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Opinion on Overpopulation: Not so Fast, Fred

3p Contributor | Wednesday July 28th, 2010 | 4 Comments

By Robert Walker

When it comes to rapid population growth, Fred Pearce (who recently authored a guest post on 3p called “Overpopulation is the Wrong Focus“) wants to declare victory in the worst way. And he does. He does it by ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

He says, for example, “that the population bomb that I remembering being scared by forty years ago as a school kid is being defused fast.” Not so fast, Fred. World population is still on track to add more than two billion people by mid-century. The U.S. Census Bureau projected last month that world population will increase from 6.8 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050, and that assumes that fertility rates will continue to fall.

Undaunted by those numbers, he says that the “world’s population will probably be shrinking within a generation.” But according to the demographers at the U.S. Census Bureau, world population by 2050 will still be growing by over 40 million people a year.

As further evidence that the challenges posed by population growth have evaporated Pearce cites the successes that Bangladesh and India have had in reducing fertility rates. But, oddly enough, leaders in those countries are not declaring victory.

Citing concerns about poverty and the environment, Bangladesh’s President Zillur Rahman earlier this month proposed an expansion of family planning services and said the slogan, “Not more than two children, one is better” should be extended across the country to promote smaller families.

In Delhi, India, this month Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Union Health and Family Welfare Minister, ruled out any coercive policies, but said that the government needs to raise awareness about the benefits of having smaller families. He also said that the government should strictly enforce laws banning child marriage.

Here’s why.

Population growth in India is, once again, in danger of outpacing food production. In fact, the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India, just released a report titled ‘The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia,” which warned that wheat and rice production in India and China could drop between 30 and 50 percent by 2050, while the demand for food grains will grow by at least 20 percent.

Pearce acknowledges that in parts of rural Africa, “women still have five or more children,” but he says it’s not a problem. In fact, women on average in Uganda have 6.7 children; in Niger it’s 7.4. And these high fertility rates, Pearce’s assertion notwithstanding, do pose a serious challenge.

Take Niger, for example. No one knows how Niger will feed itself in forty years. That’s because no knows how Niger will feed itself today. Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme warned this month that Niger is in danger of “losing an entire generation” to severe malnutrition and stunting. In fact, she’s urgently trying to raise $100 million to feed 4.5 million hungry people in Niger and other parts of the African Sahel. Meanwhile, Niger’s population is expected to jump from an estimated 15.3 million in 2009 to nearly 60 million by 2050.

To bolster his dubious assertions about population growth, Pearce resurrects poor old Bob Malthus, the 19th century demographer, and flogs him for his support of draconian poor laws. He even summons Charles Dickens as a posthumous witness for the prosecution. What does this have to do with anything? Nothing. It’s just a convenient way of demonizing what Pearce likes to call the “population doom-mongers.”

Malthus is irrelevant. What matters today is whether the U.S. and other donor nations are doing enough to educate and empower women in developing countries, giving them the right to decide how many children to have. Last year, the United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute estimated that the total cost of providing modern family planning in the developing world is $6.7 billion: $3.1 billion for current users and another $3.6 billion to meet unmet need. Donor nations, including the U.S., are simply not doing enough.

Fred Pearce says he supports family planning assistance, and I believe him, but blithely declaring that population growth is no longer a problem undermines the case for boosting such assistance. Many of his arguments and assertions are not just wrong; they are, to use his phrase, “dangerous nonsense.”

Mr. Walker is executive vice president of the Population Institute


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  • Apasolini

    Very good article. Overpopulation is a very serious issue and we should be discussing it for what it is: an environmental and human problem.

  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Pearce annoys me. He trots out a version of an argument that we have heard so many times before. In essence it goes rather like this:

    Remember how environmentalists/scientists/doom- mongers/health authorities/troublemakers forecast X years ago that so and so would happen in Y years? Look, it didn't happen! It must never have been a problem in the first place – those silly people.

    If the population is not increasing quite as fast as the warnings originally sketched out that they would perhaps this just might – open your mind now, Mr Fred Pearce – be because the world, at all levels from the international down to the individual, actually paid some attention to the warnings and in subtle uncountable numbers of ways altered behaviours to suit. A pandemic that never materialises because enough people listened to the warnings and sufficient numbers took precautions or got immunised does not mean that the pandemic never would have happened if nothing had been done.

    In exactly the same way that, if we do make serious and successful attempts to reduce our fossil fuel emissions, we will never find out if the climate would have gone to hell in a handbasket and we will then eventually have to suffer smug people pontificating that the predictions of old were unduly alarmist!

    Pearce's argument looks like just another example of the human stupidity that the educated and articulate can be prone too if they don't indulge in sufficient self-analysis.

  • ProfBob

    I find in reading those sites that say that population problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series “In Search of Utopia” (http://andgulliverreturns.info), it blasts their lack of evidence relative to their calling overpopulation a myth. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half.
    The outdated fertility replacement rate of 2.1 is also clarified.

  • Lee C

    What it basically boils down to:

    If one understands the ecological principles of food web tropic levels, then one should understand that a consequence of our ever increasing population, relative to the essential biodiversity of higher life form conducive natural ecosystems, is that we’re causing the extinction of an alarming number of other life forms daily just to support our own biomass. We’re systematically shifting the biomass of the many life forms we’re not smart enough to care about, into the biomass of a lesser number of life forms we use to maintain our own biomass (e.g. cows, chickens, corn, beans, tomatoes, …). That is, we’re systematically diminishing the biodiversity of the natural biological communities, and in so doing are destabilizing nature’s infrastructure that is keeping us alive.

    The key factors of healthy ecosystems (in the sense of being conducive to human existence) are sustainable long term productivity through extensive biodiversity to exploit all the ecological niches (in time, space, and kind), and relative stability through the overall balance of ecological processes in minimizing ecosystem state shifts. This more complete utilization of limiting resources at higher diversity increases resource retention through more thorough and efficient recycling increasing productivity, and the balance of inherently more intricate ecological processes promote stabilization.

    For a better understanding of how we are jeopardizing the shorter term state of human existence on Earth, see the article Natural World Consciousness at achinook.com

    Will objective understanding or subjective beliefs prevail?

    Lee C