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.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who is working within the corporate food regime?

Over the last few months I have heard several people that I respect -- both activists and academics -- claim that the sum total of employment in the food system, as an aggregated sector of economic activity, is very significant. Of course, this employment is not in farming -- the capital intensity of industrial agriculture under the corporate food regime in countries such as Canada means that the employment linkages from farming are low. Thus, in 2006, of an employed labour force of almost 17 million in Canada, only 2.2 per cent were directly working in agriculture. Rather, work in the corporate food regime is primarily in service-sector jobs: restaurants, bars and caterers; corner stores and supermarkets; and wholesale food trade. This has a very interesting implication for those that are involved in the food movement: we will never know with any deal of accuracy how many people are employed in jobs related to the plethora of activities that are part and parcel of the corporate food regime. This is because the common categories used to assign individuals to labour market activities in both industrial and occupational censuses in the developed capitalist countries do not have the level of detail needed to construct such information.

For example, if Statistics Canada wanted to construct an aggregate measure of all those employed or having an occupation in Canada's food system, it is obvious that someone who has the occupation of 'chef' (occupational category G411 in Canada's 2006 census) would be assigned as working within the food system. However, someone working in the Human Resources department at Monsanto (occupational category B021 in Canada's 2006 census) works in human resources, and not the food system, according to Statistics Canada, and at the level of aggregation used by Statistics Canada could not be separated from someone working in the Human Resources department of a financial institution. The same would apply in other developed capitalist countries. Similarly, employment in specialty food stores (industrial category 4452 in Canada's 2006 census) could be captured as work within the food system, but someone who is employed within a university (industrial category 6113 in Canada's 2006 census) and teaches food studies could not be separated from someone teaching astrophysics and thus could not be counted as working in the food system.

This is not simply an arcane matter of definition. For local, regional, national and international food movements to unite, it is important that the food system be seen as a livelihood issue, rather than simply an issue for 'consumers' or 'producers'. In order to be seen as a livelihood issue, it would certainly be helpful to know how many people's livelihoods depended upon the food system. Citizens and farmers are connected because both need to be able to construct viable (and meaningful) livelihoods in order to take part in the food system -- and yet the food movement will not be in a position to conclusively demonstrate the extent to which livelihoods in global, national and local economies depend upon the food system.

What can be said, however, is that the extremely ambiguous statistics that we do have substantiate the proposition that the food system is a significant source of livelihoods. For example, aggregating industrial classifications in the 2006 Canadian census that can be directly linked to the food system demonstrates that 13.8 per cent of all Canadians were employed in a food system-related activity. It can also be unambiguously stated that this is a dramatic understatement of the actual numbers of those whose livelihoods depend upon the food system in Canada: it does not include educators, researchers, government civil servants, financiers or hauliers, among others, who might be employed in a food system-related activity. It is also significant that many of those that can be counted as working within the food system are not unionized, while many of those that cannot be counted but are in fact working within the food system are unionized. The implication is very clear: as a livelihood issue, the character of the corporate food regime must become a central concern for the labour movement.

Blog Archive