Population overload

17 Sept 2010

Noted author Fred Pearce discussed world population in his talk, Peoplequake, on 16 September, in the first of SCI's Public Evening Lectures for 2010.

Fred is the environment and development consultant for New Scientist, and writes for the Guardian and other international media. Here he provides an insight of his views on issues of global overpopulation – and global overconsumption.

According to the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), some 95% of the world's poorest countries have stated that rapid population growth is a key factor contributing to ongoing poverty. It is a widely held belief that the surest way to prevent overpopulation disaster is to more actively support family planning in poverty stricken countries. What do you make of this?
FP: Governments generally regard more people as a problem for them providing services, but may overlook the benefits from more people. They are hands to work and brains to think, as well as mouths to feed. Nonetheless, it is clear that fast-growing populations in underdeveloped countries in particular can create major problems, particularly if they are ill-governed and fail to use the extra human resources.

Whether this is 'overpopulation' is another matter. Some of the most 'overpopulated' countries in terms of population density are among the richest, whereas some of the least densely populated countries are among the poorest – notably in Africa, which by global standards is an underpopulated continent. So I agree that population matters, but the links to poverty are not as obvious as the OPT sometimes makes out. At a global level, it does not seem to me that rising population is as important an issue as rising consumption. Rising human numbers are today almost exclusively in the poorest half of the world, whose total carbon dioxide emissions are only 7% of the global total (whereas the richest 7% of the planet produces 50% of those emissions). We face an overconsumption disaster and not an overpopulation disaster.

That said, I am absolutely in favour of devoting resources to improving access of people in poor countries to family planning as a human right. They need the ability to manage the size of their families according to their wishes – and the best news of all is that their wishes are for small families. Globally the average woman today has half as many children as her mother did (2.6 on average rather than 5). We can expect peak population within another generation and maybe, judging by recent trends, a declining population thereafter.

To what extent do you feel that the current population debate has become an issue of race?
FP: Not overtly, but there is among many Western people an underlying feeling that it is over-breeding among people in poor (and black) countries that is behind many of the world's problems, from climate change to dwindling water and soil resources. This is a profound misreading of the actual balance between pressures on the world's resources created by the rich and poor. An average Ethiopian has a global 'footprint' less than one hundredth that of the average American. Why do such views persist against the evidence? Unconscious racial stereotypes may explain some of it.

One of the key issues surrounding the current population debate is that of agricultural supply. It has been said that the population could be more effectively fed by utilising land to grow food crops rather than to raise livestock.

How do you think adoption of a vegetarian diet would impact the available food supply?
FP: If it were possible, it would have a major effect. We already produce enough food to feed ten billion people (the current world population is just under seven billion). But we feed half our grain to livestock or biofuel factories. Of course a vegetarian diet rich in dairy produce would not change things so much, and I don't particularly advocate a vegetarian diet. But eating meat on the scale that some do is probably bad for their health as well as the planet.

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