Friday, May 22, 2009

The Question: Can the world support more people?

Some believe the answer is "yes" because we are actually facing a lifestyle crisis, not a population crisis.

Looking back at the last century, historians and economists find that despite the quadrupling of the world’s population, the health and wealth of the majority has improved dramatically. The rate of population growth is falling, even in the developing world. The real threat to the environment, they say, is not more poor people but the lifestyles of the rich. The problem with that view is that the poor people aspire to the lifestyle of the rich. That is what is meant by the term "developing country". Poor people are moving toward a more affluent lifestyle. So if the lifestyles of the rich is a crisis, then we are in for a deepening crisis as the poor become upward bound.

During the 20th century, the number of people jumped from 1.6 to over 6 billion. Average life expectancy, income available per capita, and other measures of the standard of living, however, also increased significantly. Perhaps so over the entire century but what is it doing now? Billions of people are still living on less than $2.50 a day. Some believe the standard of living of our children and grandchildren will not continue to increase at the previous rate. Did the standard of living follow the S - shaped logistic curve with the 20th century representing the rapid improvement along the back side of the curve, while the future may be better represented at the top of the S as it bends over or begins to curve downward?

“It [20th century population growth] was not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits – rather, it was because they finally stopped dying like flies,” says U.S. economist Eberstadt. “The ‘population explosion’…was really a ‘health explosion.’” One might add that now we will have to pay the piper either in terms of huge increases in expenditures to rescue Medicaid and Medicare or in terms of a rationing of health care in which the sick and the aged will be expected to die.

The benefits of the demographic dividend are exaggerated, says Matthew Connelly, author of Fatal Misconception, a history of population control programs. Good governance, education, and infrastructure are more effective weapons against poverty than population reduction. We continue to strive for the former but why not a combination of both? Good governance, education, and infrastructure will produce neither more arable land, nore water for irrigation nor more natural resouces for an expanding population. In fact, education and infrastructure are likely to increase the rate of resource consumption per capita and in the process, more environmental damage, encroachment on forests and parklands, and destruction of wildlife habitat.

Nor does Connelly believe that population reduction is necessarily a good thing. By 2050, 140 countries – or four fifths of humanity – will have birth rates below ‘replacement level,’ and these nations will struggle to replace aging workers and fund social security systems. The only reason that developed nations’ populations are not in freefall now is immigration. However, it has already been demonstrated that it is not only possible through innovation to survive with birth rates below the replacement level but, it turns out, this may be an easier task than trying to feed and satisfy the other demands of an ever expanding world and U.S. population.

Connelly is skeptical about population control programs, noting that while these programs accompanied falling birth rates in China and India, in countries that had no such programs, like Brazil and Turkey, birth rates also fell. This is good. There is no reason to be skeptical about this. We can learn from both.

He further argues that reducing population might actually harm the planet because fewer people and greater affluence means more single households and greater per capita consumption. However, because of the finite natural resources already consumed by the preceding larger population, per capita consumption may be constrained by shortages of raw materials. Moreover, per capita consumption is not the only way to look at this. If you halve the world's population and increase the per capita consumption by one third, there would still be a net reduction in total consumption. And if this results in greater affluence, this translates into less poverty and misery.

“China says there are 300 to 600 million fewer people thanks to the one-child policy,” writes Connelly. “But hundreds of millions of Chinese aspiring to middle class lifestyles has far more impact than 300 million more subsistence farmers.” So China will also have to face the demands for finite natural resources of their new middle class and will have to take additional steps to curb that appetite. China will be competing with other world economies for scarce resources. Surely, Connelly is not advocating a new draconian policy to keep all subsistence farmers from moving up to the middle class. In fact, as China's middle class expands, its economy will become more and more dependent on domestic consumption rather than exports.

WWF figures show that between 1992 and 2003, the ecological footprint of people in low- and middle-income countries changed little, while in high-income countries, it increased by 18 percent. This was neatly encapsulated at the July 2008 G8 summit in Japan when UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown scolded the British public for throwing away too much food just before he sat down to an eight-course banquet. And, of course, this is the aspiration of the developing countries -- not only to have enough food to feed their people but to actually graduate to the level where they too can throw some food away. Food production is likely to limited by the available arable land, fertilizers, and fuel for farm equipment.

Perhaps the real question for demographers, environmentalists, and gaffe-prone politicians alike is not how many people the planet can or cannot support, but how many eight-course banquets it can support and how much thinner the finite natural resources of mother earth can or should be spread before we all feel the pinch of shortages of all kinds beginning with food. There can be no doubt that the more of us there are, the less there is for each of us.

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