Population growth: all questions, no answers
There isn’t much that shocks me these days. I’ve read enough history, and lived long enough, to be aware of the generally venal and violent nature of much of our past. I’ve personally witnessed a series of wars waged on poor, backward countries like Vietnam and Iraq. I’ve seen the rise of pop music, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR, the moon landings, 9/11, and England winning the world cup (the last being a real ‘once in a lifetime’ experience). I’m as cynical as one might expect at my age and disposition; the repetitive nature of so much of what I’ve witnessed does induce a certain intellectual ennui.
For all that, a story in the Guardian really did take me by surprise. In case you haven’t seen it, and before revealing what it said, let me ask you a question: what percentage of the world’s population would you say were disabled…?
…and would you express some surprise to discover that, according to the World Health Organisation, there are 1 billion disabled people in the world today? One billion – 15% of the entire population! Bloody hell, I had no idea. Even retrospectively, after reading the Guardian story One billion people disabled, first global report finds I reckon I would have found the figure of 5% to be incredible.
Now before the cynicism kicks in, let’s make sure there is some commonality regarding our frame of reference. Obviously, there aren’t a billion people staggering around behind guide dogs or squeaking their way down to the shops in wheelchairs. How then is disability defined for the purposes of this report?
Well, the WHO investigation (the first of its kind) started with the definition devised for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):
“…disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
The World report on disability is actually far more nuanced that the CRPD definition might suggest at first glance, but I’ll leave you to read the report for yourself: I don’t have anything constructive to add on this topic other than to express my great surprise at the enormity of the problem. Instead, I would like to discuss something that struck me most forcefully while reading the story; the implications for global population and the economic effects of disability in a world beset by climate change and the end of cheap energy.
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More and more people seem to be waking up to the issue of over-population. It is unfortunate that so many of them who blog in places like the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) seem to think that because their epiphany is novel, so too is the subject for others. Consequently, the most common comment on population we see in the blogosphere is along the lines of “why is nobody talking about this?”
The answer is twofold; first, pretty much everyone discussing environmental issues is aware of the problem. Second: we don’t discuss it much because nobody has the faintest idea what to do about it. That’s where the problem lies: finding a solution. Because most solutions are very problematic, to commentators like me there is little point raising an issue if I can’t also suggest a way to address it.
What are the options? The most common solution put forward is really an observation; developed nations have lower birth rates than undeveloped ones. Therefore, the argument goes, bring development to the impoverished nations and the birth rate will fall. Before considering this argument, I think it’s worth reviewing why the disparity occurs.
The first key indicator, and possibly the most pertinent, is cruel but simple to understand: people have more children when the chance they may die young is highest. The graph below, which I plotted from data published by the World Bank, shows that where infant mortality is lowest, in countries with good education and healthcare standards, people simply have less children.
Data sources: World Bank (data.worldbank.org)
Then there are other, more practical aspects. When societies are agrarian, large families are the cheapest source of labour. Having many children also affords some security to old people when there is no state pension, particularly when extended families live in one home.
Conversely, in developed countries the standard of living may be much higher, but so too will be the cost of raising large families. In countries with improved sexual equality, women are better educated, may limit or avoid childbirth to facilitate careers, and have access to contraception and family planning advice.
So on the face of it, bringing education and healthcare to the developing world, emancipating women both sexually and economically, and with increased employment raising the standard of living towards something comparable to the west, all would contribute to diminishing birth rates.
What’s the problem then? Unfortunately, there are quite a few and here are some of the most important; timescales, energy, globalisation, water, food and climate change.
Timescales refers to how long we’ve got to reduce the population before the pressures become intolerable. For the first time in human history, there are now more people living in cities – megacities in many cases (+10 million) – than living outside them. As other problems, like climate change and peak oil, destabilise our economies and agriculture, employment becomes erratic and standards of living decrease, especially for the elderly whose pensions collapse (assuming they have a pension at all, or healthcare). Already, the elderly in Europe are being forced in some cases to choose between food and heating, so expensive has energy become.
With so many living in cities, law and order becomes both a massive burden and a challenge to civil libertarians, as surveillance and oppression come to be regarded as more practical options than good will and a promise of better times to come, especially when the electorate no longer believe you can deliver those good times. Timescales are important then when we discuss any putative decrease in population, because one is required to ask just how long we have before the wheels come off, and accordingly, how fast we could effect any change.
And here’s the rub: if we’re in a hurry, inevitably we must look to the developing nations for action. It is their burgeoning population that’s the problem, not ours…and once more we end up telling brown-skinned people a long way away what to do – yet more colonialism, this time in the name of the environment. “Improve your education systems, create jobs for your people – including the women,” we demand of countries in which women are subservient, treated still like chattels, denied the vote, education or in extreme cases, the right to work, drive a car or go out alone in broad daylight. How on earth do we speed up progress in a society that abhors much of what we want them to adopt? How do we ask them to re-model their cultures in an image for which they have considerable contempt, to embrace values they find unworthy and debasing?
A culture clash is inevitable, it would appear, but so too is another kind of clash; who is paying for this development? Much debate focuses on the redistribution of wealth, in light of the commitment (at least in principle) by developed nations to give financial assistance to the developing world to help them continue their development. Previous foreign aid was designed very specifically to bring consumerism and industrialisation to developing countries in the name of global trade. The emphasis has now shifted, where that aid is seen as a necessity if we are to ask developing countries either to reign in their CO2e emissions, or slow their rate of progress, which amounts to the same thing. Many opponents of anthropogenic climate change theory (and the science behind it) resent what they see as a socialist commitment to wealth redistribution, but in fact the principle now owes more to self-serving expediency. If the developed world wants to combat over-population, it will have to pay for the initiatives that will lower birth rates, and it turns out that the US in particular doesn’t want to pick up the bill. In any case, it may no longer be able to afford to do so.
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If the promise of good times to come sounds hollow, imagine the cynicism when governments can no longer assure an electorate that they can keep the lights on, or water running. Resource management is another issue that blocks the kind of progress the developing countries need to make in order to reduce their birth rates. Energy is probably the key issue, because nearly all the solutions based on expansionist consumer policies require nations to consume amounts of energy proportional to their development ambitions. The developing nations raised themselves up on energy that was dirt cheap, but that’s all but gone now.
As is frequently pointed out, China is industrialising at such a fast rate it cannot develop sustainable energy sources quickly enough – another timescale element – so they are relying of course on fossil fuels to maintain their rate of development (although they have announced recently, in the next 5 year plan, some initiatives to cool their overheating economic expansion a little). Energy issues also lead us inexorably to climate change, for if the developing nations are to achieve the standard of living sufficient to reduce birth rates, they will have to use an amount of energy appropriate to the task. They may get wealthy in a get rich quick kinda way, but in doing so, they will destroy the very environment on which their wealth is predicated.
The cost of energy will also inhibit the very development we would depend on to reduce birth rates. As competition increases for the remaining oil, as we bring on line ever more expensive –and in some cases destructive – methods of extracting fossil fuel that was previously uncompetitive, and as more developing nations bring new power stations and factories on line, then the cost of energy will rise and rise, applying the brakes on development at the very time we’re trying to encourage it to go faster.
But perhaps the greatest paradox of all lies with the very notion of globalisation, and all it implies. Put starkly, the holy grail of ‘growth’ and economic expansion that capitalism demands, can only be achieved at a terrible cost. A world in which we live within our means – all 9 billion of us fairly soon – is not possible when the economic model that drives the world depends on our making continual demands for goods and services that exceed the planet’s carrying capacity. I remember one of those anecdotal remarks I read somewhere that for everyone to live like I do, we’d already need 2.5 planet Earths. With another two billion on the way in the next 40 years according to some projections, it is quite clear that the aim of reducing population through the growth of consumerism is more a nightmare than a dream, but exactly as insubstantial. It cannot happen: it is all too little, and it’s too damn late.
Who Shoulders the Burden?
Returning to the opening theme – 1 billion people disadvantaged by poor health – I realised that this group (if we can call 15% of the entire world’s population a ‘group’) – has yet to be listed appropriately as putative victims of climate change.
Like most pundits, I’ve talked in the past about the poor, and how they will bear the brunt of climate change, in part through geography where they are susceptible to sea level rises, in part because several billion live at subsistence levels or below, and because poor nations are the ones who can least afford to take adaptive actions.
Yet it now appears that another group – the disabled – may be pushed even further down the pile, for when so many disadvantaged people also live in those areas already earmarked by the indifferent west as climate change collateral damage, the opportunities for employment, education and social equality will be reduced even further. Countries under great pressure have no time for the disabled, not when the economies are imploding, borders are increasingly broached by refugees, civil disorder and anarchy overtake the rule of law, and support from rich countries evaporates as they too have to deal with wave after wave of calamities and novel constraints.
So when we enumerate those who will become the first, and most frequent, victims of climate change, let us remember that within every society, rich and poor, there are those who already have a hard time. Deserving not only of our sympathy, the disabled need us to add substance to our concerns, to take actions that ameliorate their plight. In developed nations, we still have done very little despite our wealth and ease. Developing nations have no such luxurious base from which to dispense social benefits that afford some parity of lifestyle and independence to the disabled. Add to the burden of poor nations the cost of climate change, the rising costs and limited supplies of energy, and it is clear that the disabled will suffer disproportionately, as if they didn’t have enough to contend with already.