We’ve got the “population problem” upside-down

There are a number of issues I want to discuss here at Future Brief, but there is one that is annoying. I hear it constantly raised by so many commentators as a critical issue to our global future and yet it’s a false issue and of no practical use to anyone. I am referring to the constant drumbeat of commentators blathering on about the need to reduce global population.

The argument is simple. Global population is 7 billion today. It will rise to 9 billion (or 10 or 11, whatever) by X year. The planet cannot support this size population. Disaster will result. Thus dramatically reducing the global population growth rate is critical and must begin right now if a global disaster threatening the survival of the human race is to be avoided. End of argument.

This argument leaves an impression. Although usually unstated, most people will probably think of this in terms of what was true in decades long gone, hundreds of millions of poor people in poor nations having six, seven, eight children while scraping out a miserable existence. The implication is that “these people” need to reduce their birth rate so the world can survive and thus we must begin to convince them of that and very quickly.

Does this make sense today? No. These arguments call for a global effort that is already there and has been there for several decades. In 45 years of working professionally in global economic development, particularly in the “developing” nations, I am very much aware of this.

Has it had an impact? Let’s look at the global fertility rate (basically the number of children a woman of child-bearing age will have during her lifetime) over time. Stats are drawn from UN sources, the same ones used in making the argument.

Global Fertility Rate

Over the last half-century, the number of children has fallen from 4.91 to 2.36. In order to replace herself and her husband, a woman must have two children, then a little more on average to make up for women who never give birth and for children, primarily 2 years or younger, who die before they can reach the age of procreation. If the average hits that “replacement rate”, than population will stabilize over time. In most of the “advanced economies” (aka, for the most part, the heavily-indebted economies) the rate is 2.1 or slightly higher. But the world includes many nations where infant and child mortality rates are high, so the replacement rate for the world as a whole is 2.33. Compare 2.33 to 2.36. Folks, with the exception of China’s “one-child” policy, we have chosen to lower birth rates through education and voluntary decision, and it has worked.

There are so many examples of this, I could fill pages with charts, but let me look quickly at one nation that was often pointed to as the world’s “basket case” in terms of population growth – Bangladesh. Let’s take a look at their birth rate.

Bangladesh Birth Rate

The birth rate has fallen from 48.3 to 23.5. But the death rate has fallen too, so let’s subtract deaths from births and see what results.

Bangladesh Net Population Growth Rate

The rate has fallen from 27.4 to 15.2. The fall in birth rates has far out-stripped the fall in death rates. Okay, so we saw the global fertility rate had fallen to 2.36, almost exactly the replacement rate, so what is the fertility rate in everyone’s favorite example of a nation with an out-of-control growth rate?

Bangladesh Fertility Rate

The rate has fallen from its high of 6.91 in the 70’s to 2.38 today. So the nation with one of the highest replacement rates in the world forty years ago is now right at the average and still falling.

Get over it. This is not a new topic. Efforts to reduce global population growth voluntarily have been large-scale and very successful, way more so than anyone predicted when we began.

So why is global population still rising? Sure, graphs of future estimates indicate it will begin to decline in coming decades, but not as quickly as the talking-heads would like (I call them talking-heads instead of commentators because I don’t think they’ve done enough thinking on the topic to warrant being called commentators). Part of the reason is that the critical generation for the immediate future is made up of women of child-bearing age, not new-borns, so they are drawn from an earlier period and the full impact of the above changes is delayed. But I believe the real culprit is something else – lifespan.

I could toss up a graph showing the increase in average lifespan during the last half-century, but I will use a graph kindly provided by the US State Department, saving me the trouble of creating my own, that gets the point across very clearly.

Comparing global population under 5 with those over 65

Aha! Now we can see the problem. The talking-heads have it upside-down! It’s not the beginning of the lifespan where the problem is found, but the end, and the above chart really brings that home.

Infants and small children consume without producing, but they are the very people who will provide the productive adults of the future who will build their communities, their nations, and the world. They represent future production that can vastly outweigh their current consumption. Yes, a minority will die before they can produce, but the majority will far out-weigh them in impact.

Adults over 65 are different. Either voluntarily or out of sheer necessity, they cease to produce, but they do not cease to consume. In fact, their consumption of many resources (that is what the fuss is all about), notably health care, can increase dramatically. Yes, a minority may successfully return to production, but the majority will far out-weigh them in impact.

I read a great deal about the “impossibility” of supporting the consumption of essential resources by a larger global population, but I do not see anyone who provides a comparison of the current and future impact of a 5-year-old child with the current and future impact of 65-yearold adult. They persist in either saying or implying that the problem lies at one end of the human lifespan. They have it upside-down. They’re looking at the wrong end.

Worst of all, the imbalance will continue to be more and more obvious, barring some change in attitudes and practices. Birth and fertility rates continue to decline and show no signs of reversing. The increase in lifespan continues to rise and shows no sign of reversing. If you follow the advances in bio-medicine, nanotechnology, stem cell research, and genetic engineering, you will understand that average lifespan has the clear potential to increase a decade or more in our lifetimes.

Throughout our lifetimes, past estimates of future lifespan length have fallen well short of the reality that actually unfolded and there is plenty of reason to expect that to continue. The lines in that final chart above can be expected to continue in their current path, barring Mother Nature or human stupidity intervening and dramatically reducing global population without any help from us. Otherwise, it will be more of the same.

I am not going to spend much more time on this. The relevant statistics and their trends are well-established and as clear as they can be. Let me summarize very quickly:

  • When we talk of the pressure of a growing global population on limited global resources, let’s be sure we look carefully at all those who contribute to increased consumption and let’s give a break to those among them who represent future production to balance that consumption.
  • Thank you, talking-heads, for implying, and sometimes directly stating, that the root of the problem is found in birth and fertility rates. We recognized that a long time ago and we have been dealing with it constructively and successfully for decades.
  • If you insist on continuing your current emphasis on birth rates, go right ahead. The rest of the world is going to ignore you. It is a complete waste of time, such blather will accomplish nothing. They know the facts. After all, North Americans and Europeans are constantly talking (or shouting) about their “old age” problem. Other nations are not especially interested in turning themselves into little Japans (or the little Chinas and little Europes now or of the near future). It’s not as if the North Atlantic folks are sitting around, complaining about the massive hit on global resources required for pre- and post-natal care. We do know what the challenges are and that increasing lifespans are chief among them in this regard. We just don’t talk about it very much, if at all, perhaps because it requires our taking on more responsibility for dealing with the resource challenge. Whatever, get off the “too many babies” kick. Your woefully incomplete analysis is obvious.

The blather is an annoyance because it doesn’t help, it only obfuscates. I hope it encourages some of the “limited resource” people to widen their discussion constructively. Their concerns are legitimate, but their analysis is seriously lacking.

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2 Responses to We’ve got the “population problem” upside-down

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