Post No.: 0565
Predicting the long-range future is always difficult, as mentioned in other kinds of contexts before, and this is no different when it comes to predicting what the world’s human population size will be by the end of the century. Different experts using different models and assumptions have come up with quite differing guesses. Even if we can come up with a mean or median guess amongst them, there’s so much uncertainty that the range between the lowest but still plausible guess and highest yet still plausible guess is vast. Current and potential future global public health, manmade or natural disasters, like COVID-19, throw a little, at least transient, uncertainty into the mix too. Regardless, most do agree that the population will need to stabilise soon because planetary resources are limited.
Many fear that the population will just keep on rising. Human population growth had been exponential up until some time last century, when it has since become more linear – but even if the rate of increase will continue to slow down, it might not slow down to zero (a stable population) by the end of the century. This will therefore continue to put an ever-increasing strain on planetary resources and continue to add to the pollution and global warming (if current patterns of behaviour don’t sufficiently change). It might even perhaps spark major conflicts as nations fight to gain control over limited resources such as land, fresh water, food production, energy and mineral sources…
But one hypothesis is that global population growth will naturally and peacefully stabilise if living standards for the poorest continue to be raised. The pattern is that more affluent families tend to have fewer children thus we should eradicate poverty. This hypothesis was chiefly forwarded by the late statistician Hans Rosling.
Some people conclude that families having lots of children cause their own poverty when – although it’s complex – it’s far more often the case that poverty leads to having lots of children. Poverty increases uncertainty about one’s future, so when poor, couples tend to want to have more children to counteract the risk that some of them might not survive into adulthood. Infant mortality is indeed higher for the poor. Children may also be required as manual labour on the farms or fields. Therefore without support, it’s a vicious cycle – many children brought up in poverty must work as soon as they’re able to, to help their family’s immediate survival, which may mean they miss out on going to school, which in turn will reduce their long-term prospects and keep them in poverty.
So poverty is associated with fertility, and it’s generally the level of wealth that precedes the level of fertility. And the assumption is that if poverty universally ended then every couple will only wish to have on average a couple of children each, hence the world’s population will stabilise. With the help of medicine, agricultural productivity and improving living standards around the world, there’ll be less infant mortality, and hence less perceived need to have lots of children.
China’s population is predicted to peak then dramatically fall in the coming decades as more couples enter the ‘middle classes’ and have fewer children, regardless of government fertility policies.
However, a problem is that pulling lots of people out of poverty itself requires planetary resources. So we want to reduce the strain on planetary resources by reducing the global population, but to reduce the global population requires raising the living standards of the poorest, which requires planetary resources. A balance is mathematically achievable – but it requires those in the richest ‘developed’ countries to severely reduce our average per-capita resource usage. (If you live in a ‘developed’ country like me.) Woof.
People at progressively greater levels of wealth use progressively more resources like energy, food and water, and produce progressively larger environmental footprints, per head. We cannot all aspire to consume or use more energy, meat, land, etc. – albeit this is more the fault of those who already have large environmental footprints than those who just want a fraction of that to get out of poverty in this world. A poor family of 12 might still use less in total than a richer family of 3. Indeed, in 2016, the average person from Canada used over 15x the energy of the average person from India! Therefore it’s about the richest countries reducing our average consumption as much as – or more than – expecting the poorest countries to reduce their populations.
Living with >$64/day (USD) to spend per person is away from poverty anywhere in the world at today’s rates. Yet this isn’t the limit to what humans desire. People in rich countries (understanding that some poor people exist in rich countries and vice-versa) would like to live earning and spending >$256/day if they could, and so forth. After all, few could imagine having cars, holidays abroad or washing machines in prehistoric or even merely pre-industrialisation days, but now most people want them – many even expect them. Consumption, and therefore resource desires and demands, per person, haven’t reached a maximum limit yet, if they ever will for humans. The aspirations for ever more and more resources per person don’t stop for people who are already comfortably out of poverty. This relates to the hedonic treadmill effect on happiness. Most people who already have cars, holidays abroad, running taps and washing machines would still like to upgrade their lifestyles materialistically. Even millionaires and billionaires don’t all cease to want ever more!
So if global poverty rates continue to drop within the next 80 or so years, this will be fantastic news – and we should still aim to eradicate poverty across the world. However, even if the population levels off at, say, 11 billion people, this won’t itself mean that global resource demand is going to stabilise.
We also find that, as couples start to become quite affluent, they’ll start wanting to have large families again – more than 2 or 3 children per couple. Many super-rich couples have several children. These children will highly likely all survive too due to receiving the latest and best medical care available. And quite wealthy families can afford nannies to look after all of these children (and maybe robots will help with the childcare in the near future too?) Even a 2.1 surviving-children-who-grow-up-into-parenthood average for every 2.0 parents will result in a global population increase rather than a stabilisation (which would be 2.0 parents replaced by 2.0 children). If the global average life span continues to rise too then that’ll also be a factor.
And regardless of 11 billion people on the planet in the year 2100 – the planet’s population of around 8 billion people today is already living unsustainably because it’s already consuming more than ‘1 Earth’s’ amount of resources i.e. even with today’s population figure and the amount that the wealthiest nations in the world in particular consume on average today – even normally renewable resources like clean water, clean air, healthy soils and wild fish consumed for food aren’t able to recover on a one-to-one basis year-on-year, decade-on-decade, or century-on-century. (It’s loosely like having a pension fund that must last for 20 years but we’re spending far more than a 20th of this fund per year (excluding interest or investment calculations for the sake of a very loose illustration).)
It’s probably been mentioned before but it’s silly to blame countries with high population sizes because everyone is each one person adding to the global population total i.e. one person elsewhere is equivalent to one person here, or equivalent to you. And if your own personal consumption footprint is greater than the world average then you can’t really go pointing fuzzy fingers at anyone else! (It’s as biased as a tourist complaining that too many tourists are ruining their holiday experience, or a driver complaining that other road users are causing the traffic jam!)
Post No.: 0155 was about how it’s generally erroneous to blame the poorer nations for global warming.
We certainly cannot blame poorer families for aspiring to live a life that’s equivalent to our own living standards and level of consumption – ‘developing’ countries have a right to economically develop and follow the path that our ‘developed’ country once went through. It’s therefore really down to relatively more affluent people reducing their own consumption – which in this worldwide context typically means people who have cars, washing machines, microwaves, installed baths and showers in their homes with hot and cold running water and reliable internet connections, and who regularly buy consumer goods, travel abroad and eat out in restaurants. Most people living in ‘developed’ countries may think that this is all an ‘unremarkable’ living standard but that’s the problem with comparing to only those immediately around us rather than everyone across the world – especially those less fortunate than us.
People who earn >$32/day are amongst the richest 1 billion people in the world right now, but this group has a very high meat consumption per head on average, and obesity rates are high. Thus if people’s lifestyle aspirations are limitless – and this is the real problem – then it’ll put even more strain on the global food supply. The aspirations or habits of the already relatively rich need to change. Forecasts often also assume that energy consumption per head will stay at current rates, but the more and more electronic technology we have, the more energy we use every day. (Newly-invented, energy-intensive activities like cryptocurrency mining don’t help either.) We go online more, download and upload more, and this has a carbon footprint too. This is why it’s urgent to completely switch to renewable sources of energy. Humans are confirmed as the cause of global warming, and people need to achieve net zero or negative greenhouse gas emissions.
The super-rich pollute disproportionately the most on average because they tend to buy more stuff they don’t truly need, waste more stuff because money’s no problem, and travel in far less efficient ways, including in gas-guzzling vehicles and private jets, often to travel between their various homes. Also, in places with greater wealth inequality, everybody collectively wastes more too – the rich do so as above and the poor try to follow suit because they’re trying to emulate who they worship and/or are trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ with those around them (sometimes funded via credit). Hence reducing inequality will likely help the environment too. More equal countries also rank highly in happiness indexes. But as inequality continues to widen between the richest and poorest, this is problematic.
…So it has been predicted that there’s nothing to fear about the rising global human population. But of course, a prediction doesn’t constitute a scientific fact – it makes a hypothesis that can be tested or checked against the evidence when it arrives. There’s no precedent in human history for what a world with 11 billion people on it will be like either – will this number actually be sustainable indefinitely? Perhaps technologies, laws and international agreements will come good? The estimate assumes that the world can sustain this size of population in peace. Inequality may still remain a major problem. How the population will be distributed and displaced around the world (as sea levels rise and places where wildfires, heat waves, floods and persistent droughts caused by extreme weather events increase) and the age demographic balance both matter too. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t have a strong personal hypothesis.
Of course, improvements in reducing child mortality, increasing vaccination, sanitation, nutrition, safety regulations and primary healthcare (for both physical and mental health) are all still incredibly momentous goals. It’s just that it won’t likely alone solve the environmental problems we currently face. The richest in the world need to reduce our energy and material consumption down towards the global average, or really towards a globally sustainable average, whether through individual action, market-based action or government-led action.