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Population growth: all questions, no answers

June 11, 2011

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 billion15% 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.

* * * * *

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 (

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.

* * * * *

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. adelady permalink
    June 12, 2011 10:46 am

    For me at least there’s one straightforward answer to the population problem – raise the age of women at first birth. This of course requires education of girls – and of the women in their community who tend to urge girls to early marriage if that is what they did.

    Reducing the average number of children born to any woman is only one side of the coin. The Chinese did this effectively (whether you like their methods or not) but they did absolutely nothing about the social preference for 4 generation families. So that Chinese women and their husbands are under huge pressure to produce their one and only child as soon as they possibly can – and this is still affecting Chinese population growth.

    4 generation families are, of course, perfectly OK. What matters is how many years of overlap of the youngest and the oldest in such a family. For population purposes, there’s an absolutely huuuuge difference between families that have 4 generations for 5 or 10 or 20+ years. You could stabilise a population – without reducing the number of children born – just by deferring first births by 5, 8 or however many years needed for a particular country’s profile. And during those years young healthy women can work, in their prime, unencumbered by the physical and social demands of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and childcare.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 12, 2011 1:21 pm

    Adelady – do you think that raising the first birth age is possible in a democracy? And I think it would require just as much education of men, since in so many parts of the world young women are regarded as little more than child-bearers and it is common to test their fertility as early as possible to determine if they are of economic value, as harsh as that is. My point remains that it just isn’t possible to implement such solutions unless the government is totalitarian, and women are seen to have equal value in the workplace, which Chinese women are afforded at least.

  3. June 12, 2011 11:59 pm

    This talk kind of throws a spanner in the works. A brief synopsis: we have good data and while population may be big, in terms of birth rate – unless we really drop the ball – it’s looking like it might be pretty much fixed. The main growth driver now, all over the world, is that we’re living longer, which is a good thing. Which is why I prefer to accept that population is what it is and look at consumption and distribution of resources as areas where solutions are to be found.

  4. adelady permalink
    June 13, 2011 1:43 am

    I was looking for a link to a tv item I saw recently and I came across this. It’s very like the program I saw which was strongly village and community based – and promoting education for girls in a big way.

    The most interesting thing was the reaction of the boys interviewed for the program. They were very happy that they didn’t have to face marrying and supporting a family too quickly. And to me? That means doubling the years of prime health and commitment to work and education – if both the women and the men get 5 years of delay (say from age 13 to 18 for the girls, 15 to 20 for the boys, we’re starting from a very low base here). So the community gets 10 years per (eventual) couple more work or education to promote the community’s wealth and well-being. (My husband sees this as ‘creating’ adolescence in communities that have never seen this phenomenon.)

    If I find the item I’ll post it. I’m not convinced totalitarian government is the way to go at all. Speaking as a woman and a mother of daughters I’m appalled at the combined total of girls aborted or killed at birth under the Chinese and Indian population control systems of the last 30 years.

    They both used harsh authoritarian methods to reduce numbers of children born. Having done nothing about the status of women, they’ve now got 100s of millions of men with no prospect, ever, of marrying – and does this raise the ‘value’ of women? Not a bit of it. Girl foetuses are _still_ being aborted.

    Education of women and girls, and explicit education _about_ the value and status of women, as well as explicit instruction about child health, particularly vaccination, will reduce the drive to reproduce early and often. Just because the developed world did it the other way around doesn’t mean it has to be done that way in the developing world.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 13, 2011 9:52 am

    JasonP – first off, thanks for the link to the TED talk. Everyone should watch it, because Rosling pulls off the impossible trick of being a funny statistician. There are many really interesting issues raised in his talk, but I don’t agree that, as you put it “…it’s looking like it might be pretty much fixed”.

    Rosling’s presentation largely focuses on economic and social improvement between the 1960s and early 2000 (the talk was given in 2006). In that time you had, globally, first the recovery from WW2, then a period of considerable optimism and economic growth, then a period of consolidation and a few setbacks (70s) followed by the ‘greed is good’ years, personified by Thatcher and Reagan, and the dot com decade of the 90s.

    What is striking about that half century is that constraints to growth were barely registering, either at institutional or individual levels. Peak oil remained until two years ago (2009) a myth to be dismissed by many, including the IEA while they were, in fact, lying to us. Climate change prior to year 2000 was a very distant and perhaps theoretical subject, and certainly not one much in the public eye or occupying the time of governments or boardrooms. Only in the last decade do the three issues emerge that I discuss in my article, all of which impact heavily on economic performance, and all of which impose considerable limits on future economic growth.

    Rosling makes excellent points about the historic rate of change, of stereotyping the birthrate and infant mortality issues for developing nations by applying outmoded analysis without addressing how much things have change (perhaps I myself am guilty of over-emphasising this in my piece). I liked too how he demonstrated the way we still tend to clump together vast continents whose needs and progress are much more diverse and individual at the level of nation states, reminding me of a certain US politician who referred to the ‘country’ of Africa.

    But what he did not demonstrate was the effect on progress of climate change, of the end of cheap energy, or the increasing demands for resources of a population that is still growing, albeit much slower than at the end of WW2. My argument is that the progress, and its rate, were facilitated by an optimism and largess that are no longer appropriate, or possible to maintain. In a world based on consumerism, a world that demands for each of us the standard of living that creates enough disposable income to be consumers, a world that depends wholly on energy as cheap as it was during the period Rosling discusses – that world is part of history, and the circumstances that engendered it are no longer possible.

    Whatever the rate at which disparities between income, population, education and health and longevity were lessened, that rate must slow when insufficient funds are available to promote change and create the infrastructure that supports it. Basically, I’m not sure the world can afford the continuation of the improvements that Rosling none the less documents and presents so compellingly.

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 13, 2011 9:57 am

    Adelady: “I’m not convinced totalitarian government is the way to go at all”.

    Me neither. I’m just suggesting that, in a democratic country like the UK for example, I find it unrealistic to think that any initiative could build enough electoral support for a legislative limit – and I think a legal limit would be necessary because otherwise there will always be those who either take advantage, or are discriminated against because others have the impression they are doing so. I suggest that only a legislative approach will level the playing fields, and that even in the developed world that would be an impossible sell, let alone in a half-developed one like the US.

  7. adelady permalink
    June 13, 2011 10:35 am

    I suppose the main difference would be that in a democratic country we’d focus on the average in question.
    A totalitarian state would impose a particular requirement and penalise deviations from that.

  8. mark houghton-brown permalink
    June 28, 2011 2:16 am

    Quite profound essay Graham, covering the bind that humanity finds itself with regards to population, which is actually fundamental to our existential crises.
    This deserves deeper exploration and wider dissemination.

  9. July 21, 2011 8:31 pm

    I agree that population is an important part of the picture, but consumption outweighs it by a considerable distance. We could manage a world of nine billion living modestly. We can’t manage even three billion living like the average Australian.

    There are deep ethical issues at stake here, as well as advocacy and policy implications. I agree that some focus on population is important, but if we put it forward as the primary problem, then we shift the focus from the minority world (stable or declining population, esp once immigration is removed) to the majority world, yet the former still outweighs the latter by some margin ecologically-speaking. The rich westerner with a “green” conscience who forgoes children “for the sake of the planet” (without making any change to an average consumption level) is still very likely to have a larger footprint during the critical century (last six decades and next four or so) than a poor villager with ten children.

  10. February 17, 2014 5:12 am

    Every country in the world has as one of its primary goals “per capita economic growth”. Environmental impact is correlated very highly with energy usage which correlates very highly with dollars (or yen, or pounds, or…) which is the goal of economic growth. Most countries have a goal for population increase too (more people = more power). As long as the pie expands, leaders can keep the slaves happy, when things turn south, watch out. Are things turning south yet? Do revolutions produce rational solutions? Lenin? Hitler? Jefferson? Robespierre? We may advance greatly or retreat greatly, probably a little of both, staying in about the same spiritual place, lamenting the present and ogling an improved future. I suggest we thank the gods for the present instead.


  1. Population growth: all questions, no answers. «

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