Alan Weisman recently published a book that got a lot of press attention for its novelty idea of considering The World Without Us — that is, what earth would look like if some unlikely event wiped out humans and left everything else more or less intact.
An interesting topic for cocktail party chat. But let’s consider the much more germane and pressing question: what will a world with us look like , meaning a world filled with the additional four or five or six billion descendants we as a global society are likely to produce in the coming decades before we bump up against the limits to global human population growth and the numbers stabilize?
As the old warning goes: this is not a test. This is not a parlor game question or an academic question. This is arguably the fundamental question at the root of all others. Consider the words of the father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith, from The Wealth of Nations in the fateful year 1776:
“The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire for the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage and household furniture, seem to have no limit or certain boundary.”
The implications of those desires, and what might be done about them, are well laid out in a recent special theme issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London dedicated to “The impact of population growth on tomorrow’s world“. It is sobering and thought-provoking reading (and, importantly, for my readers who don’t happen to have access to a full-service university library, the issue is open access). The issue has everything from fossil fuel limits to the demographic transition, to refutations of revisionist claims that population growth is unimportant, to accounts of how policy has reduced population growth humanely in a variety of countries, to what we should be thinking about to fix the problem, on a global scale. The table of contents is shown below, with links to the articles, but here is the bottom line, and I quote:
“This statement, prepared by the organizers, summarizes some conclusions of the meeting without committing every participant to support of every detail.
Rapid population growth in some regions, combined with increasing affluence and explosive growth in fossil fuel and natural resources consumption throughout the world, is seriously endangering a broad range of natural systems that support life. For the first time in history, much of the natural world is adversely affected by human activity. Global warming is just one among many threats to sustaining human life, wildlife and the natural environment.
The United Nations projects that the human population will increase from the current 6.8 billion to between 8 billion and 10.5 billion in 2050. Although more than half the world’s women now have an average of two children or fewer, the global population is still growing rapidly and this year there will be 78 million more births than deaths (a number slightly less than the population of Germany). Over 95 per cent of this growth is in low-income countries least able to provide for these numbers. Despite deaths from AIDS, much of the fastest population growth is in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2007, Western donor contributions to family planning were less than a quarter of the inflation-adjusted target set at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Shrinking family planning budgets have been associated with stalled fertility decline in a number of countries, leading to serious adverse effects on the health of women and their families and the stability and progress of civil society. In Kenya, as a result of diminished focus on family planning, the projected population in 2050 has been increased from 54 million to 83 million. Some observers predict that an increase of this magnitude may lead to food scarcity and crumbling infrastructure and, potentially, to violent conflicts over scarce resources.
With over 80 million unintended pregnancies each year, there is already a large unmet need for family planning. Surveys show that 200 million women wish to delay or stop the next pregnancy and over 100 million are not using any contraception because they lack access to it or face other barriers to its use. Even in the USA, one of the most affluent nations in the world, half of all pregnancies are unintended.
Meeting the unmet need for family planning has been highly successful in slowing rapid population growth. Ready access to contraception and safe abortion has decreased family size, even in illiterate communities living on less than a dollar a day. Increased access to family planning will make it easier for countries with rapidly growing populations to expand education. Education, in turn, particularly of women, makes an important contribution to fertility decline and a crucial contribution to development. However, rapidly growing countries cannot always expand education fast enough to keep pace with the growing number of children each year.
The coming decade should be dedicated to the needs of the one billion young people aged 15–24 in the world, the majority living in low-income settings with limited educational and employment opportunities. Every young person should have full access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it. The burden of ill health associated with unsafe abortion must be confronted, especially among young people who are often most vulnerable to unintended pregnancy.
The unmet need for contraception in low-income countries is calculated to increase from 525 million couples in 2000 to 742 million by 2015. It is essential that national leaders and international donors, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, understand the imperative to invest in education and improved access to family planning.
All women should be protected from unintended childbirth. Making every birth a wanted birth is a goal that can be approached through improved access to family planning.
Reaching this goal is vital to creating a healthier and more equitable world.
Theme Issue: ‘The impact of population growth on tomorrow’s world’
Roger V. Short: Population growth in retrospect and prospect.
Malcolm Potts, Anne M. Pebley, and J. Joseph Speidel. Editorial.
Adair Turner. Population priorities: the challenge of continued rapid population growth.
John Bongaarts. Human population growth and the demographic transition.
Alex C. Ezeh, Blessing U. Mberu, and Jacques O. Emina. Stall in fertility decline in Eastern African countries: regional analysis of patterns, determinants and implications.
Adair Turner. Population ageing: what should we worry about?
Steven W. Sinding. Population, poverty and economic development.
Wolfgang Lutz. Sola schola et sanitate: human capital as the root cause and priority for international development?
J. Joseph Speidel, Deborah C. Weiss, Sally A. Ethelston, and Sarah M. Gilbert. Population policies, programmes and the environment.
Richard Nehring. Traversing the mountaintop: world fossil fuel production to 2050.
Bradley A. Thayer. Considering population and war: a critical and neglected aspect of conflict studies.
Ndola Prata. Making family planning accessible in resource-poor settings.
Martha Campbell and Kathleen Bedford. The theoretical and political framing of the population factor in development.
Malcolm Potts. Where next?