Live and let live
Fri 8 May 2009 by Nigel Pinkerton.

Sir David Attenborough brings a distinctive style to his documentaries, and I would count myself as a fan.  But I was a little surprised to hear of his recent appointment to head the Optimum Population Trust (OPT).   The OPT is an organisation whose members generally believe that the earth has reached or exceeded the level of population it can sustain long-term.     But the problem is that these views have been around for a long time, and disaster has not yet befallen the human race.     Somewhere in the midst of the hype and misinformation, sound policy decisions need to be made that will affect all of us.

Population control is nothing new, and there is ongoing debate around the world as to how tight a grip governments should keep on their populations.   China’s one child policy is considered a total disaster by most observers, causing negative social effects including a growing gender imbalance.  Most western countries also practise some level of population control, by keeping a tight handle on immigration and promoting contraception through government subsidies and education.

But organisations like the OPT and Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) say we are not doing enough, although they claim to be against forced birth control.   The alarmists tell us we will not be able to feed billions of people when non-renewable resources become depleted.   Thom Hartmann’s book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight sums up this view well, suggesting that when oil runs out millions of people will starve.   But before the invention of synthetic fertilisers it was thought that the earth could not support much more than a billion people, yet a solution was found.

Although books like Hartman’s raise important issues, scaremongering by environmental activists is not helpful to the cause.   There is a lot of misinformation out there about the global population.   It is true that the global population has been growing at a staggering rate, more than doubling between 1965 and 2008.   But the rate of growth is slowing down.   Many organisations now predict the global population will peak at some point, though estimates as to when this will happen vary widely.   Both the UN and the US Census Bureau predict the global population will still be growing by 2050, but at a very slow rate.   

It is well documented that higher income families tend to have fewer children, as taking time out to raise kids can be very costly for high income earners.   Birth-rates have fallen across the developed world as the opportunity cost of having large families has increased, and birth control has become more widely available.

In recent times, strong population growth is very much a developing country phenomenon.   Experience tells us that the trend towards large populations slows in wealthier nations and even reverses.   This suggests that the current population pressure is a temporary phenomenon.     The global population will continue to grow through our lifetimes, but in a Century’s time may be viewed as simply a historical adjustment process.   The UN expects there will be less than 9 billion people on planet earth by 2050, a much slower growth rate than we have seen over the last 50 years.

Many people, however, feel that 9 billion people is already a few billion to many.   Members of the OPT and SPA often advocate for much lower global populations.   But history has shown that the human race is surprisingly adaptable.   The non-renewable resources that support our society today will not drive it in a hundred years time.   As resources like crude oil become scarcer, the price will increase and there will be more incentive to develop and use alternatives.   The cynics would say that even if we do solve this crisis there will be another one waiting for us, but there has not yet been a challenge that has proven to be too great to overcome.

We need to change our mindset about population, because most people contribute more to society than what they take.   The larger a population, the more innovation and ideas society creates.   The babies being born today are not simply machines which consume resources and create pollution, but could be the scientists that think up ways to wean us off our dependence on oil.

The alarmists would have us believe that overpopulation will lead to mass starvation, if swine flu, SARS, or Y2K don’t get us first of course.   Heading into the 20th century a billion people faced starvation from lack of fertiliser, but we can now feed over 6 billion people on less land.   With birth-rates also dropping, predictions that we will face crowding and mass starvation are simply scaremongering.   The world is facing many environmental and social issues, but tighter population control is not the answer.

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