New Internationalist

Who profits from the 7 billion population frenzy?

So, now we are 7 billion. Or maybe not.

Maybe we will be 7 billion next March – or maybe we already were last July.

Because if you read the small print from the United Nations, the week’s landmark date – October 31 – is ‘symbolic’.

But the frenzy in the build-up to the big day has had effects that should alarm anyone concerned with equality, human rights and the real causes of climate change. Even serious media outlets resorted to the 1960s language of ‘overpopulation,’  ‘explosion,’ ‘overcrowding’. Spectres of hunger, poverty and global turmoil were paraded as the products of population growth.

The underlying issues of inequality or fossil fuel use or financial speculation, fell by the wayside. The most dramatic projections of future world population (10 billion, or even 16 billion by 2100), were routinely chosen over the lower ones – such as the paltry 6 billion by the end of the century.

Now this is partly due to journalists needing to draw a simple, dramatic story out of the complex issue that is full of uncertainties, caveats, and conditional tenses. Not to mention the added complication of fertility rates declining across the world. But there is more to it than that.

In recent years the ‘overpopulation’ narrative has been increasingly and skilfully promoted by those whose interests it serves. This week has shown the extent to which their PR efforts have borne fruit, helping to pave the way for quick fixes and magic bullets that promise big bucks for some.

Here’s a short list of some of the beneficiaries of population hysteria:

Biotech industry: bouncing back from popular rejection with the claim that the only way to feed the projected nine billion by 2050 is with genetically modified food.

Fossil fuel sector: citing population growth to justify exploitation of new, even more environmentally damaging fossil fuels such as shale gas (they don’t like to refer to it as ‘fracking’ anymore for some reason) and oil from tar-sands.

Nuclear industry: positioning itself as the only one with the capacity to provide energy on the scale needed to meet the needs of the world’s future generations.

Financial services: cites ‘population pressure’ as proof of the value of investing in the food and farmland futures – a new hot asset for speculators.

Agribusiness: elbowing out organics and other sustainable methods to reassert itself, and its fertilizers and pesticides, to create yields fit for hungry billions.

Family planning industry: boosting its capacity to raise funds for family planning programs in countries with high fertility rates, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa. Coming to the rescue, agencies can put behind them their failures to respond to massive human rights abuses that resulted from coercive, target-driven and population control policies in China, India and, during the 1990s, in Peru.

There are other, more overtly, political beneficiaries of population panic. The anti-immigration lobby, for example, can point to the parts of the world where population growth is fastest, sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Where will all those people go? Certain sectors of the environmental lobby, especially the somewhat misanthropic tendency that resents the presence of people (apart from themselves) in areas of natural beauty, have become their unlikely bedfellows. And there’s a new brand of sexism emerging against women and their wombs (‘the cause of overpopulation’) as exemplified in the sketches of US comic Doug Stanhope. (I write about all this and more in the recently published No-Nonsense Guide to World Population.)

For the record, I have nothing against family planning. I’m all for women everywhere having control over their own fertility and the empowerment that enables them to do so. I have no hidden agenda. A couple of responses to a recent blog I wrote for the Guardian newspaper wondered if I had a religious perspective and how many children I had. The answer to both questions is ‘none’.

But I wish we could focus on the issues that really matter: the inequality that creates poverty and hunger, the poverty and disempowerment of women that leads them to unwanted pregnancies, the need for serious energy conservation and investment in renewables to tackle global warming; and the criminally stupid wastage of food and natural resources.

In talking about population we cannot ignore the numbers. But we need to see them for what they are they are – estimates and projections of what may or may not happen in the future. The problems that face us today are the same, regardless of how many there are of us.

But by allowing ourselves to be manipulated by the population panic agenda and the simplistic use of scary numbers we are allowing ourselves to be controlled by some of those vested interests implicated in the world’s most profound problems and that stand to profit from exacerbating them.

It’s a bit like an abusive relationship – with the fossil fuel and finance industries, for example, presenting themselves as the saviours, the solution, the antidote, to our collective pain. Only they can make us feel better.

We don’t have to believe them, though.

Vanessa Baird is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population published by New Internationalist.

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  1. #1 John Pearce 01 Nov 11

    I write as a long standing NI subscriber, not just in sympathy with your plea to retain focus on poverty and inequality, but actively working on both with rural Swazi women to make the most of their natural resources. Nevertheless, I take issue with your apparent down grading of overpopulation as a critical topic. It is less an issue of whether we will have 8 billion or 15 billion humans at the end of the century than the basic fact that our planet cannot sustain the current numbers of our destructive species. Given that the impact of an unsustainable population falls heaviest on those already hardest hit by poverty and inequality, surely it is part of the same problem rather than a distraction from it.

  2. #2 Benny 02 Nov 11

    Exactly - more people on the planet isn't the problem, but rather issues like inequality and bad infrastructure are. There are many reasons to celebrate 7 billion on the planet. This milestone proves how ingenious we are, that we're better at keeping more people alive longer now than ever before, and we have more brains to create and develop more useful technologies and innovations to accommodate a growing population. Yes, there are still problems of starvation and lower standards of living for many on the planet, but neither history nor mathematical logic bears out the conclusion that population pessimists reached - which, btw, only views humanity as consumers and not producers. Where there are these problems, we need to go about creating more for everyone rather than curbing our numbers. In the Victorian times, the world's population was a small fraction of what it is now, yet there was still poverty. What changed and improved our lives in the West was not going down from 1 billion to less, but improving sanitation infrastructure, healthcare, our general standards of living, and discovering breakthroughs in science. We should see humanity as a solution and not the problem. I came across a spoof recently that parodies the many ridiculous overpopulation fears/paranoia - it is hilarious and brilliant!

  3. #3 Rikki Nadir 21 Dec 11

    Yes we should try and solve today's big problems, yet I believe that these problems (e.g. pollution, famine, mass-consumption, migration) will get bigger with a larger world population. Estimates and projections they may be, but a hands-off approach (similar to the climate-change debate, not much happening there either apart from talking) is not the solution.

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About the author

Vanessa Baird a New Internationalist contributor

Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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