Mark Car­war­dine

The con­ser­va­tion­ist dis­cusses pop­u­la­tion fore­casts and in­vites your thoughts on the sub­ject.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The con­ser­va­tion­ist dis­cusses hu­man pop­u­la­tion growth

S The planet is buck­ling un­der the pres­sure. There has T to be a limit.

How many more peo­ple can we squeeze onto our frag­ile planet? Surely, the Earth must be full? Pre­tend­ing that hu­man num­bers can grow for­ever, with no ill-ef­fects, is at best naïve and at worst ut­terly ir­re­spon­si­ble.

Bio­di­ver­sity loss, cli­mate change, pol­lu­tion, de­for­esta­tion, water and food short­ages – these are all ex­ac­er­bated by our huge and ev­er­in­creas­ing num­bers. Yet gov­ern­ments – and most en­vi­ron­men­tal groups – choose to side­step this mam­moth­sized ele­phant in the room.

The hu­man pop­u­la­tion was just 2.6 bil­lion in 1950. But it has tre­bled to a stag­ger­ing 7.7 bil­lion today and with­out rad­i­cal ac­tion, ac­cord­ing to the UN, will reach 9.7 bil­lion by 2050 and 11.2 bil­lion by the end of the cen­tury. Where will so many peo­ple live? How will we feed them?

It wouldn’t be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that, un­less we dif­fuse this ‘pop­u­la­tion bomb’, by the end of the cen­tury we will need sev­eral Earths to sur­vive. But we can’t have sev­eral Earths, and so we will face a fu­ture of in­creas­ing poverty, food short­ages, con­flict and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

Ad­mit­tedly, not ev­ery­one agrees with the UN’s pre­dic­tions. It’s not a pre­cise science, af­ter all. But even the doubters cal­cu­late that the hu­man pop­u­la­tion will grow to 8 or 9 bil­lion some­time be­tween 2040 and 2060 (and then, they say, it will be­gin to de­cline).

In a way, it’s all just se­man­tics. There is no deny­ing that the planet is al­ready buck­ling un­der the pres­sure of 7.7 bil­lion peo­ple. And, ul­ti­mately, there has to be a limit.

The good news is that the hu­man pop­u­la­tions of about two dozen coun­tries, from Poland and Italy to Cuba and Ja­pan, are now de­creas­ing. Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion de­clined by more than 430,000 in 2018 alone. (In­ci­den­tally, the UK pop­u­la­tion would also be de­clin­ing – our fer­til­ity rate was 1.7 chil­dren per woman in 2018 – if it weren’t for in­ter­na­tional im­mi­gra­tion.)

But that’s not true of most coun­tries. The cra­dle of over­pop­u­la­tion is in Africa, which is where more than half of global pop­u­la­tion growth is ex­pected to oc­cur: from 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple across the con­ti­nent in 2020 to 4.3 bil­lion in 2100.

The so­lu­tion isn’t rocket science. There are two driv­ers of pop­u­la­tion growth: birth rates and longevity. We can’t help that we are liv­ing longer (we all aim to grow old, af­ter all) but we can re­duce birth rates. That’s not to say than any­one should be de­nied the right to have as many chil­dren as they like. But it’s a fact that wher­ever women are em­pow­ered and lit­er­ated, have help with fam­ily plan­ning and have ac­cess to med­i­cal care, they gen­er­ally choose to have fewer chil­dren. And the birth rate falls.

So why the stony si­lence? Why such a fail­ure of lead­er­ship from gov­ern­ments and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups? I think it’s for two rea­sons. First, calls for pop­u­la­tion con­trol are of­ten deemed racist: rel­a­tively rich peo­ple in the de­vel­oped world blam­ing poor peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world.

Sec­ond, it is of­ten deemed hyp­o­crit­i­cal. The prob­lem is as much about con­sumerism as it is about pop­u­la­tion growth: we western­ers are con­sum­ing more and more, so it ap­pears as if we are blam­ing the poor for the ex­cesses of the rich. Most pop­u­la­tion growth is, in­deed, tak­ing place among those who con­sume al­most noth­ing (although that is chang­ing as many of the world’s de­vel­op­ing coun­tries im­prove the liv­ing stan­dards of their cit­i­zens). But the un­com­fort­able truth is that we all need to con­sume much less.

Whatever the com­pli­ca­tions, we ur­gently need a UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Pop­u­la­tion, just as we have for cli­mate change. As David At­ten­bor­ough told Ra­dio Times in 2013: “Ei­ther we limit our pop­u­la­tion growth or the nat­u­ral world will do it for us”.

MARK CAR­WAR­DINE is a frus­trated and frank con­ser­va­tion­ist.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? If you want to sup­port Mark in his views or shoot him down in flames, email wildlifele­t­[email protected]­me­di­

Nairobi Na­tional Park is lo­cated about 7km from the cen­tre of Kenya’s cap­i­tal city.

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