Forget climate change, oil supplies or the rise of Manchester City. The biggest threat to civilization is the seven billion people who are wandering around even as we speak. If this number was cut to one billion or less we could probably exploit, pollute and destroy to our heart’s content without causing more than local perturbations. But, because there are so many of us doing it, the ramifications tend to be much more major. The Rwandan genocide did not really occur because of ethnic differences between two tribes of people. It occurred because Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on earth resulting in an extreme scarcity of resources. When there is plenty for all we can’t usually be bothered to make war on our neighbour no matter how much we dislike them.
As mentioned on previous blogs I am a big fan of the TED talks (http://www.ted.org), and there was a particularly good one recently by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and statistician, who drew attention to the fact that population growth, is declining. The data is quite elegantly displayed at http://www.gapminder.org. According to Rosling there are four reasons for this decline: increase in wealth, decline in child mortality, education of women, and access to contraception. If the world is to have a long term future these are the areas we must target.
We must help countries to drag themselves out of poverty. Individually we can facilitate this through the agency of organisations such as Kiva (http://www.kiva.org), which provide interest free loans to people in developing countries.
We must do what we can to decrease child mortality by supporting organisations such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI at http://www.gavialliance.org). Diarrhoea is the second biggest child killer in the world wiping out 1.3 million children each year, and rotavirus is the main culprit responsible for 450,000 deaths annually. GAVI plans to distribute rotavirus vaccine to 40 countries by 2015.
Women must have access to education and couples must have access to contraception, so they can decide for themselves how many children they want. There was another excellent TED talk by Melinda Gates on this topic (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/melinda_gates_let_s_put_birth_control_back_on_the_agenda.html). See also http://www.impatientoptimists.org/Topics/Family-Planning for more information.
David Attenborough, in his documentary, “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” stated, based on Canadian academic William Rees’s concept of an ecological footprint that we can support 15 billion if we live the way the average Indian does and possibly up to 18 billion if we all live like average Rwandans. However, if we wish to live like the Europeans that number drops to 2.5 billion and falls to 1.5 billion if we all decide to become Americans.
While we have seen an exponential growth in human numbers from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7 billion now that does look like levelling off at around 9 billion by 2050. To continue to grow at our current rate in order to support our aging populations, as some would suggest, is total nonsense and completely unsustainable. We cannot produce more children to support those who are now aging, because we would then need to keep producing even more children to support those when they age, resulting in an ever increasing spiral of disaster. The concern centres around how many people, who are not working, can be supported by those who are. With our increasing emphasis on technology and movement away from manual labour older people can remain active in the workforce for longer. Bear in mind that, generally speaking, children do not work and need to be supported and educated for 16 years or more, especially in developed countries. This means parents and caregivers are also drawn out of the workforce to provide that care. Fewer children mean lower education and health care costs and more people working. According to figures from Population Matters in 1976 there were 71.6 dependents for every 100 working people in the UK, more children than older people. By 2011 total dependents had dropped to 60.8. With lower birthrates and longer lives this is projected to rise again so that, by 2051, it will be back to 71.5. This time there will be more older people than children but the net result will be the same (http://populationmatters.org/wp-content/uploads/ageing_populations.pdf).
Unless we discover other suitable planets that will allow human habitation we cannot permit ourselves to be sucked into any arguments that favour a continuing increase in human population. As a result of gains made in prosperity, health and freedom of choice our population is beginning to level off. We need to make sure that continues, while devising new and innovative ways to feed, water and care for the billions that are already here and still to come.
Dr. F. Bunny