Opportunities on a crowded planet

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July 04, 2011

Every decade or so the debate about the size of world population resumes. It is a crucial debate which can have major consequences for millions of people. But it is also a difficult debate, since the issues are complex, emotive and easily sensationalised.

The damaging and ongoing consequences of the global financial crisis make our current situation still more urgent. Before, many development specialists and economists were quietly confident the world had the resources to feed its growing population until population size levelled off at about 9 billion people in 2050, although this would require skill and effort on a global scale.

This commitment was evident in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which aimed to rapidly reduce hunger and the grossest poverty within decades. Importantly, the Goals included improved health outcomes for children and women, and increased educational opportunities for girls and young women. These aims were seen to be critical in curtailing excessive population growth rates.

While there has been major progress, particularly in Africa, the GFC has severely handicapped results. The economic crisis in developed countries savaged credit for developing countries, and resulted in perhaps 100 million people being pushed down into the most severe deprivation and hunger. The crisis reversed the steady progress that many countries had been making to reduce severe poverty.

The task of reducing global poverty suddenly became much harder.

To make matters worse, the threats arising from global warming and climate change challenged the assumptions agricultural experts had made about how to increase world food production at affordable prices. Droughts, floods and more extreme weather patterns were causing unexpected shortages, resulting in higher food prices and increased hunger for the poorest people.

No wonder some people are alarmed. Australian entrepreneur, Dick Smith, wrote recently that the world ‘is already hitting against’ its limits to growth. ‘On a finite planet, we are … literally exhausting the environment on which we rely for our survival.’

Even the eminent economist, Jeffrey Sachs, coordinator of the large group of economists who devised the details of the UN Millennium Development Goals, called for a cap on population of 8 billion in 2050. In his 2008 book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Sachs nevertheless insisted that measures to reduce population growth must be voluntary and not coerced.

Given that world population is already at 7 billion, it is inconceivable that population size could be contained to 8 billion. Even though the birth rate in about 50 countries, including China, is already below population replacement levels, most people are living longer; and even if couples only had two children, population would still increase well beyond 8 billion.

Unless countries are prepared to implement draconian birth-control policies like China’s, realistically there is no alternative but to prepare for a world of 9 billion people. The right of couples to decide how many children they will have is a fundamental human right. It is inconceivable that countries would willingly sacrifice such intimate and important freedoms.

Nevertheless, couples make their decisions about family size in the context of their culture, social environment and economic situation, and hence responsible decision-making will vary accordingly. Governments also try to educate their people about the costs or benefits of population size, and provide incentives to optimise family size.

Demographers have shed much light on the complex dynamics of population growth, and emphasised key factors in reducing high growth rates: alleviating poverty, improving social security, reducing child mortality, educating girls, and providing economic opportunities.

The good news is that excessive population growth rates can, and in many places have been, reduced by improving human wellbeing and economic opportunities.

Further, the projected increase in global population need not provoke a catastrophe. We have a wide array of new means of increasing food production and making better use of resources to offer all people the chance of a decent and humane standard of living.

We will of course need to be smarter and more modest in our use of resources, especially to wind back carbon emissions and to distribute wealth more equitably.

I do not for a moment underestimate the challenge before us in the next 40 to 50 years. It is a decisive moment in human history, when we have the opportunity to develop a sustainable economy and environment, not only to eliminate hunger and the worst poverty but to secure resources for future generations.

It is an unprecedented opportunity, but it is imperative that we manage this transition well.

Bruce DuncanDr Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who teaches in history and social justice areas at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, and is Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy at Box Hill.

This article was first published in Eureka Street: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=27089

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