Simon Ross: Population fall is not hard to conceive

A RECENT paper published by the USA National Academy of Sciences has reignited a long-standing debate on the reasons for climate change, loss of biodiversity and pressure on resources. Are people consuming too much? Or are there just too many people?

The paper acknowledges that, globally, both consumption per head and population are rising and that both contribute to environmental problems. But it also addresses a more specific point: what should we focus on now to limit future problems, particularly with regard to climate change?

The authors believe that action to limit population would have a limited effect for the next 50 to 100 years and that we should instead focus on social and technological solutions. But are they right?

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Some things are generally accepted. People in almost every country are living longer and that trend will continue. This in itself increases the global population. Secondly, with human numbers doubling in the last half-century, a record number of women are in or entering their child-bearing years. So, even though the number of children per woman is generally falling, the total number of births remains high. And, with the help of modern medicine, more of those children than ever before are surviving to adulthood. Even in China, with its “one child” policy, which has now been in place for 35 years, these factors mean that the population is still rising.

Increases in lifespans and child survival rates are to be welcomed. But it leaves a problem of ever more people requiring food, shelter and clothing in a world whose resources are being depleted, not increased.

The American researchers claim that neither conflict, disaster nor disease is likely to affect population size. Human numbers are growing by around 80 million every year, the same number as those who died in the 1918 influenza outbreak, or in the entire six years of the Second World War.

It also notes that birth rates, while low in much of the world, remain high in much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East and Indian sub-continent.

But for my money the authors are too pessimistic about the prospects of reducing the birth rate. While it’s a given that the global population – currently standing at over seven billion – will rise rather than fall in the immediate future, given the right circumstances, people can change their attitudes and behaviour.

For a start, birth rates have fallen dramatically in much of the world. In some countries, they are well below the level required to replace those who die, raising the prospect of a welcome fall in populations that consume more resources than they can produce over the long term.

This fall in the birth rate is not simply a consequence of rising prosperity. Countries that have strongly promoted family planning, women’s empowerment and employment and smaller families have seen results, even where per capita income is low, as in Bangladesh.

Of course, if no-one had children, humanity would be extinct in just over a century. While that is neither remotely likely nor desirable, it shows that our future is in our hands.

The paper recognises that, even if the authors are right, that efforts to reduce the birth rate have little immediate impact, such efforts are still worth pursuing. Moreover, family planning is relatively cheap: £4bn a year, one third of the UK aid budget, would provide family planning to every woman on earth who is seeking to delay or avoid pregnancy and who is not using modern contraception.

Also, the side-effects of family planning and smaller families are known and positive, unlike some “techno-fixes” or social upheaval. The UK government recognises this. Through the Family Planning 2020 programme and other activities, the UK leads the world in using development aid to promote women’s rights and reproductive health. In the UK, campaign groups are seeking to improve sex and relationship education and reduce unplanned teenage pregnancies. Government subsidies, once funding large families, are increasingly geared towards helping with childcare so that parents can return to work.

Population projections, like all forecasts, are uncertain. However, any action we take now to avoid unplanned pregnancies – which account for an estimated 40 per cent of pregnancies worldwide – and to promote smaller families will bring us enormous benefits, not today or tomorrow, but in the medium term and for all time.

• Simon Ross is chief executive of Population Matters