Friday, June 14, 2013

A world of 11 billion?

For years I have been telling students that the world population is going to peak at 10 billion around 2050. Last year, following revised estimates from the UN Population Division, I qualified this by saying that global population might not even reach 10 billion. Turns out I was wrong! The latest estimates of the UN Population Division were released yesterday, including a great interactive tool. The 'median variant' estimate of world population in 2100 is now 10,853,849. In other words, I am going to have to start telling my students that the world population is going to peak at 11 billion. I can't pretend to understand the demographics behind this new estimate, but it will no doubt play into the hands of the doom-mongers who argue that the planet cannot support this population. In the United Kingdom, a one-man lecture/play recently ran at the Royal Court, a haven of experimental theatre, in which Stephen Emmott used statistics to argue that the world faces an "unprecedented planetary emergency". International development institutions feed into this narrative, arguing that world food production must increase by 100 per cent if we are going to feed the world in 2050, and that this means the further globalization of industrial agriculture. In Canada, the best-known neo-Malthusian is, without doubt, Thomas Homer-Dixon, who also argues that current population growth threatens to destroy the ecosystem, pollute the atmosphere, and change the climate.

So, now that my number is wrong, am I worried? The answer is yes, but not for the reasons that you might think. Let's start with the accuracy of the figures, given this recent revision. If the UN Population Division says that the population will peak at 11 billion, I believe them -- although it might be fewer. Why? Statistical demography is one of the most reliable quantitative tools in the social sciences. As Hans Rosling tweeted yesterday, in 1958 the Population Division estimated that by the year 2000 the global population would be 6.3 billion. In fact, the actual population was 6.12 billion. So, 42 years before the fact, the Population Division made an estimate that was only 3 per cent wrong. That's pretty impressive.

Next, what is most dramatic about global population growth today is the speed with which it is slowing down. To be precise: population is increasing, but the rate of growth of the rate of growth of the population is decreasing. In 1971 the global population rose by 2.1 per cent, the fastest single year in human history. However, 1971 was what one could call an 'inflection point': a 120 year population boom that started in 1850 came to an end, driven by the global expansion of capitalism and the need to create markets. The recurring crises of global capitalism that have been witnessed since the early 1970s have been mirrored in population, in that from 1971 on the rate of growth of global population has slowly come down. This morning I did a chart from the Population Division's estimates to demonstrate the decline, which I will use in IDST 1000Y next year:
As the chart shows, the slope of the curve is getting shallower and shallower -- this is the result of the decline in the rate of population growth. This reflects unambiguous good news: better health and fewer deaths have reduced the need to have more children. As Danny Dorling convincingly argues, we don't know for a fact why the rate of growth of population started to slow after 1971, but I would hypothesize that the dramatic expansion in reproductive health services around the world in the 1960s, which was driven by feminism and the women's movement, was a critical factor. Indeed, Hans Rosling tweeted yesterday a fact that has been remarkably overlooked in the world media today: that we have reached the point of the 'peak child'. What is the peak child? The world's population of children is currently estimated to be 1.9 billion. In around 15 years it will flatten out at 2 billion. Then it will start to decline, so that by 2100 there will be 1.9 billion children in the world. In other words, at the end of this century there will be no more children alive than are alive today. 

This reflects one of my three principal concerns about the growth in global population: that as the global population ages the need to provide for people living a longer life will be borne by the decreasing share of working-age people in the world. In other words, a critical demographic issue will not be the number of people but rather increasing numbers of non-working citizens having to be supported by decreasing numbers of working citizens. Japan has gone through this process for 2 decades, and for 2 decades has been mired in economic stagnation. Using the interactive tools of the Population Division it is possible to estimate when the planet's population will start to decline. However, even as populations decline there will be major changes in the structure of the planet's population. We have already passed the period in which the urban population has grown bigger than the rural population. We are indeed fortunate that we already produce enough food for 10 billion, and can feed a world of 11 billion agroecologically. However, a second change is of concern to me: and that is the shift in the structure of the planet's population towards Africa, the poorest continent. In 2030 Nigeria's population will exceed that of the United States, making it the third largest population in the world. The only continent where populations will continue to grow is Africa. In an era of more people not working, and fewer people working, Africa must become a critical source of workers for the global economy. My worry, then, is that politicians will continue to fail Africa, in terms of the education and healthcare needed for the sustainable human development upon which we will all rely. This highlights my third concern. Global inequalities must be addressed if Africa is to have the sustainable human development that allows it to reap its 'demographic dividend' of having the highest proportion of the world's population that is of working age. There are a billion people today who simply consume too much. I am one of them, as most likely are the readers of this weblog. We must consume less, and in so doing individually and collectively address the global inequalities that currently limit the capabilities of generations to come and which, if not addressed, have the potential to make a world of 11 billion even more unjust that the world today.

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