More babies for the economy, or fewer for the environment?
The bad news: the current size of the world population at over 7.5 billion combined with the growth rate of 1.16 is fundamentally unsustainable – the majority of studies that estimate the carrying capacity of the Earth place it at or below 8 million people. The good news: the growth rate has seen a consistent decline in the past few decades; many scientists even believe that the world population will reach its peak sometime in the next 100 years, then start declining.
Some other news: the world population is also ageing as fertility rates decline and life expectancy grows. According to UN figures, the ‘over 60’ demographic group is growing faster than any other, at a rate of almost 3 percent. This change is worrying for many policy-makers, as with proportionately larger elderly populations the productivity of societies will generally decrease while the need for public services grows.
So, where does this concern over ageing populations and a demographic crisis fit within the overall goal of limiting the growth of the world population in the name of the looming overpopulation crisis?
For now, this pair of population developments have spurred varied responses.
Some experts advise people to celebrate falling fertility rates as a sign of better times to come for the planet, and as a reflection of improved reproductive rights. As automation will take over many tasks in the near future, a highly educated workforce is much more important than the size of the workforce. A recent article published in the Environmental Research Letters even recommended “having one fewer child” as the most effective individual action to limiting a person’s carbon footprint. This sentiment has also taken form in the antinatalist movement that advocates a voluntary reduction of the human population, based on the philosophy that it is cruel to bring more people, who are bound to both cause and experience ecological suffering, into the world. Others are discouraged from having children merely due to concerns over the future of those children. In February, the US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recognized this on her social media: “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK to still have children?”
On the other hand, some are much more concerned about ageing populations and reacting in the complete opposite way. Nationalist politicians, reluctant to take in immigrants, are offering families and especially women incentives to have more children. In Hungary, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has promised that women who have four or more children will never pay income tax again. In Italy, the government has promised land to families that have a third child between 2019-2021. Advocating for a growth in fertility rates isn’t exclusive to nationalist governments though: a few years ago, the then-Prime Minister of Portugal called on the European Commission to make fertility concern an EU-wide priority and Denmark drew international attention for a provocative advertisement campaign encouraging young people to “do it for Denmark.”
So, what should we do when two different kinds of population crises knock at the door? Is a conscious and voluntary reduction in the global population size the solution to prevent future suffering, or will it be too burdening on our economies and lead to a lower level of overall wellbeing?
And would it even be effective? Globally, most of the population growth is stemming from the less developed countries of the world, whereas pollution and consumption per capita is highest in the more developed countries. In other words, an American is responsible for 40 times the emissions of a Bangladeshi. Is it more important to deal with overconsumption?
As of now, none of this is clear, but what should be obvious is that there is a dire need to discuss these two potential population crises together and not separately. Too often it is the case that all sides of the argument fail to do more than preach to the choir, therefore not reaching an audience wide enough for a real evaluation of the most sustainable future path, in both the economic and environmental dimensions of the word. Before any real progress can be made in addressing the population challenges of today, both sides of the argument need to recognise that a holistic approach is critical, starting with the realisation that these issues are truly the two ends of the same, not very long, stick.
- Data from the World Bank: Population Growth (annual %). Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/sp.pop.grow?end=2017&start=1960
- UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service (2012). One Planet, How Many People? A Review of Earth’s Carrying Capacity. Available at: https://na.unep.net/geas/archive/pdfs/geas_jun_12_carrying_capacity.pdf
- Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson (2019). What goes up: are predictions of a population crisis wrong? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/27/what-goes-up-population-crisis-wrong-fertility-rates-decline
- UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Available at: https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2017_KeyFindings.pdf
- World Bank (2016). How Does an Ageing Population Affect a Country? http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2016/09/05/uruguay-como-afecta-pais-envejecimiento-poblacion
- Nicola Davis (2018). Falling total fertility rate should be welcomed, population expert says, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/26/falling-total-fertility-rate-should-be-welcomed-population-expert-says
- Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas (2017). The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, Environmental Research Letters. Available at: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541
- Amy Fleming (2018). Would you give up having children to save the planet? Meet the couples who have, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/20/give-up-having-children-couples-save-planet-climate-crisis
- Matthew Taylor (2019). Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez right to ask if the climate means we should have fewer children? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/shortcuts/2019/feb/27/is-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-right-to-ask-if-the-climate-means-we-should-have-fewer-children
- Shaun Walker (2019). Viktor Orbán: no tax for Hungarian women with four or more children, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/10/viktor-orban-no-tax-for-hungarian-women-with-four-or-more-children
- Andrea Vogt (2018). Italy’s populist government plans to reward fertile families with state land in bid to boost birth rate, The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/10/31/italys-populist-government-plans-reward-fertile-families-state/
- Peter Wise (2015). Portugal faces ‘perfect demographic storm’, Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/657b9066-2df5-11e5-91ac-a5e17d9b4cff
- Terrence McCoy (2014). ‘Do it for Denmark!’ campaign wants Danes to have more sex. A lot more sex, The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/03/27/do-it-for-denmark-campaign-wants-danes-to-have-more-sex-a-lot-more-sex/?utm_term=.6cc6b34f438a
- Damian Carrington (2017). Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/12/want-to-fight-climate-change-have-fewer-children