New Internationalist

The missing pieces

Issue 429

Spectres of scarcity and pollution obscure the population picture. Vanessa Baird concludes by tracking down the more elusive facts and arguments without which the jigsaw can never be complete.

A survey conducted in the Netherlands asked people three questions. One: ‘Are there too many people in the world?’ Yes, replied the majority. Next: ‘Are there too many people in the Netherlands?’ Yes, again came the reply. Finally: ‘Are there too many people in your community?’ No, they replied.

The story is told by demographer Nico van Nimwegen and it illustrates a key point. ‘Too many people’ is almost inevitably too many other people. Not us.

History has shown us that if you scrape the surface of anxieties about population growth, you often find something else underneath. Be it related to race, class, religion, culture, politics, environment, the common fear is that of losing a portion of power or privilege.

This finds perfect expression in a campaign launched by the Optimum Population Trust just prior to the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Called PopOffsets it invites people in the rich world to offset their own carbon emissions by funding family planning in the Global South. The campaign, which has the backing of such high profile figures as James Lovelock and David Attenborough, will undoubtedly be understood by many as: ‘if I can stop them having babies we won’t have to change our ways’.

There are excellent human rights reasons for funding family planning and making it as accessible as possible; for challenging the religious and patriarchal forces that try to get between a woman and her choice to have or not have a child. But the ethics of using this need to allow the rich world to continue doing its damage, frankly, stinks. And anyway, it doesn’t add up.

Population and climate scientist Leiwen Jiang is at the cutting edge of research into the impact of population on energy consumption, land use and climate change at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. He’s been looking at how differently the three UN population projections (low 8 billion, medium 9, high 11) would affect CO2 emissions. Jiang found that they made a difference that was ‘substantial but not decisive’.

He explained: ‘We need to reduce emissions by seven billion tonnes by 2050. But population growth difference [between different projections] only makes a difference of one or plus-one or minus-one billion tonnes, because most of the population growth will be in the developing countries. Developed countries are the ones that make a far larger contribution to CO2 than to population size because of comparatively much higher contribution to greenhouse gases.’1

This tallies with the findings of David Satterthwaite at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, who finds at most a weak link between population growth and rising emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change (see graphs below).2 So unequal are global consumption levels that one European or North American or Australian may be responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.3

Is it up to people in the rich world, then, to have fewer children or none at all? Well, it might help in countries like the US which has a higher than replacement fertility rate and is (along with Australia) top of the league of per capita polluters (see page 20). But it won’t make enough difference because it fails to tackle the real issue.

As Simon Butler, writing in Australia’s Green Left Weekly, puts it: ‘People are not pollution. Blaming too many people for driving climate change is like blaming too many trees for causing bushfires. The real cause of climate change is an economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy and unsustainable agriculture.’4

There’s no dodging it. We need an energy revolution – away from fossil fuels and towards renewables – which is as radical and more rapid than the industrial revolution that laid the basis for our carbon-based economies.

Carbon emissions from consumption of energy


Source: IEA, 2009


The weakest link – population growth and CO2
David Satterthwaite analyzed changes in population and greenhouse gas emissions for the world’s countries and found that between 1980 and 2005:


Population growth rates in China have come down rapidly – but greenhouse gas emissions have increased equally rapidly. Most of the nations with the highest population growth rates had low growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions while many of the nations with the lowest population growth rates had high growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions.

Source: IIED, September 2009

Not enough to go round

But what about that other bugbear – scarcity? There won’t be enough food, water, land, say advocates of population control.

It should be remembered that the Malthusian spectre of scarcity has frequently been invoked to avoid facing issues of inequality. The British, for example, preferred to use ‘overpopulation’ as an explanation for 19th century famines in Ireland rather than to deal with rural people’s lack of access to huge areas of land held by absentee landlords.

Today, a comparable blind spot is the acquisition of large tracts of land in Latin America and Africa by Western and Chinese agribusiness to grow food for their own populations. The claim that ‘Africa can’t feed itself’ is challenged by US demographer Barbara Boyle Torrey of the Population Reference Bureau who estimates that in terms of the number of calories harvested the continent produces enough to feed its people.5 There are other reasons that Africa has so many undernourished children and it ends up importing – or re-importing – much of the food it needs.

Certainly population growth has a multiplier effect when it comes to use of resources. But there is something defeatist about invocations of resource scarcity. Neo-Malthusians, like their namesake, take no account of human ingenuity, innovativeness or capacity for change. Even at the most basic level there is massive potential for improved efficiency. A vegetarian diet requires about half the acreage of a meaty one. Huge savings of land could be made if people ate less meat, encouraged perhaps by a green tax that reflected its true environmental cost.

Meat-eating habits aside, around half the world’s food is currently wasted. Farmer, activist and writer Tristram Stuart has traced this wastage all along the production and retailing line. For example, farmers often have to grow 25 per cent extra to ensure meeting contracts and avoid expensive penalties. Aesthetic standards, overstocking, and sell-by and use-by dates all add to losses. According to Government statistics, Britons throw away a third of the food they buy.6

In economically booming India, food rots or gets thrown away while the poor go hungry because they cannot afford to buy it. Surely tackling issues like these, today, makes more sense than obsessing about how many people there might be at the global table in 40 years’ time?

Emotions and politics

There are shortages that threaten the world and the survival of humans and other species within it. They are scarcities of equity, justice, genuine democracy, and respect for nature. There is reason to feel panic when faced with global warming. The sluggishness of our political leaders and their supine relationship to corporate power give further cause for alarm – and anger. But people in Africa or Asia having babies are not the root of these problems – and trying to stop them having babies seems a most unlikely solution.

During the course of researching this magazine I have found few, if any, certainties to cling to on the subject of population. Even the solid-seeming figures and sophisticated charts projecting into the future create a mere illusion of authority. Perhaps the only certainty is to be found in the caveat frequently expressed by demographers themselves – that population is as complex and ultimately unpredictable as human nature itself.

I’d like to end with an anecdote from Mozambique. It was 1988, a time of civil war and great hunger. I was interviewing a local reproductive health promoter and remarked that the job of  convincing people of the benefits of family planning might not be so hard in such dire times. ‘On the contrary,’ she replied. ‘The birth rate is going up. You have to understand, there is so much misery around, children are our only joy. A new child brings a feeling of hope.’

  1. Leiwen Jiang, IUSSP Conference: Session 170, Marrakech, 2009.
  2. David Satterthwaite, ‘The implications of population growth on urbanization and climate change’, Environment and Urbanization, September 2009.
  3. Fred Pearce, ‘Population: Over-consumption is the real problem’, New Scientist, 23 September 2009.
  4. Simon Butler, ‘Ten reasons why population control can’t stop climate change’, Green Left online, 31 May 2009, www.greenleft.org.au
  5. Barbara Boyle Torrey, IUSSP Conference: Session 162, Marrakech, 2009. 6 Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Penguin Books, 2009.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on The missing pieces

Leave your comment