Live and let live

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

Population control is nothing new, and there is ongoingdebate around the world as to how tight a grip governments should keep on theirpopulations.   China’s one child policy is considered a total disaster by mostobservers, causing negative social effects including a growing gender imbalance.  Most western countries also practise some level of population control, bykeeping a tight handle on immigration and promoting contraception throughgovernment subsidies and education.  

But organisations like the OPT and SustainablePopulation Australia (SPA) say we are not doing enough, although they claim to be againstforced birth control.   The alarmists tell us we will not be able to feed billionsof people when non-renewable resources become depleted.   Thom Hartmann’s book TheLast Hours of Ancient Sunlight sums up this view well, suggesting that whenoil runs out millions of people will starve.   But before the invention ofsynthetic fertilisers it was thought that the earth could not support much morethan 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.   Thereis a lot of misinformation out there about the global population.   It is truethat the global population has been growing at a staggering rate, more thandoubling between 1965 and 2008.   But the rate of growth is slowing down.   Manyorganisations now predict the global population will peak at some point, thoughestimates as to when this will happen vary widely.   Both the UN and the USCensus Bureau predict the global population will still be growing by 2050, butat a very slow rate.   

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

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

Many people, however, feel that 9 billion people is already afew billion to many.   Members of the OPT and SPA often advocate for much lowerglobal populations.   But history has shown that the human race is surprisinglyadaptable.   The non-renewable resources that support our society today will notdrive 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 usealternatives.   The cynics would say that even if we do solve this crisis therewill be another one waiting for us, but there has not yet been a challenge thathas proven to be too great to overcome.

We need to change our mindset about population, because mostpeople contribute more to society than what they take.   The larger apopulation, the more innovation and ideas society creates.   The babies beingborn 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 onoil.  

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

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