A world of seven billion

Today, planet Earth hits a new population milestone. But is the real problem the extra people, or the consumption boom? We look back at how the debate has been thrashed out on chinadialogue, including a report by Leo Hickman.

Editor’s note: It’s October 31, and this year that date brings something more startling than the spirits and ghouls of Halloween. Today marks the day the planet officially reaches seven billion in population – only 12 years since we marked six billion people. That seven billionth person might well be, as Leo Hickman notes below, a boy born in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh: making him one of the 1.3 billion people on the planet relying on water that emerges in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region for irrigation, power and drinking (see chinadialogue‘s special report “The Waters of the Third Pole: Sources of Threat; Sources of Survival”)

So, what does this rapid population increase mean for the planet? Views about the role of population in driving environmental change, from global warming to food scarcity, differ widely. As we headed towards the seven billion milestone over the past year, chinadialogue explored this debate, a particular division being between those who see slowing population as a cornerstone of planetary sustainability pitted against those who view it as a distraction from the real problem: rich-world consumption.

Below, Hickman provides an overview of the terrain in an article for The Guardian, which we first published on chinadialogue in April but are republishing here in full today.

Other articles exploring these questions include: “Peak population”, where Sara Parkin of UK think-tank Forum for the Future argues that we have a moral responsibility to lower global birth rates in a planned way before “resource constraints or climate change do it for us brutally”. In response, David Satterthwaite writes in “Hiding behind the numbers” that rich countries should not shift the blame for environmental crises onto those who have barely contributed to the problems.

In an analysis of China’s one child policy, Zuo Xuejin wrote that Chinese population control policies are outdated and, besides, not the key to saving energy and resources, while Oliver Burkeman called on westerners to think about their own fertility rates.

Anyone interested in broader demography issues, beyond population size, should also note John Elkington’s take on ageing societies.

Happy birthday! Take a look and let us know where you stand in the debate.


On 31 October, a boy will be born in a rural village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His parents will not know it, but his birth will prove to be a considerable landmark for our species as his arrival will mark the moment when the human population reaches seven billion.

There is no way of knowing for sure, of course, the identity of this baby boy. But demographers say that this date, place and gender are the most likely. India has the largest number of births each year – 27 million, roughly one in five of all global births – and Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with nearly 200 million citizens, would be the sixth most-populated country in the world if it were a nation. The majority of the state’s births occur in the rural areas and the natural sex ratio at birth favours boys by a narrow margin.

We do not need a guiding star to direct us to the symbolism of this boy’s birth: the world has known about this approaching milestone for many years. After all, it is only 12 years since the six-billion mark was reached. And just 100 years ago, the human population stood at 1.6 billion. The urgent search for solutions to population growth has been a hot topic ever since the Reverend Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, stating that the “power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Every generation since has seen a prophet predicting doom for our species if we don’t curtail our numbers. And yet the rise in headcount has continued inexorably and exponentially.

But with rising greenhouse-gas emissions and resource depletion ever-growing concerns, the approach of this year’s population landmark has become an awkward, even unwelcome presence in the environmental debate. No one likes to talk about it, for there are no easy answers. Even a mention of it can see the questioner accused of racism, colonialism or misanthropy. Increasingly, environmental thinkers such as Jared Diamond, George Monbiot and Fred Pearce have made the case that population growth is not, in fact, the real problem (the UN predicts that growth will plateau at nine billion around mid-century before slowly starting to fall) — rather that a rapid rise in consumption is our most pressing environmental issue.

There are more than enough resources to feed the world, they say, even in 2050 when numbers peak – a point made in mid-January in a report jointly published by France’s national agricultural and development research agencies. The problem is that we see huge inequities in consumption whereby, for example, the average American has the same carbon footprint as 250 Ethiopians. The French report concluded bluntly that “the rich must stop consuming so much”.

Stood shoulder to shoulder, the entire human population could fit within the city limits of Los Angeles. We’ve got more than enough land upon which to collectively sustain ourselves; we just need to use it more wisely and fairly. But, given the stubborn realities of global inequalities, the question remains: are there too many of us to achieve a sustainable future?

Another report published in January – by the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers – provocatively posed just this question in its title: “One planet, too many people?” It concluded the answer was “no”, but only if food output was vastly improved through biotechnology, mechanisation, food processing and irrigation. In essence, it said we need to innovate and think our way out of our “population explosion” using technology.

Paul Ehrlich, the Bing professor of population studies at Stanford University in California, has been a figurehead of this debate ever since his still highly controversial book The Population Bomb was published in 1968, when the human population stood at 3.5 billion. The book attracted international attention with its stark, Old Testament-like predictions about how devastating famines would ravage the human populace in the 1970s and’80s and how “all important animal life” in our seas would be made extinct by over-fishing and pollution. Growth must be stopped, Ehrlich urged, “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail”.

In 1971, he famously said he would take “even money” on the United Kingdom not existing as a state in the year 2000, adding that if it did survive it would be an impoverished island containing 70 million people.

Asked about his prediction in 2000, he admitted he would have lost the bet, but added: “If you look closely at England, what can I tell you? They’re having all kinds of problems, just like everybody else.”

Ehrlich still stands by many of his predictions, but says that the timings were postponed by innovations that he never anticipated. For example, the so-called “green revolution” in agriculture enabled a much more productive global grain harvest than he ever imagined. Could technological innovations facilitate our continued expansion?

“We’re already way past the carrying capacity of this planet by a very simple standard,” he says. “We are not living on the interest from our natural capital – we are living on the capital itself. The working parts of our life-support system are going down the drain at thousands of times the rate that has been the norm over the past millions and millions of years.”

You cannot view consumption and population growth as separate issues, says Ehrlich. “In one sense, it is the consumption that damages our life-support system as opposed to the actual number of people expanding. But both multiply together.”

Reducing consumption is a much easier task, though, than tackling population growth, he says: “What many of my colleagues share with me is the view that we would like to see a gradual decline in population, but a rapid decline in consumption habits. We utterly transformed our consumption habits and patterns of economy in the US between 1941 and 1945, and then back again. If you’ve got the right incentives, you can change patterns of consumption very rapidly.”

So, if you accept the planet is over populated – a big “if” for many observers – what are the solutions? “We have two huge advantages when trying to tackle population growth compared with consumption levels. First, we know what to do about it. If you educate women about their means to control reproduction, the odds are you will see a decline in fertility rates. Second, everyone understands the problem: you can’t keep growing the number of people on a finite planet.

“But many economists still want people to consume more to get our economy back, but this will just see more resources destroyed. We also don’t have what I’d call ‘consumption condoms’. One of my colleagues once joked that the government ought to send round a truck to your home the day after you’ve been on a spending spree and offer to take everything you’ve bought back to the store. It would be the equivalent of a consumption morning-after pill.”

The seven billion figure is eye-catching, but behind it lies a complicated demographic reality. For example, population growth in developed nations has largely stagnated. Even in places traditionally associated with rapid population growth, such as Bangladesh, birth rates have fallen considerably over the last generation, yet remain well above the natural replenishment rate of just above two children per woman. The only place where birth rates still remain at pre-industrial-age rates – six or more children per woman – is sub-Saharan Africa.

Every region requires its own solution, says Ehrlich. “In the US, where the population has risen by 10% in a decade, largely due to immigration, it is super-critical that we tackle the population rise because we are super-consumers. But, in general, in the rich countries where population growth has stopped or fallen, we should now be concentrating on reducing per-capita consumption levels.”

Ehrlich says that he is far more pessimistic now than he was when he wrote The Population Bomb. Increased immigration is an inevitability caused by increasing population and it will, he says, “become an ever-increasing political nightmare”.

He also laments the lost opportunities: “The only thing we have done which was beneficial – but possibly fatal in the long run – was the ‘green revolution’. But technological rabbits pulled out of the hat often have very nasty droppings. Frankly, I don’t think most people are even remotely aware of what needs to be done to make our world a pleasant place to live in by, say, 2050.”

James Lovelock, the independent British scientist who first proposed the Gaia theory, is another prominent environmental thinker who has prescribed a bleak future for the human species if it continues to grow without restriction. He now advises people to “enjoy it while you can” because the outlook for future generations is, he believes, so stark.

“We do keep expecting a crash, as Malthus said, but then technology steps in, or something else, and alters the whole game,” he says. “But it has its limit: it doesn’t go to infinity. I expect we’ll muddle through for the next 50 years, but sooner or later it will catch up with us.”

Lovelock believes nations such as the United Kingdom now resemble a lifeboat: “In the UK, our population is growing slightly. It’s containable. We do grow quite a bit of our food, so we should be OK, provided our climate doesn’t change drastically. We could drop our calorie intake without noticing it in health terms. In fact, we’d improve our health like we did in the second world war.

“But I think we should call a halt to all immigration, or encourage people to go abroad. The average American has about 10 times as much land as we do. We’re one of the most densely populated places in the world. In some respects, England is one large city. If you want to keep stuffing people in, you’ll have to pay the price. I see us as a lifeboat with the person in charge saying: ‘We can’t take any more, or else we’ll all sink.’ America, meanwhile, could handle lots more immigration. Not politically, perhaps, but in terms of shared resources and land.”

NEXT: Optimism in Istanbul


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