Sieben Milliarden Gründe zum Feiern

In: Daniel In The News|Uncategorized

11 Oct 2011

Novo, a German magazine, has published an article by me arguing that achieving a global population of seven billion is a reason to celebrate. Below is my original English text.

It is a safe bet that there will be an outpouring of anxiety as the world approaches the date when its population is estimated to reach seven billion. Worldwide, and in Germany in particular, the angst was already apparent long before 31 October. Rather than being seen as a cause for celebration, which is what it should be, it will be widely viewed as a reason for alarm.

In recent years it has become increasingly common for population to be overtly discussed as a problem. Among environmentalists Al Gore, a former American vice president and perhaps the world’s most prominent green, has led the way in linking population growth to climate change . In fiction Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Freiheit), a bestseller in Germany and abroad, was probably the best-known work discussing overpopulation as a problem. Non-governmental organisations such as the German Foundation for World Population (DSW) , have campaigned around issues of population and reproductive health.

In Germany the debate has taken an acutely schizophrenic form. While there is much concern about the global population growing too large there are simultaneous fears about the shrinking number of Germans. The country has fewer children as a proportion of the population than any other European country according to a recent report from the Federal Statistical Office]. The number of children under the age of 18 in 2010 was 14% down on the 2000 figure.

This demographic ageing of Germany provided the backdrop to Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial book, Deutschland Schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself), on integration and Muslims in Germany. The former Bundesbank board member and Social Democrat politician demanded tighter curbs on immigration from Muslim countries. Among his complaints was that Turkish and Arabic migrants “keep producing more little girls in headscarves”. Clearly the fears about too high a global population and too few (indigenous) Germans are not necessarily contradictory. From this perspective the problem with high global growth rates is that they threaten to undermine the domestic German population.

But while Sarrazin is fairly explicit in his fears of overpopulation the mainstream approach tends to be more guarded. The 7 Billion Actions campaign from the United Nations provides a typical example. Although it implicitly assumes that population is a problem it does not say so directly. Instead it links the seven billion figure to such questions as sustainability, urbanization, access to health services and youth empowerment. Many international partners are involved in the campaign including the DSW.

Unfortunately it is rare for the fundamental assumptions behind the idea of overpopulation to be challenged. The typical rebuttal focuses on the empirical trends. Critics of the population scaremongers usually make the point that although the global population is growing the rate of increase is falling. In other words the fertility rate, the average number of children each woman has, has fallen. For example, in 1960 the average woman had five children whereas today she has three.

While such figures are accurate they fail to get to the nub of the issue. The fundamental problem with the idea of overpopulation is that embodies a grossly one-sided view of humanity. It assumes human beings are essentially consumers while underestimating or even ignoring their role as producers. From this narrow perspective every human being is a mouth to feed and a generator of waste. It fails to recognise that we also have a formidable brain and two hands. With these tools we can generate new resources and reshape the natural world to better meet our needs.

To see why fears of overpopulation are so misguided it is worth going back to the man who gave his name to this approach: the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). In his An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, the Church of England priest argued that food supply inevitably grew faster than population. Therefore if population numbers started to rise they would naturally be brought into check by famine and war. It is worth quoting him at length:

“The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

With over 200 years of hindsight it is hard to imagine a forecast proving so hopelessly wrong. Since that prediction was written the world’s population has grown from about one billion to nearly seven billion. Yet at the same time human welfare has done the exact opposite of what Malthus predicted: it has improved enormously. Perhaps most dramatically the average global life expectancy has increased from about 30 in 1800 to 68 in 2009. An enormous achievement which hints at many more improvements in global living standards.

Through the process of economic growth, along with the closely linked advance of technological innovation, life has become far better for the vast majority of human beings. We have access to riches almost beyond the dreams of earlier generations. The list is long but it includes aircraft, the aqualung, computers, open heart surgery, oral contraceptives, the electron microscope, penicillin, phones, radar, television and washing machines. Prosperity also opens up the possibility of mass access to the electricity grid, education, modern healthcare as well as clean water and sanitation.

Of course the world remains a deeply unequal place. Although living standards have risen strongly, including for most of the poor, many people do not have access to many of these innovations. But the solution is to have more growth so that the whole of the world’s population can live as affluently as a prosperous American or German.

Green thinkers will naturally counter that there are not enough resources in the world to make such prosperity possible. This is the argument made by Tim Jackson, a British academic, whose book Prosperity without Growth has become popular in its German version, Wohlstand ohne Wachstum. The thrust of his case is that natural limits, such as resource shortages and the threat of climate change, mean that we have to make do with what we have got (you can watch a video of me debating him here )

Such arguments about natural limits are essentially another version of Malthusianism. Rather than arguing there are too many people they simply claim there are too few resources. Indeed many contemporary greens combine the two: arguing that both resources use and population growth have to be curbed.

Like traditional Malthusianism the arguments proposed by Jackson grossly underestimate the power of human ingenuity. Take the idea that the world could run out of oil soon as an example. There are several ways in which this problem is likely to be overcome. First, it is likely that existing oil will be used more efficiently. Cars and other petrol-driven machines will use less oil for each unit of energy they produce. Second, new sources of oil are likely to be found. One possibility is to harness shale oil. The technology now exists to extract oil from huge tracts of rock that are rich in the substance. Finally, it is possible to harness other sources of energy such as natural gas and nuclear. In the case of motor vehicles alternative technologies such as electric and hydrogen fuels cells could be used.

Technological improvement and innovation can also, to the extent it is a problem, help tackle climate change. For example, nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases. But to pay for investment in such technology means that more growth, rather than less, is necessary. Investing in new energy infrastructure is an expensive business.

From Malthus onwards the doom-laden predictions of those who have warned of the dangers of population growth have always been proved wrong. They have consistently underestimated the power of human ingenuity and economic growth.

As long as the world does not succumb to contemporary pessimism today’s neo-Malthusian greens will be as off the mark as their predecessors. If the creative potential of human beings is recognised and harnessed the challenges facing humanity can be overcome.

When the clock strikes midnight to mark the start of 31 October remember there will be seven billion reasons to celebrate.