Why you shouldn't take alarmist population predictions seriously

Shannon Roberts
6 Apr 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Caring about the environment, caring about people and encouraging new life can and should go hand in hand. Sadly, that is not always the way passionate environmentalists view things. However, Marion Swain of the Breakthrough Institute argues in her recent article that we need not be alarmist about population growth even if we are also concerned for the environment. She is a Conservation and Development Policy Analyst at a think tank whose mission is to 'accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet'. In her article she presents four surprising facts about population which mean that human beings are not fated to ecological disaster.

1. The global population is likely to peak and decline in the 21st century

The world population is still growing, but the rate at which it is growing has actually been decreasing ever since its peak in the 1960s. This is something we often talk about- fertility rates have been below replacement rate for years meaning that total world population will eventually decline. Swain's article reports some interesting studies:

The UN's median scenario projects flat or decreasing population size in all regions except Africa. Other projections suggest that the global population may even peak this century. IIASA, an Austrian scientific research institute, estimates there is an 85 percent chance that the world's population will stop growing before the end of the 21st century (Lutz et al. 2001), and its median scenario sees population actually starting to shrink around 2070 (see Figure 2) (IIASA 2007).

2. We are continuously increasing the Earth's carrying capacity

Technology and human innovation is on-going and there is no set 'carrying capacity' of Earth before we face environmental ruin. Swain states:

It is sometimes suggested that there are hard biological limits to how much food the Earth can produce, but ever since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago humans have been consistently increasing yields through the use of new technologies. Indeed, it has been increasing yields that have allowed the human population to grow to its current population of seven billion. In this sense, the Earth's carrying capacity is not bound by a finite set of planetary boundaries, but rather is a function of human technology.

3. To combat climate change, technology is more important than population

While many argue human caused population change is a myth, Swain argues that population is undoubtedly a factor in anthropogenic climate change, since it is human activities that create greenhouse gas emissions. Yet she also states that a far larger factor than population is the kind of energy being used. She gives that example that one billion people on the planet getting electricity from coal would create more carbon emissions than 6 billion people each getting the same amount of electricity from solar or nuclear power.

4. Decreasing fertility goes hand-in-hand with human development

Fertility rates are closely correlated with development. It is well-known that the countries with the highest fertility rates are generally the poorest ones, while most developed countries have fertility rates that are actually below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Swain identifies all sorts of reasons for this, one of which is that having a large family is a form of insurance in developing countries where mortality rates are high.

We are not suggesting that anyone should be told how many children they should or shouldn't have, or that having a large family is in any way a negative thing. However, it is a fact that the more educated and developed the world becomes, trends show that fertility rates will fall. As incomes around the world have increased between 1910 and 2010, fertility rates have fallen dramatically - getting so low in fact as to cause the problems we often point out on this blog!