Just 24 hours ago Guardian newspaper’s website broke the news that Danica May Camacho, a Philippine born baby girl has been chosen by the United Nations as the 7 billionth baby. Back home in India it was Nargis, born to young set of parents, who was designated as the seven billionth baby. Just a dozen years ago, the six billionth child was a baby boy Adnan Nevic born in Sarajevo. These children have come into a world where population debate, which wasn’t simple even in the best of times, has become more complex due to an additional element of climate change. Stakeholders like economists, demographers, environmentalists and politicians have different perspectives and each one is presenting their side of the story (Save for politicians) with such urgency as if Armageddon is round the corner.
While a section of economists are mildly optimistic that big, young and relatively rich population is good for economic growth the demographers and environmentalists balk at the same idea saying consumption and increasing number of mouths to feed are wrecking havoc on planet’s resources. Politicians world over are following age old policy of “masterly inactivity”. This strategy gives them time to remain non-committal and wait for the emergence of a clear cut winner and then piggy back on its success to secure their political future.
While the policy is good for small time electoral gains it will finally backfire on the society that they intend and are determined to lead. Human population growth is a subject that always invokes extreme reactions. All the developing economies with traditional societies have a preference for large families that are dominated by male children. Having male child and big families are both a source of economic security as well as social status. Demographers say it’s embedded in our thought and can’t be wiped off easily. However, a look at the current population report by United Nations Population Fund suggests that though the population is rising our fertility is decreasing. Also when the rural population moves into urban settlements the diktats of urban life and economic hardships invariable leads to a steep learning curve for even the uneducated and illiterate masses. They start producing less children as the economics of a small family becomes clear to them.
While the population is still rising in Asia and Africa its rate of growth as well as fertility among women is going down. Huge variations within regions as well as within countries notwithstanding the global trends in fertility and growth point towards decline.
In the backdrop of this global decline many demographers have begun the guessing game about when the population will stablise and what would be its optimum size. They calculate it can grow to anywhere from 10 to 15 billion and can stablise anytime between 2050 to 2100. This present rise and future projection has sparked a debate among environmentalists that the success of human species has spelt doom for the planet in general.
The economists, on the other hand, have two distinct views. One group hails it as a tremendous business opportunity citing we produce enough food to feed each soul and though seven billion may sound more they would fit in snugly in the state of Rajasthan. The other along with health and education experts maintain a more secular view that population in itself is neither good or bad it’s how you manage it. If the population is healthy, literate and young than it can be a boon for the country while if it is unhealthy, illiterate and uneducated it can be a drain on resources. They cite India’s case where majority of population is young and mean average age is 25 years and the economy is booming. This was the case with US a century ago and also with Japan in late 1950s and 1960s. But now as Japan’s mean average age is increasing and the population is turning grey the economy is slowing down and is in danger of collapse.
With these contrary views muddying the population debate the leaders and policy makers should approach the issue of population keeping certain basics in mind. The population has three aspects – societal, economic and environmental.
There is no doubt that a young, educated, healthy population is one of the best assets a country can possess. However, those countries that have big populations tend to have largest number of malnourished and uneducated in their society. Poverty too is a bane that these societies suffer. So the possibility of demographic dividends they can leverage is slim.
Many economists say it’s not the population but the consumption that is the problem. But when a young dynamic population will work hard and earn more it will like to live better too. So that would lead to an expansion of demand. Take the case of China. It has five times more population than that of US, however, in 2007 there total carbon emission was at par. While the per capita consumption of an average US citizen was five times that of Chinese citizen, China still matched US in overall emission due to its sheer numbers. Similarly while India’s per capita carbon emission is one tenth that of US we end up being fourth largest carbon emitters in the world. Right now average Indian’s access to energy resources is either at a basic level or most of the times less than that, however, even this meager use puts enormous pressure on the resources due huge size of the population.
Advocates of large population argue that the entire population can be accommodated in as little a space as Rajasthan if each one of them stands in a four square feet of space and there is enough production throughout the world to feed them. But they miss one crucial reality that humans are neither mannequins who will keep standing on four by four feet of space indefinitely nor they are animals who need only food to eat and water to drink (Even if we accept it for a moment that they are both than the cold hard reality of life as is visible today is that the food is not reaching one third of humanity and water has become a hugely scare commodity).
Humans are creatures of imagination and need self expression. Today in the “connected” world even if they are not educated or literate, exposure to mass media and communication tools fire their imagination. The society needs employment, education, creative self expression, a place to live and above all realization of each one’s aspiration. All this require resources and these resources will at times be used liberally without the thought of conservation as humans can’t be on a tight leash and in hyper management mode all the time.
It would further strain the already stretched natural resources in the world. So the theory that consumption not the population is the problem is an incomplete assertion. Consumption will rise when the population increases even if it decides to live by Gandhian frugality.
So the governments should put their heads together and formulate a policy for population control. Those who have arrived can’t be culled to bring down the population but surely we can manage population explosion much better than what we have done till now.
Economists and policy makers sound alarm bells citing Japanese example of ageing and shrinking population that is threatening to destroy the nation’s economy. However, Japan even after its lost decade of economic growth is third largest economy in the world. Even if it slips to 10th it doesn’t matter. Economy grows and shrinks with people’s needs and desires. If the people of Japan are growing old and don’t need as much as they needed a generation ago its fine. We should understand economy is created to serve humans not the other way round.
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