What is the population problem?

Just before I went off on my long summer break (very nice thank you), I did a podcast on the Guardian website about population.  It’s well worth listening to – there’s more than just me on there,  including some clips from a family in Uganda which set out very clearly the pros and cons of having lots of children from the individuals’ point of view. But these were my main points for the discussion:

  • Even if you do think that population growth is a problem (which I don’t necessarily), then it’s one that is quietly solving itself.  In 1960 the average woman had about 5 children, while in 2005 she had less than 3 (data from UN).  Nearly half the world’s population now live in countries where the population is steady.   
  • There’s absolutely no evidence that future population growth will be a problem for humanity as a whole.  Of course collecting evidence about things that haven’t happened yet is problematic. to say the least.  But, unusually, history is on the side of the optimists here.  People have been regularly predicting doom and gloom from population growth since Thomas Malthus first wrote about it in 1798.  They have all been proved conclusively wrong.  People today are healthier, happier and longer lived than Malthus could possibly have imagined.  There is no reason to think that today’s doom-mongers on population will fare any better. 
  • Climate change is not a population problem.  It’s a consumption problem.  People in rich countries, where population is static or falling, consume many hundreds of times more carbon than people in the poor countries where population is still rising.  Let’s start with the problem we have now – consumption in rich countries – rather than worrying about some hypothetical future when everyone in Mali has a washing machine and two cars.  I can’t wait for that day.  But I am also sure by then that the technological landscape will look quite different (driven partly by changing market incentives resulting from high oil prices).  Really, if you’re worried about climate change there’s quite enough real problems to tackle now rather than agonising about hypotheticals long into the future. 
  • Population growth doesn’t cause famines.  Lack of food is a political problem – it’s not too many people in Somalia that’s causing the famine, it’s apalling government, violence and corruption.  In fact, globally per capita food production has been rising steadily since the 1960s, and in Africa since the 1980s (according to the FAO’s data). It’s true that sometimes individual regions become unable to support their populations – because of drought or even, sometimes, local population pressures.  But then people up sticks and move, as they have always done through many centuries.  Global population policies really aren’t the point here.
  • Population growth doesn’t cause poverty.  All the talk about rapid population growth in poor countries might make you think that they are more populated than rich countries. In fact, most poorer countries have much lower population densities than rich ones (World Bank data), even if their population might be growing more rapidly.  And it’s when people move to cities, to areas of high population density, that development really takes off.  Changing demographics do affect development – but not necessarily negatively.  In some countries falling fertility rates are potentially allowing for a boost in growth as there’s a large number of young adults without too many dependent children to care for, while in others falling population is a problem, leaving large numbers of old people with too few younger relatives to care for them.  It all depends.

This debate makes me pretty angry.  Arguments that go on and on in the complete absence of any evidence or data have that effect.  And sometimes there’s a nasty tinge of blaming people for their own poverty.  But – there is a huge problem with population growth, and that’s if it’s not wanted by the people who are actually having the children.  Population is a women’s rights issue.  If women don’t have access to contraception and abortion to control their fertility then individual lives can be limited and blighted by unwanted and dangerous pregancies and by the financial and practical difficulties of caring for a big family. So there are some very good reasons to worry about population, and to scale up aid for family planning – but, really, a coming population apocalypse is not one of them.