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Heading past seven billion people on the planet—exploding some population myths

The birth of numbers of symbolic 7-billionth babies round the world has been greeted with both happiness and horror. Joy of course to the parents, accompanied by worry about whether the planet can support its burgeoning population.

Yet already by the 3rd Century, Tertullian was saying “We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us” – this at a time when world population was some 200 million. 18 centuries later and with 34 times more people, others including Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich have predicted disasters arising from overpopulation.

However as many observers including Jared Diamond and author and journalist Fred Pearce pointed out in the late 20th Century and early 2000s, the biggest threat is not too many people: it’s the gross (and ultimately unsatisfying) over-consumption of resources by 20% of the world’s population which leaves depleted and polluted resources for the 80% of the world’s less privileged. In fact David Suzuki said in an interview that if we all lived like the average american, the world could only support 200 million people – maybe Tertullian was onto something!

Compounding this result, we’re seeing the number of households increase faster than the number of people: more and more single people or childless couples fill their homes with all the appliances and other things that can service whole families.

In recent decades we’ve realised (largely by accident) that the best antidote to explosive population growth is female literacy: teach women to read and they will access the family planning they need – provided infant mortality is reduced. If parents know their children will survive to young adulthood, they will reduce their family size.

Where this happens, the rapidity of the resulting demographic transition is startling: it inverts the classic population pyramid – lots of children at the base, a narrow peak of old people and a thin tier in between of income earners supporting them both – into a tower with wider cap of older people supported by a shrinking workforce to be succeeded in turn by an even smaller number of children. This is what we now see in Japan, Europe, Scandinavia and other “developed” economies.

Commentators now believe that if higher living and educational standards spread round the world (before its economy and ecology are toppled by unsustainably high demands on water and other resources) the world’s population is likely to stabilize at about 9 billion people – and it is likely to fall as more and more people enjoy better lifestyles.

And it seems that industrial-scale agriculture is not needed  over every square inch of the Earth – in developed nations we waste a quarter or a third of our food while in other parts of the world, war, pests and poor storage rob the people of the opportunities to farm their land and of the fruits of their labour when they do.

So we need to focus on getting to a world full of healthy people whose ability to live happily is supported by stable states.

If course this would signal a major re-think of the current growth-based economic model, as we move towards stable or shrinking populations and while some of us on the planet learn how to live more happily by consuming less so as to enable those who need to consume more to enjoy a decent standard of living.

As Jared Diamond points out, “Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required …because … much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ [and of course, the rest of us in the developed world] wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.”

There’s hope! And enough happiness to go round.

See a wonderful short video on the numbers here.