One year ago today world population quietly passed through the 7 billion mark. It was not treated as a major news item. I took note, because I had given up the previous 6 months of my life working night and day to finish the GrowthBusters documentary in time for an October 31 release. It seemed an appropriate occasion for the film’s premiere, and I genuinely thought the news media would be looking for unique angles to report on the world reaching this population milestone.
While our world premiere in Washington DC was standing room only, it turned out the world really didn’t much care. So today, on the one-year anniversary of that event, I expect nothing. This commentary may be all we see. Ambivalence about population growth is just one of the challenges preventing our society from addressing the perils of overpopulation. Local and national growth addiction play an important role. For many of us, however, our attitude about population growth springs from ignorance. So today I’ll address the most common myths about population growth:
1. The world is not overpopulated.
According to scientists at Global Footprint Network, our impact (population X consumption) began to exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth in the 1970s. Today we are managing to squeak by only because we are liquidating the world of its natural resources – using them much faster than they are refreshed. And this is with most of the world’s population living a fairly meager existence. The rich world would have to give up its infatuation with economic growth, and actually de-grow our economy quite a bit, to achieve sustainable equilibrium at today’s population.
2. The population growth problem has been tackled.
Some are under the impression global population is already shrinking. Not. World population is today growing at a rate that would double our population every 60 years. That growth rate has been slowing since it peaked several decades ago.
Some think demographers’ assertion that the end of population growth is in sight means we can relax about population growth. A few years ago, the medium U.N. scenario showed world population peaking at 9 billion around 2050. Many are unaware that was updated last year, now depicting global population continuing to climb until just beyond 2100, when it could peak just above 10 billion. Many also believe this is set in stone, there is little we can do to change these numbers, and we can therefore relax because it does show population growth stopping. These assumptions are wrong on so many levels. See the following myths.
3. It takes 100 years or more for change in fertility rates to translate into meaningful changes in population.
Passing 10 billion is not a fait accompli. Mathematically we can halt world population growth before it even hits 8 billion, simply by conceiving fewer children. A decline in the global average fertility rate of just .5 children below the mid-range scenario would have us at just 6.2 billion people in 2100 instead of 10 billion. Is that not within our reach if we put our minds to it? We expect too little of ourselves!
4. We will certainly follow the U.N. scenario taking us through 10 billion.
Let’s not forget there are two other U.N. scenarios. All scenarios were revised upwards in 2011 because fertility rates weren’t declining as fast as expected. The high scenario now puts us at 15.8 billion in 2100. The low scenario gives us 6.2. If present fertility rates don’t change at all we will be at over 26 billion. The medium scenario assumes nations with high fertility rates today will bring those down, and it assumes nations with low fertility rates won’t increase them. Frighteningly, there are nations today implementing public policies designed to reverse these trends. The medium scenario hopes they won’t be successful.
5. Overpopulation is not a problem, because the fastest growing nations have very low rates of consumption.
We are frequently reminded that a family of 10 in Niger has far less impact on the planet than one typical “consumer” in North America. While this is true today, dismissing rapidly growing populations in Africa and Asia for this reason only makes sense if you don’t believe in the future.
While things look pretty bleak at the moment, I’m pretty sure there is a future. And in that future, the six kids a Somali woman conceives today may each conceive five or six children of his/her own. And there is no assurance each of those 36 grandchildren won’t then conceive six. Granted, the general trend has been that high fertility rates around the world are declining. But even accounting for the anticipated (but not assured) decline, today’s rapidly growing nations are expected to have significantly larger populations in the near future. Iraq, for example, is expected to more than double its population from 33.7 billion today to over 83 billion in 2050.
What really galls me about dismissing rapidly growing nations from sustainability concerns, however, is the lack of thought about the resource needs of those nations if/when those peoples achieve their goals of living more materially affluent lifestyles. We want the poorest people of the world to have their fair share of the world’s bounty. If they double their populations, that will be impossible.
6. Population growth is not a problem in the rich world.
It’s true, the richest nations have low fertility rates – very near and sometimes below replacement level. But because we are consuming at unsustainable levels (another problem we must address), we need to reduce our birth rates even more. Population growth is a problem in the U.S., Canada and Australia just as much as it is in Pakistan or Nigeria.
So reducing fertility rates is a necessary goal for every nation, every population, every family. Let’s expect more of ourselves. The more we admit and talk about overpopulation, the more couples around the world will be making informed, responsible decisions about contraception and family size.
Filmmaker & GrowthBuster
Dave Gardner is the director of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which uncovers the cultural forces that keep us pursuing growth in the face of overwhelming evidence we’ve outgrown the planet. Later this week a new, special edition of the film is being released. The “Final Cut” is under one hour, and includes some special bonus features not previously available. If you find this information at all compelling, if you’re concerned about the prospects for a civilization hell-bent to grow forever on a finite planet, please take the Think Small Pledge and encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do so. Thank you.
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