Originally published 22 January, 2010
I wish I could be sure that including what some may see as ‘coercive’ population policies to achieve global sustainability and avoid massive human catastrophes were unnecessary.
For many decades there has been a willful blindness in recognising that human population growth is one of the pre-eminent problems we face. A problem the US-based Population Media Center and other population activist groups are well aware off. A problem that is driving the astonishing growth of fossil fuel use and its depletion, climate warming, bio-diversity loss and species extinction, the growing shortage of fresh water to meet human needs - and as a consequence of these changes – the prospect that agriculture will be unable to produce enough food to feed us.
Together, these changes are the most important immediate challenge to humankind. The threat – still largely unrecognized - transcends all the other problems that transfix our policy makers, says Lindsey Grant, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment.
Most people are unaware that as recently as 1930 world population was barely two billion, not the 6.8 billion now. Almost never do the media portray reduction in human numbers as a beneficial step away from the impossibility of endless population growth.
Population activists point out that increase in use of modern family planning methods rose from 10 percent of the world’s couples in 1960 to 55 percent today and there has been an associated decline in average fertility rates. But they admit many people are still not using family planning and are having large families. Yes, most of the progress made to date on slowing population growth has been done through voluntary means. But will this be enough to meet the population and environmental impacts we are facing?
Funding for population and reproductive healthcare programs, as a share of global health aid declined from 30 percent in 1994 to just 12 percent in 2008. The proportional decrease is due to increasing attention to HIV/AIDS. (World Bank). Global spending on contraceptive supplies and services totaled just $338 million in 2007, considerably less than half what it was in 1995 - despite a 20-percent increase in the number of people of reproductive age in developing countries. (Worldwatch Institute)
Assumption on population growth may also be too low. The UN assumes that our current growth rate will decline, but in many countries, particularly in Africa and parts of the Middle East, populations are rising rapidly, and growth rates show no sign of decline. In addition, a growing number of developed countries, with high ecological footprints have introduced new baby bonuses in the ill-informed belief that encouraging a population ponzi scheme to maintain existing demographic support ratios and retirement pensions is a good idea. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasised by those with particular interests, like the pensions industry. It is a totally phoney argument that we need more young people and more immigration to support a growing number of older people. Young people generally cost society more than older people - in crime, in education, unemployment and many other ways. With typical short-term vision, we forget that all these extra young people get old too and will need support. The media and politicians do not emphasise this.
It is misleading to say that ‘coercion’ or more appropriately, ‘incentivisation’ for the wider good of society doesn’t work and there is no evidence to support the claim. Incentivisation through the tax and legal system DOES work all the time. We accept laws, fines and much more for a stable society and to discourage anti-social behavior like speeding, drink-driving, drug peddling and aggression on others. Try not paying tax and see what the government can force you to do.
What can be more important than saving the future of our planet, for ourselves our children and other species that rightfully share our world? We are already in serious ecological overshoot according to the Global Footprint Network and this is set to get much worse as China, India, Brazil and other developing nations expand their economies, resource use and populations.
The urgency of achieving fertility reductions is clear. A largely ignored UNPD news release on March 11, 2009, warned that if global fertility remains at current levels the world population could increase by nearly twice as much as projected - to around 11.1 billion by 2050. The population of the less developed regions would increase to 9.8 billion instead of the 7.9 billion projected by assuming that fertility declines and a projected 1.28 billion in developed countries. Unless we wake up and take action, it won’t stop there.
If we are to have any chance of moving to a genuinely sustainable world, we have to bring together and consider all the options at our disposal – fully accessible global contraception and advice, education about population impact and its social, economic and environmental consequences and fiscal incentives to encourage fewer births rather than perverse incentives to increase our numbers.
Just as tackling the challenge of climate change requires global action instead of blame chasing assertions that it is the developed world’s emissions that are the problem not the smaller emissions of developing countries that are set to grow their populations significantly, we need global action on population. We will sink or swim together.
The US-based Population Media Center (PMC) has been innovative in its media outreach work around the world and believes the major reason for the success of China's often criticized population policy is that they used intensive person-to-person persuasion that convinced people to comply willingly. Yet some would say this was social ‘coercion’. What could we do if some countries refused to use coercion, leading to endless population growth and resource wars?
Political or religious ‘coercion’ to prevent family planning in countries like Albania, the Philippines, Rwanda and Iran during the early years of the Khomeini regime, led to rapidly increasing populations, increasing poverty, even genocide. Iran has changed policy and fertility rates fell.
But it won’t be enough. In Europe, the United States. Canada and Australia – all places with high consumption footprints, lower fertility is being boosted by high immigration from developing countries and failing states happy to off load surplus populations they are unable to support. Developed countries are under ever increasing infrastructure pressures from immigration that impacts disproportionately on their own disadvantaged communities.
We spend billions of tax dollars every year on aid programs, which in many places have been shown to be ineffective through a mixture of corruption, a bloated and competing aid sector and other factors. Yet the aid industry consistently ignores rapidly growing populations in many recipient countries as a major factor in lack of progress in reducing poverty.
There are already many failed and failing states on permanent food aid – in Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan and more – all highly susceptible to instability and terrorism. Yet conditional aid seems unacceptable to many in the aid industry who would rather bury their heads in the sand. Others argue that aid should go hand in hand with donor governments ensuring countries that receive year on year aid have effective and fully accessible family planning programs in place. It is potentially a win-win situation that squeezes systemic corruption, improves long-term prospects for the countries concerned, supports women’s rights and hopes for a genuinely sustainable and more equitable world.
Japan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Brazil are countries that have achieved replacement fertility levels in a matter of a decade or so after strong persuasion campaigns were combined with readily accessible family planning services. Persuasion is vital to achieve a broad public consensus but political and personal ‘incentivisation’ is also needed if we are to have any chance of a reasonable future.
Ill-informed critics wilfully misinterpret calls for population stabilisation and gradual decline to save the planet as ‘Genocide’ and ‘Holocaust’. It is their ‘my rights only’ and forget the rest of you that is the real path to ‘genocide’ The response from some development and religious lobby groups is disgraceful. Can they not see beyond the end of their noses? The world badly needs a grown-up, rational discussion of the population issue - without blame, abuse and hysteria.
When finite and depleting fossil fuels that have supported massive population growth in the last 80 years, a one-time economic growth binge and an industrial agriculture industry to feed us, run down, the world as we would like to know it will not exist. Alternative energy sources are simply not enough to see us through. We will face chaos and immense social pressures that will be far more draconian than making relatively simple, sensible and sustainable choices now. Have we the intelligence to collectively wake up?