New Internationalist

Is the world’s population really a timebomb?

Issue 446

AGENDA

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Every 10 seconds, 44 people are born. Even after factoring in death rates, that’s 83 million more people each year. According to the United Nations Population Fund, there will be seven billion of us shuffling on the surface of this planet by the end of October, a figure that is predicted to rise to nine billion by 2050. But claims that the world’s population is spiralling dangerously out of control are alarmist.

According to Hania Zlotnik, Director of the UN’s Population Division, world population is ‘on a path towards non-explosion’. Women, on average are having far fewer children and high fertility affects only 16 per cent of the population.

The global increase in family planning means the world’s population is predicted to reach 9.3 billion during the middle of the century and continue growing but much more slowly until it reaches 10 billion by 2100, before levelling off and beginning to decline, says the UN.

But with people living longer, the anticipated accumulation of people over the next few decades has led some to argue that the world’s already fragile environment and dwindling resources will be unable to cope with the swell. Others say we are pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

Blaming too many people for climate change is like blaming too many trees for bushfires,’ says Simon Butler, writing in Australia’s Green Left Weekly. ‘The real cause of climate change is an economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy and unsustainable agriculture.’

Heavily industrialized countries, which make up only 20 per cent of the world’s people and where populations are declining in many cases, are responsible for 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide accrued in the atmosphere due to human activity. The few places where birth rates remain high have the lowest per capita carbon emissions.

So, while freely accessible family planning in countries with large population growth may help, it is likely to have little impact on climate change. As UK-based campaign group The Corner House puts it: ‘Massive fossil-fuel use in industrialized countries cannot be countered by handing out condoms.’

A more pressing concern is that a rising population could mean that many more will go hungry. Since the 2008 food crisis – widely attributed to climate change, commodity speculation and the rampant use of biofuels – shortages have become a serious concern and over a billion people are already going hungry.

Yet a growing number of scientists and activists argue that feeding 10 billion is well within our collective capabilities – through a combination of efficient farming, better waste reduction and less meat-eating.

Nick Harvey

This article is based on New Internationalist's No-Nonsense Guide to World Population, by Vanessa Baird, which is out this month.

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