5 population stories you don't usually hear

Marcus Roberts
November 16, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

One of our main arguments over the last few years on this blog has been that the overpopulation disaster story that is peddled in the media and inhabits the collective societal consciousness is a bit out of date. Instead, we have been highlighting the fact that many countries throughout the world are suffering the opposite problem: a sustained drop in births leading to a contracting, ageing population. These countries must either prop up by their working age populations through widespread immigration (leading to serious societal issues relating to cultural integration and conflict) or rethink their social security schemes that essentially rely on a continually growing population base (much like Ponzi schemes).

Aside from this, the other problem we have with the prevailing overpopulation disaster story is that it is often informed by a deeply anti-human outlook. (See Attenborough's "humanity is a plague" rhetoric.) To those who agree with Attenborough's depiction of the problem, if not necessarily his choice of words, the answers to overpopulation range from some soft racism (there are too many foreigners breeding overseas in Africa and Asia and they just need some good old fashioned western influences: education to correct their cultural emphasis on the importance of lots of children; condoms; and abortion) to full-on coercive practices such as the horrific one-child policy in China (or Dan Savage's abortion for all comments - interestingly, no pro-choicers have condemned this deeply anti-choice statement, perhaps Nancy Pelosi's views are correct - abortion isn't a choice, it's a sacrament...)

These are the views that Demography is Destiny is trying to combat. Thankfully, over the last few years we've seen that many more stories in the media are starting to dial back on the overpopulation disaster story. Instead, headlines are starting to be made about ageing populations, and the fact that we are reaching peak-population this century. As another example of this, see this piece in the BBC magazine about population by Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health, Karolinska Institutet. Rosling puts forward five facts about population that most people have no idea about.

1. Fast population growth is coming to an end

It's a largely untold story - gradually, steadily the demographic forces that drove the global population growth in the 20th Century have shifted. Fifty years ago the world average fertility rate - the number of babies born per woman - was five. Since then, this most important number in demography has dropped to 2.5 - something unprecedented in human history - and fertility is still trending downwards."

As Rosling says, this is unprecedented in human history. I don't know if we really are aware how ground breaking this change is and what impact it will have on the generations to come. One interesting outcome that Rosling notes is this, we now have the largest number of children that we will ever have:

"In the last decade the global total number of children aged 0-14 has levelled off at around two billion, and UN population experts predict that it is going to stay that way throughout this century. That's right: the amount of children in the world today is the most there will be! We have entered into the age of Peak Child!"

Other points to note are that we are healthy and richer than we have ever been. (All this despite having more people than ever! What would Malthus say?)

2. The "developed" and "developing" worlds have gone...

And most of the world's people live in the middle. Brazil, Mexico, China, Turkey, Thailand, and many countries like them, are now in most ways more similar to the best-off than the worst-off. Half the world's economy - and most of the world's economic growth - now lies outside Western Europe and North America."

In terms of health, inequalities are flattening out and people all around the world are living longer, healthier lives:

3. People are much healthier

Fifty years ago, the average life expectancy in the world was 60 years. Today it's 70 years. What's more, that average of 60 years in the 1960s masked a huge gap between long lifespans in "developed" and short lifespans in "developing" countries. But today's average of 70 years applies to the majority of people of the world."

And there is even more good news:

4. Girls are getting better education

The greatest change for girls and young women in the world today is probably more education."

And finally:

5. The end of extreme poverty is in sight

What is "extreme poverty"? Economists define it as an income of less than $1.25 per day...But the number of people in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, has fallen from two billion in 1980 to just over one billion today."

Perhaps with more stories like this making the news the media will start forgetting about the overpopulation disaster and will start focussing on things that matter. Like Miley Cyrus. Sigh.