Crowded Out

Dec 02, 2011

By Hania Zlotnik, Chandran Nair and Fred Pearce for the IHT Magazine.


In 1900 the world population was 1.6 billion. In October, it reached 7 billion, and a recent U.N. report projects that it will reach 9.3 billion by the middle of the century, and over 10 billion by the century’s end. There’s a lot of debate on how many is too many, but it’s hard to deny that most of the great challenges we and our planet face — global warming, biodiversity, energy, food and water supplies, migration, development, war, peace — all stem, to some degree, from the enormous growth in population over the past century.

Serge Schmemann, the editor of this magazine, asked three people who have thought and written extensively on this issue to join him in this conversation. Hania Zlotnik, a citizen of Mexico, is the director of the Population Division at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations. Chandran Nair is the founder of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, an independent, for-profit think tank based in Hong Kong, and the author of Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet. Fred Pearce is a British science writer and the author of Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash.

SERGE SCHMEMANN: Hania, as someone who spends all her time studying population figures, how much do we really know? How much can we really say about what the world may be like in 2100? How fearful should we be?

HANIA ZLOTNIK: We certainly are not very certain about what will happen in 2100. The reason we do projections to the end of the century is that researchers who study the possible impact of population growth on other issues use scenarios and simulations that require inputs through 2100, and because we want to alert the scientific and political communities that in order to have the size of the population remain within reasonable ranges, there is still much to be done.

Today, there is still a fair chance that the population in 2100 might be even higher than the 10 billion projected in the medium variant of the U.N. projections. The U.N. projections are based on a key assumption: that fertility would decline in most regions of the world. In the 1970s, we predicted that fertility would decline earlier and significantly in Asia and in Latin America, but that it would decline later in Africa. Those predictions have generally come to pass. The question we have now is whether Africa will soon experience the fairly rapid decline in fertility that the other regions have experienced. If it does not, future population increases may end up being higher than in the projections you cited.

SCHMEMANN: Chandran, in your articles and in your book, you say that by 2050, Asia will have 60 percent of the global population, while the West will be less than 10 percent. But you seem to see this largely as an economic question: Can or should Asians aspire to consume like Americans? You answer with a resounding no. Yet everywhere you look across Asia it seems that Asians do aspire to consume like Americans, and that nobody is telling them they shouldn’t. Is it realistic to think that you can change people’s behavior, through strong government or whatever other means you propose?

CHANDRAN NAIR: The population is going to reach 9 or 10 billion by 2050 despite all the best efforts in the world. And we hear people say there won’t be enough to go around. No, there will not be enough to go around — if Asia continues to embrace the current consumption-driven economic model. It is a model that needs to make three major adjustments: One, it must accept limits to growth due to resource constraints; two, resources need to be priced to reflect their true cost; and three, the economy needs to be subservient to maintaining the vitality of the resource base, and not the other way around, as it is now.

Five billion Asians consuming like Americans is not only a very bad idea, it would be catastrophic. If China, India and other developing countries achieve American levels of car ownership, there could be three billion cars in the world — four times the current total! — within four decades. What do we do about this? We will need Draconian rules to restrict certain types of consumption. This narrative is not accepted in the West, because it requires major political intervention, which flies in the face of mainstream Western liberal capitalism and democratic systems.

I am trying to mainstream an idea that has been taboo, that in this part of the world, which will have 60 percent of the world’s population, we will have to reject Western consumption-led economic models. Is it possible? It is the only way forward given where we are.

SCHMEMANN: Fred, you appear to go even further in rejecting the common thinking about population growth. You have said it’s a myth that this growth is a driving force behind wrecking the planet. Is there nothing to worry about here except for Western overconsumption and hypocrisy? At seven billion, are we not already in a danger zone?

FRED PEARCE: We are in a danger zone, given our consumption patterns, and the way that we produce what we consume. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when Paul Ehrlich wrote his celebrated book, The Population Bomb , we could reasonably say that increases in human numbers were very directly driving most of the environmental threats to the planet. It’s not really true now, and we can see a peak in population as a prospect — not a certainty, but a realistic prospect — within a few decades, given the very fast falls in fertility rates that we have seen around the world.

Yet our discussion of population really hasn’t changed. We talk often in apocalyptic terms about population growth, how anything that we do about environmental issues is doomed by population growth. In reality, in the last 40 or 50 years, fertility rates around the world have halved. The average fertility rate is 2.5 children per woman, which is getting very close to replacement level, which, as a global average, is about 2.3.

We have halved the fertility rate in not much more than a generation. That is an extraordinary achievement, and fertility rates keep on coming down. In much of Asia they’re now well below replacement levels. If Africa — which has much higher levels now — follows in that path, we can look forward to population peaking at about nine billion. But ultimately we really don’t know.

Ehrlich concluded back in the ’60s that billions of people would die in famines by the 1980s. Well, that didn’t happen, and the reason it didn’t is because we did double food production. So we can survive massive demographic change.

If we can now see peak population coming, I think we have a reasonable chance of being able to think our way through the really big environmental and resource problems that we face.

I think we are defusing the population bomb, but we haven’t really begun to defuse the consumption bomb, and it is that which ultimately threatens us.

NAIR: I’m often asked, how are you going to tell Asian people to restrain their consumption? Well, there is a very important imperative for Asian governments to do this very quickly. If they don’t, we’ll get much wider gaps between the wealthy and the have-nots, and then major social disruptions, because the have-nots will be the vast majority as the resource base is stripped.

ZLOTNIK: I agree that today’s main problems have to do with how we are producing and how we are consuming, because as both of these gentlemen have argued, the population “problem” is already more than half-solved.

But it is not fully solved. We thought 20 years ago that countries in Africa, and also several countries in Asia and a few in Latin America — countries that still have high fertility — were going to see their fertility rates fall as rapidly as they had fallen in other countries. But the decline they have experienced so far is slower than had been expected.

More than that, we are hearing more often from the governments of high-fertility countries, especially those in Africa, that their countries need a larger population to have the market size needed to spur development. In these countries there is still little recognition that higher population growth is associated with lower per capita incomes and that markets can also grow by increasing incomes and standards of living, a task that is easier when the speed of population growth declines.

True, one cannot be as alarmist as Paul Ehrlich was in the 1960s when he talked about the “population bomb.” Nevertheless, we must recognize that the increase in the world population has been very marked.

It has almost tripled since 1950. And because considerable uncertainty surrounds future fertility levels, the continued rapid growth of the population is not yet totally outside the realm of possibility.

SCHMEMANN: The fact that you focus on Africa, that Africa is identified as the region with the unresolved problems, does this not feed the impression in the developing world that any discussion of overpopulation is unfair and even racist? Or if the discussion is about consumption, why should Asians, or Africans, or Latin Americans, reduce their longings if the developed West does no such thing?

ZLOTNIK: It is not only the “West” preaching about numbers of people. A crucial argument for reducing population growth is that fertility decline has major advantages for women and children. It is better for women to have fewer pregnancies, because their risks of dying or suffering serious side effects from pregnancy are lowered. It is also good for women and their children to increase the intervals between pregnancies. There is strong evidence that when children are born very close together, their risks of dying are higher. When people have fewer children, they can invest more on each child.

Let me note that I do not consider myself “Western.” I am from a developing country, Mexico, and I do not see the United Nations as a part of “the West.” Our task at the U.N. is to provide governments with unbiased and objective information to guide their policies. Furthermore, the West has not maintained a consistent position with respect to population. For instance, the United States under some administrations has reduced multilateral support for family planning and has favored abstinence over modern methods of contraception in countries receiving its assistance.

NAIR: I think we need to move beyond the politically correct debates which suggest that because some Western aid agencies are telling Africans about the need for population control it must be racist. That’s all 20th-century post-colonial posturing and not very constructive. I don’t think anyone in Asia thinks that if there’s a discussion in, say, India about reducing family sizes, that someone’s going to accuse you of being racist.

I want to come back to one point you made about the West reducing its consumption. I believe the West cannot reduce its level of consumption because its political systems are weak, and because the Western experience of the last century has been one of entitlement. I hope the West can, but the rest of the world should not hold their breath. Therein lies the dilemma. Can Western democratic systems shape the tough policy decisions for the long-term? I don’t think they can.

In this part of the world, in Asia, governments need to reject the notion promoted by Western capitalism that we can aspire to have everything, because the majority is disenfranchised and this is simply not possible. It is not about the right to a car but about the basic right to live, and governments in this part of the world should make those forms of consumption a priority — safe and secure food, water and sanitation, housing, public health, education — which the majority don’t have access to.

SCHMEMANN: Fred, what is the role of the West? Are we locked into a system of consumption? Are we in any position to teach anybody?

PEARCE: Part of the problem in this debate is that the West seems unprepared to accept that its consumption patterns are the big problem. It is still rather too inclined to point the finger at Africans or the Middle East, when the problem is much closer to home. That is a problem Westerners — and I speak very much as a Westerner here — have to get to grips with.

It is quite true that in parts of Africa, particularly rural Africa, family sizes are still quite high. People are still having five or six children; they do that because if you’re on an African peasant farm, children are extremely useful from a very early age. They provide a sort of pension plan for the old as well.

But look at what happens when people move into cities. We often think of megacities as symbols of the world’s overpopulation, but actually urbanization is part of the solution to the problem, because as soon as people move into cities, children cease being an economic asset. They become an economic liability — or, at any rate, a problem. They have to get educated, which can be expensive, before they can get paid employment.

I think as Africa urbanizes, fertility rates will start to fall. So I’m perhaps more hopeful than Hania about how Africa’s going to play out. Economies in Africa have started to grow quite fast — some of them, at any rate. Urbanization is certainly happening quite fast. That creates its own problems, but it does mean that fertility rates are going to start coming down in Africa quite fast in the next one or two decades.

SCHMEMANN: When I read about global population, I get the sense that there is plenty of good analysis; we understand the problems. We even know solutions. At the same time, as with climate change, very little actually gets done.

Maybe the much maligned Malthus was right, that there’s a self-leveling process at work – if you get too many people, they will starve. In Africa, at this stage, people need more children, and they will have more children. When they move to cities, they will have fewer children. This is not a process that can be managed or regulated. You can add a dollop of education. You can provide advice on contraception, unless the Americans block you, but ultimately the whole process is self-controlled, there is really little you can do from the outside. Is that so?

NAIR: I refuse to accept that we can’t do anything about population. We should be doing all we can and much is being done. But despite our best efforts, the numbers are still going to peak at 9 to 10 billion, maybe even more. We need to be building institutions around what the 21st century will look like given resource constraints. That is where we are failing and I do not think any human rights are being contravened if car ownership for example is restricted to enable energy and other resources to be used to meet basic needs.

ZLOTNIK: Chandran is arguing that it’s important to change institutions to get more equity. I think the first line of attack is to start thinking about food production, which is the basis for life. At this moment there’s a lot of food produced that is not necessarily used for feeding people. One of the most immediate actions a government could take is to better distribute available food.

One problem we face, for exam-ple, is that the wealthier people become, the more they can afford to eat meat. But growing livestock for meat is not the most efficient or equitable — or necessarily healthy — use of grain or other agricultural resources. We need to start thinking in terms of what has to change in order for people to increase their well-being, to consume what they ought to consume and not overconsume, and to get a more equitable distribution of available food.

This is one of the most immediate interventions a government can make for a better future.

PEARCE: I agree very much. In simple terms, we already produce enough food in the world today to feed 10 billion people — the population we might expect by the end of the century. The problem is that almost half of the grain that we produce is not fed to people.

It either goes to livestock — which is a very inefficient way of feeding people — or to produce biofuels. We also waste a huge amount of food. And we also use quite a lot of our agricultural land for growing non-food crops, such as cotton, rubber and various other things.

So, in some senses, feeding 10 billion people on the planet to a reasonable level of nutrition is not too hard. We’re producing enough food already, but we have problems about wastage of food, throwing food away uneaten from the table, or wastage in warehouses in parts of the world where it simply rots before it gets anywhere near market. Rather than railing against countries that are still increasing their population, it seems to me that the best way forward is to take some real practical steps to make better uses of the resources we have.

SCHMEMANN: I’d like to delve deeper into the notion that governments should take strong action, in Asia or elsewhere. When China had an all-powerful government, they launched a campaign, the one-child campaign, which everyone now seems to think was a human rights disaster. Or we read that in India, and elsewhere as well, modern technology has led to the widespread killing of female fetuses.

PEARCE: Yes, there are issues here. Actually, in its own terms — not in human rights terms — the Chinese one-child policy was more successful than even the Chinese government claims. All the evidence from the census is that fertility rates in China really are down now to about 1.2, 1.3 — almost at the intended level. It’s almost been too successful, because China’s population is going to peak very soon, and it’s aging very fast, and aging is going to be a major problem in coming decades.

As for sex-selective abortions, that is a major problem in China and in India, and in some other parts of Asia as well, though not necessarily tied to state restrictions on family sizes. The average woman in India now has about 2.8 children; that’s half what her mother had 30 years ago, and the figures are still coming down. However, my understanding is that in much of Asia there’s still a very strong desire to make sure you have a son. And if you haven’t already got a son, there’s a very strong temptation — in the middle classes, in fact, which can access private ultrasound services — to go for sex-selective abortions.

But it won’t necessarily carry on. South Korea is an interesting example where this was a major issue 20 or 30 years ago, but with cultural changes the pressure to have a son seems to be disappearing, so that sex-selective abortion is much diminished as an issue. I would agree with you that it’s an unanticipated, if you like, consequence of declining family sizes, but one can hope that it’s a transitory phase.

NAIR: We can argue whether China was successful or not at controlling its population and the consequences, but it is the only country that has tried it. No other country can. Governments do not directly need to intervene in the size of families, but they should intervene in what people can and can’t consume, and particularly in urban areas, starting with things like car ownership, energy usage and food wastage. The Chinese government has already started intervening with car ownership in Beijing.

SCHMEMANN: Fred said that China is also a potential example of a population that declines too precipitously. Can this also be a danger elsewhere?

PEARCE: Yes, we’re starting to think about those issues in Europe now. The dependency ratios are changing quite fast — in Italy most notably, but elsewhere too. Some people believe that aging will very soon shut off the economic revolution in China simply because as its population ages, the dynamism of a predominately young, adult population will diminish.

In all the tiger economies in Asia, from Japan and Korea through Taiwan, Thailand, and now China, and perhaps India in future, the big economic surges have happened when they’ve had a very large proportion of their population as young adults, combined with a very small proportion of old people, and very small numbers of very young people. So you can expect that as societies age, they will lose that economic dynamism.

When I give talks, I often end on a slide which just says “older, wiser, greener.” This is my three-word summary of where, in an optimistic frame of mind, I think we might end up in the 21st century. If we can use the wisdom of older people in order to also become greener, then we have some hope of solving some of these problems.

SCHMEMANN: Well, I’m a third of the way there. I just have to work on the “wiser” and “greener” parts. Hania, do you think there is a risk that the population might plunge too precipitously?

ZLOTNIK: I don’t see that risk as too likely at this moment, although there is a projection variant (the low variant) that yields a 2100 population similar in size to that at the beginning of this century. The problem is that if a population maintains low fertility for a long time, the exponential decline of the population eventually accelerates.

A large component of current population growth is the result of population momentum — that is, it stems from the fact that there are a relatively large numbers of parents or potential parents. In order to put the brakes on the momentum, it’s necessary for fertility to drop below replacement level everywhere, and, as Fred is saying, the decline of fertility to below-replacement level in developing countries has been and must continue to be faster than it was in the developed world.

These trends imply that the population in the developing world is going to age a lot faster than the population of the developed world did and, consequently, developing countries will have to adjust to an older population over a shorter period. Developed countries had around 130 years, with a baby boom in the middle of the period, to adapt to an older population. Developing countries will have to adapt during half that time.

NAIR: The next 30 years are critical, and this is why this issue of consumption and the growing global sense of entitlement and privilege needs to be addressed very decisively and critically by the governments here. Billions in Asia cannot aspire to all have more, because we don’t have the time for it to correct itself. It comes back to how we plan to live in a constrained resource base, and that will require very strong state institutions starting to dictate — I use that word very deliberately — how we create a new society around protecting these resources by curbing excessive consumption.

PEARCE: In my optimistic frame of mind, I do think that, as we age as a society, we may become less consumerist, less concerned with economic growth, more concerned about well-being and happiness and living environmentally sustainable lives. I think the end of population growth will give us the chance to solve the environmental problems, solve the resource problems, without the constant fear that anything we do will be overwhelmed by population growth. We have the chance to think, “Look, these things are in our own hands.” With good governance, of the kind that Chandran is talking about very persuasively, we can get it right, even now.

ZLOTNIK: I agree. The chance of achieving a stable population is much better today than it was 50 years ago. Populations have grown enormously and yet the world has not collapsed, although, as Chandran says, we haven’t paid for everything that we have used. The payment will have to be made by future generations and it is important that the changes in population growth achieved so far continue in the same direction so that young people today and in the future have more degrees of freedom in tackling the problems that they will face.

SCHMEMANN: I thank you all.

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