population growth. And to be fair, few advocate the use of such methods. But there are some interesting dimensions to current debates on population and control.

One is that the problem is tied to particular geographic areas – areas in which rich world interest in fertility, sexual habits and efforts to control population have a long and dark history; and where some governments have undertaken radical interventions of questionable morality. It is a cliché that the entire global population would fit in Los Angeles, although of course this takes no account of the broader footprint required to sustain each of those lives. Many western countries, especially those in Europe, have fertility rates that are considered too low for replacement levels. Given this, neo-Malthusians are perhaps really saying there are too many people in certain areas. But rather than advocate policies allowing freer movement of peoples (balancing populations), the focus for some is on population control in those areas.

There are environmental concerns, especially if population growth is linked to rises in consumption mirroring those in the rich industrialised countries. But the solutions to these are political, focusing on global redistribution and efforts both to reduce inequality and reduce damaging consumption behaviour where it is rampant.

Another related issue is the conflating of discussions on greater provision of contraceptive and family planning services with those on population control. There is clearly a need for widening access to family planning services, giving women greater control over reproduction and their own bodies and lives. But this should be an aim in itself, not linked to the more sinister and invasive efforts to reduce population growth in certain areas. Families should decide for themselves, supported by the state, the size of their families. The state and especially organisations in the rich world should not.

Seven billion may be too many people. Ten billion more so. And whether we hit seven billion today, next year, or several years later, it will happen. But despite what the most fervent neo-Malthusians might suggest, we don’t really know what the maximum limit of people is or should be. Nor is exponential growth the inevitable future. Forecasts suggest stability will set in towards the end of this century. By the time Person X’s own grandchildren are born, they will be entering a more crowded, but more stable demographically, world.

We already have tools to help feed the world, to mitigate the effects of global warming and climate change, and tackle the real challenges posed by a growing population. As usual, it is a lack of political will that will determine whether seven, eight or more billion leads to the Malthusian nightmare so long predicted, or whether the world learns to cope and thrive with its new inhabitants.

So welcome to the world person No. 7,000,000,000. It’s a sometimes scary place, and there will be people who say you should never have been born. But there are many more who will do what they can to enable you to live, thrive and realise your potential. Happy birthday.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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