Thoughts on population with Fred Pearce’s Peoplequake – part 1

(Colin Bell)

I’ve been trying to get my head around the population question recently. Population seems to be one of the most divisive and emotionally charged issues in the sustainability debate. Clearly, the less people there are to need food, water and energy and generate waste, the less of the planet’s resources we will use. It’s also clear that the choice of whether to have children and how many is a deeply personal one, affecting culture, and many would argue a ‘human right’. Some argue that reducing world population should be our main goal; others argue it’s irrelevant, impossible, or ignore the issue altogether.

Fred Pearce is one of the more high-profile figures in this field, and his Peoplequake gives some useful insight into the history of the subject and the controversy caused.

In this post (about 1000 words) I’ll give a general summary of the book – leaving out a few aspects which don’t impinge so much on sustainability. In the next, I’ll give some conclusions and a couple of questions.

Amongst the focal figures was the 18th/19th century vicar Robert Malthus, who argued that if population continued to increase exponentially, this would outstrip the ability of the land to grow food, and people would start starving to death. Moreover, the UK was not far off this point. While the former is (mathematically, at least) true, the latter proved not to be. Malthus failed to take account of the economic shift taking place at the time under the nascent Industrial Revolution. For the first time, technology became the limiting effect on food production, not harvests. The UK was able to start importing food on a large scale and has managed to feed a vastly larger population than in 1800.

The other respect in which Malthus was controversial was his view of human nature, and in particular the poor, as feckless and lacking restraint when it came to procreation. His own views that taking care of the destitute poor was wrong were unpleasant enough. However, his ideas got taken up by the eugenicist movement, fearful that the superior sort of humanity would simply be outbred by the inferior and be drowned out.

While those ideas are now largely consigned to history, the next stage of Malthusian-inspired thinking wasn’t altogether pleasant either. Overpopulation became a live issue again in the middle of the 20th century, leading to a lot of effort to reduce population in certain countries, notably India and China, often by coercive methods or worse. On the other hand it also sparked off the research known as the Green Revolution, which once again enabled many more to be fed. While Malthus’s forecast again hadn’t come true, it was likely that the belief that it would was the only thing which provoked the world into action to prevent it.

It’s understandable that any mention of Malthus thus tends to spark off a fear of coercive government practices.

Pearce’s second major theme is that fertility rates are dropping off in most of the world, which will filter through into a world population peak somewhere in the middle of this century. (Within the current UN range of estimates, I think, although to the low end.) The reasons are largely cultural.

For instance, fertility among all ethnically Chinese is dropping, whether they live in mainland China with its one-child-per-family policy or not.

Europe has the lowest rates worldwide, and tends to set trends. One factor here is loss of hope for the future. Post-unification East Germany has seen a substantial drop in population as many have migrated west in search of work, and those that have left seem to have lost interest in all areas life, including bringing up children. Another factor is the rise of the women’s movement. Women have taken the opportunity to do things other than raise families, tend to have fewer and later children, or none at all in places like Italy where there is little culture of part-time work, childcare, or men helping with the family.

In large parts of the developing world, better health systems see many more children reach adulthood, and the need to have large families so that some survive is working its way out of the system. There are exceptions to this, such as parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

There are a couple of interesting socio-economic applications of these patterns. The first is that Pearce argues the economic rise of the so-called Tiger economies was aided by demography. A baby boom brought a large number of young workers into the economy without too many elderly to support. But when fertility dropped in the next generation, childcare costs fell too. There are some pre-requisites, including education, for this to take off, so while Africa has the potential, there are big dangers too. A large under-employed young population can be extremely unstable.

The other is migration: though it is not politically popular to say it, migration enables some of the surplus young people from the developing world to fill the needs of an aging developed world. Pearce sees migration as broadly beneficial, but I’ll leave that complex area to later.

The question is what happens after the bulge. Japan is the first country to have reached this point and has had a stagnant economy for some time. Is this the fate for the world? Perhaps we’ll just gradually die out.

Pearce is more positive: he sees the possibility of a (literal) silver lining with an overall older and wiser population seeing the worth of things and consuming less, working or contributing to society until later than at present.

His optimism extends to energy and environment as well, that we will be creative enough to invent appropriate green technology, decouple economic growth from carbon emissions, and rethink agriculture to decrease water usage (his main concern about the way the Green Revolution happened).

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