Population bomb no longer a threat

29 Sept 2010

On 16 September 2010, SCI hosted a free Public Evening Lecture featuring Fred Pearce, who is currently the environment consultant of New Scientist magazine and a regular contributor to British newspapers. Fred has written a wide range of books on environment and development issues, which have been translated into at least ten languages. The lecture was based on his recent book, Peoplequake.

Pearce presented a 'good news story', defusing demographic fears of a 'population bomb'. Against the prevailing wisdom that 'there are just too many of us', he argued that poor women of the world are solving the problem of over-population by having half as many children as their mothers, and Pearce has observed that this trend is not a result of draconian measures implemented by governments. The current fertility rates across the world are at or below replacement level, with an average of 2.3 children born per woman. If this trend continues, the human population will reach a peak at around 2040 - 50. After that, it will shrink.

Fred Pearce explained that 'more educated, less poor women are deciding to have fewer children.' He quoted a senior health minister in a UN conference, who said 'not allowing women to take decisions for themselves is really the main obstacle to population control.' As mortality rates have improved in the last century, women globally are deciding to have just two or three children and pursue other interests in addition to raising children, where possible. Pearce notes that where the state offers no help in terms of flexible or reduced working hours, benefits for child care, or crèches, it seems that women go on 'childbirth strike', making a choice to work, rather than have children.

As a consequence of this trend, the world will face a new situation in a few decades where the majority of the population will be over sixty years old. The new challenge will then be how to keep the ageing population healthy for longer. Other adaptations will be needed to accommodate this: ideally, healthier adults over 60 will continue working for longer to support and take care of themselves, so as not to burden the younger.

According to Pearce, rising consumption is a bigger threat to the environment than the population boom we have feared for decades. By way of conclusion, he left us with a question: will we become older, wiser, and greener?

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