Why does nobody take population growth seriously?
October 4, 2005 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Why does nobody take population growth seriously?

In all the discussions western governments have about the environment and sustainable development, I rarely hear any reference to populations. Sure, they seem happy to talk about numbers in developing countries, but not their own. I'm no expert, but I'd say the continued rise in human population is one of the biggest factors threatening our existence -- deforestation, threats to plant and animal species, pollution, global warming, and supplies of fossil fuels are all exacerbated, if not directly caused by, our sheer numbers. Social problems too seem linked to dense populations and population growth.

Why does there seem to be so little recognition of a problem? And what can I do about it, beyond not reproducing?
posted by londonmark to Science & Nature (43 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think because population growth is actually understood to be decreasing, and the real problem is increasing consumption per person, rather than increasing numbers of people.
posted by footnote at 9:28 AM on October 4, 2005

In certain developed countries, population decline is as much a problem as population growth--in Japan and much of Europe, the population is practically in decline already, and it would be close in the US if it weren't offset by immigration. A decrease in birthrate might be good for the world as a whole, but it brings its own set of problems--such as who will pay for the care of all the old retired people.
posted by Jeanne at 9:29 AM on October 4, 2005

This link I found on Wikipedia seems to corroborate what footnote has just said. I also heard on the radio that some European country (perhaps Germany?) is creating an ad campaign aimed at encouraging couples to have MORE children. Drastic population decline can be unhealthy for a nation, although certainly in different ways than overpopulation.
posted by Doug at 9:32 AM on October 4, 2005

Check this out and then get back to us (warning, long mp3).

Like everyone else has pointed out, population is actually decreasing fairly rapidly. We may still hit 8 billion, but it'll take longer than anyone would have thought.
posted by bshort at 9:38 AM on October 4, 2005

I read an article in Time magazine some years back which explored this issue. In many countries, especially European ones, less people are being born, and more people are marrying into other cultures; at current population growth rates, in another fifty years researchers estimate there'll be no pure-blood Italians left. The culture, and the national identity, may cease to exist. This is possibly true for counties like Japan as well.
posted by BorgLove at 9:48 AM on October 4, 2005

no pure-blood Italians left

What will happen to south Jersey?

Seriously, this is a self-limiting problem -- moreso than oil conservation. All countries are developing, hardly any are stagnate. Developed countries cost a lot more to raise and educate a child in, so much so that you rarely see families larger than 3 children.

It is also very hard, morally questionable decision to control populations. There's not much you can do but complain.

I also believe the hyper-population we saw at the beginning of the modern era (well should I say 18th-early 20th century) was an anomally. People were still used to having a lot of children to make up for the ones they lost and to help around the house. As the result of improved infant mortality rates and increased automation of household chores the amount of children skyrocketed and the whole supply/demand of raising a child also increased. Look at India with high populations and the incredible disparity between children wanting to carry your bags around for 4 cents and a relatively large middle class. I don't want to predict what will happen there but I'll be surprised if population levels there rise significantly.
posted by geoff. at 10:07 AM on October 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think it's because the "big idea" of sustainability is at odds with the maxim of "be fruitful and multiply" that dominates Western culture (via religion- contrast to China). People love their children, often at the expense of all else. It must be political suicide to be the person who steps up to tell your countrymen, "don't have children".
posted by mkultra at 10:07 AM on October 4, 2005

Londonmark, there is a country out there that takes population growth very seriously -- China. That's one way to control population, by instituting a one child per family rule. Personally, I wouldn't much care to live in that kind of society. While I agree that population growth is scary, the alternative is a little scary as well.

And as everyone else is stating, population growth is slowing significantly. But if you're still concerned, then you should work for reproductive rights for women, ensuring that women who don't want more children can make that choice themselves. That's one way to help with population growth without getting too intrusive about it.
posted by incessant at 10:13 AM on October 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Well in the news recently, France has been strongly encouraging people to have more children. Maybe this is what you were thinking of Doug? Anyway, yeah, many Western European countries' birth rates have been down for a while, even though the world population is growing.
posted by Who_Am_I at 10:15 AM on October 4, 2005

The issue has been around for many, many years. The only country that has made an impact on their population is China for obvious reasons. Of course for a communist country it is easier than for a religious, democratic country. For anything less than a dictatorship, population control is a very hard sell. How do you mandate abstinance or birth control? Any country with religious convictions would get rid of the leaders demanding that in very short order.
posted by JJ86 at 10:15 AM on October 4, 2005

Best answer: Population is NOT decreasing; population GROWTH is slowing. IMO, that's a good thing, but not good enough; ISTM that we'd all be better off if there were only about three billion of us instead of the present six and a half, which is why I personally got sterilized and will make no children.

ISTM that the main reasons human population overgrowth is not generally recognized as the underlying cause of most of what's going wrong with the global ecology are:

1. Most people have very little understanding of ecological principles generally, and if they think about global ecology at all, tend to separate it into "people" and "environment" categories subject to utterly separate analyses. The idea that humanity is right now in the process of blooming like algae in a waterway simply doesn't occur to most people.

2. Population growth rates are generally quoted as a percentage, and if the growth rate percentages are getting smaller over time, it's easy to overlook the fact that even a small percentage increase on six and a half billion is a hell of a lot of extra mouths to feed.

3. Human overgrowth to the detriment of everything else is actually a very recent phenomenon, and people simply haven't had time to get used to the idea. I was born in 1962; the global population then was about three billion. Overgrowth wasn't even on my parents' radar.

4. There is an endless supply of influential people in denial; people who still think that Malthus got it all wrong, or Erlich did, or the Club of Rome did, or somebody did, so that proves there's nothing to worry about. In my mind, these people are like the man falling from the top of the twenty storey building and saying "so far so good" as he plummets past the tenth floor.

As to what you can do about it: don't reproduce. Right there, your contribution to the solution is in proportion to your contribution to the problem.

If you want to do more: if anybody asks you why you made that choice, tell them. Raise foster kids, and tell them, too. And if you live in an affluent country and you get a chance to participate in a debate on the "dangers of population decline", argue for increased refugee intake as a morally and ecologically superior alternative to local breeding incentives.
posted by flabdablet at 10:20 AM on October 4, 2005 [4 favorites]

The IPCC (the UN panel on climate change) actually does emphasize the role of population as an input to its climate models. If you look at pages 10 and 11 of the policymakers' summary of the IPCC 2001 synthesis report (PDF), you can see the four main socieconomic "storylines" they model. Two of the storylines feature continuous population growth over the next 100 years, while the other two feature a population that peaks near the middle of the century and declines afterward.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:21 AM on October 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

We've never had to face this problem in our two million years on earth. It's like asking why the people of Hiroshima were not more concerned about the atomic bomb.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:28 AM on October 4, 2005

Don't sweat it. One good pandemic and we'll be back down to hardscrabble numbers. On the plus side, wages go up, land becomes cheap- opportunities abound, if you can make it.

China and the one child policy, hm. They (and France) will have an interesting time of it when the population bulge gets old. Ah, France....
posted by IndigoJones at 10:33 AM on October 4, 2005

I believe I read somewhere that according to UNESCO (?) that world's population will actually decline over the next century, but don't quote me on it. (Actually all of this is just off the top of my head).

Regardless of whether that is true or not, I think Flabdablet is a bit too concerned.

There was much hay made over overpopulation in the 60s and 70s, particularly with Paul Ehrlich and his book The Population Bomb. But his views on resource scarcity were sorely misguided, and was famously humiliated by libertarian economist Julian Simon.

In fact, resource scarcity due to overpopulation isn't nearly as big a threat as once feared - provided that the economic/political/historical climate allows for the efficient distribution of resources. For instance, in the worst parts of places such as Bangladesh and India overpopulation is often attributed as the source of the accompanying poverty and squalor.

Yet, when you actually look at the population density of these afflicted places, many of them compare favorably to California suburbs.

Thus free-market/libertarian economists such as Julian Simon have always argued that human innovation is "the ultimate resource," and sky is falling concerns like overpopulation and resource scarcity should be ignored in favor of making sure that we have sufficient economic freedom.

Not sure I by the argument in total especially with concerns over increasing rates of consumption and environmental degradation, but in many ways it makes sense. Scarcity is not a dead end, it merely forces us to innovate and adapt, e.g. when tin became scarce in the 50s (?) we turned to aluminum.

Which is also why many people are so laissez faire about things like environmental concerns, overpopulation included. Not a terribly forward thinking attitude, but in many ways more compatible with human nature.

And it sure as hell allows me to sleep at night and feel just fine about one day having kids, thank you very much.
posted by Heminator at 10:36 AM on October 4, 2005

Population is NOT decreasing; population GROWTH is slowing.

Overall. But in many/most of the western governments londonmark asked about, natural populations really are either flat or shrinking (though you often still see substantial population growth through immigration).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:42 AM on October 4, 2005

Because most people want to have kids. And if you want to do something, anyone with reasons why you shouldn't must be wrong, ipso facto.

See also the rise of the SUV even as the effects of global warming have been becoming increasingly obvious.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:48 AM on October 4, 2005

Heminator is in the grip of (4), apparently. ROU_Xenophone has pretty much fallen for (1), except his distracting categories are western nations vs. everywhere else rather than humanity vs. environment.

And I forgot (5): widespread innumeracy. Nowhere near enough people have an intuitive grasp of the fact that millions and billions are nowhere near the same thing.
posted by flabdablet at 11:00 AM on October 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

flabdablet: ROU_Xenophobe was specifically answering the original question's assertion that western governments "talk about numbers in developing countries, but not their own."
posted by mbrubeck at 11:16 AM on October 4, 2005

September 05 Scientific American had a great article about this: look for "Human Population Grows Up" by Joel Cohen. (Only available online to paid subscribers, though. Paper copy probably available at a nearby library.)
posted by gimonca at 11:23 AM on October 4, 2005

Pat Buchanan cares about population growth.
posted by mullacc at 11:26 AM on October 4, 2005

Flabdablet -- you reasoning for #4 is patently fallacious though. You make the analogy of falling, but it's just bad anaolgy. First you would have to demonstrate that there is limits to resources and scarcity is real in a way that human innovation can't adapt to. And you simply can't.

You're assuming that we're dealing with set limist here e.g. 1) we're falling and 2) that we hit the ground after we fall for a while. Well in this theoretical example as long as you can't prove that scarcity is a real threat, it's damn near impossible to demonstrate 1) we're falling at all, 2) to the extent we are falling how far and how fast 3) whether or not the impact will be deadly or whether there will be anything in our path to break the fall or slow us down.

So far there's a very stong precdedent for humans adapting and innovating in response to scarcity. There's very little precedent for humans being completey unresponsive to market forces/supply and demand of resources such that they can't head off major threats like overpopulation.
posted by Heminator at 12:16 PM on October 4, 2005

I recommend this excellent article, "The Baby Boycott," from the Washington Monthly, for a general overview of the declining birth rates in Western countries. Although it is primarily focused on the political and cultural landscape of the U.S., it has gives some nice broad strokes on the situation worldwide.
posted by Sully6 at 12:21 PM on October 4, 2005

There was a great thread on the Global Baby Bust last year.
posted by Chuckles at 1:09 PM on October 4, 2005

Heminator, read Jared Diamond's Collapse if you want to talk precedents.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:31 PM on October 4, 2005

You can take many courses at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, including one taught by the dean, Allen Rosenfield, that teach a population-based approach to health and environmental issues.

I took one of them myself. So, it wouldn't really be accurate to say that no one is thinking about it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:02 PM on October 4, 2005

OK, so Heminator uses (1) as well as (4), and is also a prime exemplar of Zed_Lopez's point (if you want to do something, anyone with reasons why you shouldn't must be wrong, ipso facto).

Apologies to ROU_Xenophobe for misinterpreting an answer about the reasoning of Western governments for his personal position. My bad.
posted by flabdablet at 3:11 PM on October 4, 2005

I think we are about ten years out from a wave of alarmist articles about the birth dearth and the threat of declining populations to our economic system. The adjustment will be hard when, in this century, the world population levels off and begins to fall, perhaps precipitously.

You can get a glimpse of what the process might look like on the northern plains of the U.S., where towns are drying up and blowing away as people move out. I started a thread about this back in May. I thought about introducing the idea that the depopulation of the plains is a model for what will happened to much of the world in subsequent generations, but didn't want to self-derail.
posted by LarryC at 4:44 PM on October 4, 2005

Heminator, read Jared Diamond's Collapse if you want to talk precedents.

Which is not about population size per se, but resource usage, and thus isn't particularly a refutation of Heminator.
posted by weston at 7:01 PM on October 4, 2005

so Heminator uses (1) as well as (4)

Categorizing arguments is the same thing as refuting them?

Neat. Should we call this #5, or name it something flashy like "The Flabdablet Error"?
posted by namespan at 7:03 PM on October 4, 2005

Best answer: Why does nobody take population growth seriously?

I don't know that there's "nobody" who takes it seriously. Nevertheless, if you were reasonably aware during the 1970s, it was very much on people's minds then. Overpopulation was seen as a massive problem requiring a massive social response in a very short time. This is the basis of the entire Limits to Growth academic industry.

What changed is that since 1970 it has been demonstrated that the largest population states and the ones experiencing the highest population growth rates have been able to reduce their growth rate. Instead of the feared scenario of one billion Chinese producing two billion Chinese kids, it turned out that economic development had the unintended side effect of reducing family size.

We thought that we could be facing a vicious circle: more people using more resources in a more wasteful manner producing yet more people to .... We worried that we would have to force people to reduce population growth. This was the option chosen by China. It was not the option chosen by India or any other country, yet they were just as successful (more or less) at reducing their growth rate in the same period.

Along the way, between 1970 and 2000, the world became a lot more interdependent, and a lot better at distributing food where it is really needed. Much of the overpopulation imagery of the 1970s was related not to massive amounts of people all by themselves, but massive amounts of people in areas struck by a massive continental drought.

In retrospect, it is clear that industrialization and development reduced family size in the West before we were paying attention. In retrospect, the economic benefit of having more children is clear to agrarian societies, and the economic burden of having more children is clear to urban societies (to a point). What we worried was that people weren't smart enough to figure this out, but it turns out they were. In retrospect, much of the concern about population growth was clouded by paternalism and even prejudice (cf. Pat Buchanan).

Here in 2005, even those concerned about resource depletion generally recognize that population growth per se is not a specific problem, or at least not one that we need to throw resources at. Simply making birth control available turns out to be all most people need -- maybe they would have stopped having kids all the time earlier if only they'd had access. That's what happened in the West, of course!

In Africa, for instance, worry about population growth has been replaced by worry about AIDS and population collapse.

I don't mean to suggest that we still don't face some serious choices as a species regarding resource usage and depletion, or that we couldn't spiral into a vicious circle of another radius, but this is why overpopulation is no longer the worry that it was during the Whole Earth Catalog days. It just isn't.
posted by dhartung at 8:51 PM on October 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

namespan: MeTa.
posted by flabdablet at 10:59 PM on October 4, 2005

Response by poster: I'm sorry if my question was unfairly loaded: I appreciate some people simply disagree with my suggestion that population growth is a problem at all. And you're right to challenge me, because I'm here to learn. Still, I was a bit dismayed by the volume of short-sighted responses, and am grateful to people like flabdablet and dhartung for trying to address my question, however flawed it may have been.

According to Population Connection, a US-based pressure group, and the UK's Optimum Population Trust, the world's population is set to grow by about 50% by 2050 (and the US alone by 43%). So when people say the population is actually in decline, I think they're misinformed. And right now, our growth is destroying natural habitats and threatening wildlife. I'm not a scientist, but it seems pretty obvious to me that the earth is a finite resource only capable of supporting so many people. And I think what we need to decide is have we reached that number yet?

I don't propose to have the answers, or any easy way of reducing the world's population. But I do think it is the worst kind of selfishness to ignore the dangers altogether. You may want four kids and feel smug and proud for having them, but what sort of world will it be for them in fifty years' time, or for their grandchildren 100 years from now? I'm pretty glad I won't be around to find out.
posted by londonmark at 3:03 AM on October 5, 2005

Sorry if I feel compelled to pick on a side point but I just wanted to point out that there is no such thing as "pure-breed Italians", unless you're talking about horses, or dogs. Italy is a nation with its language and culture, anyone who grows up in it or settles there and learns the language and becomes a citizen is Italian. Period. It's in the middle of the Mediterranean, and the origins of its inhabitants have always from all over the place, European, African, Arab, you name it. That culture has always been a product of different influences and migrations, that's how it developed. Saying it would die if that continues is an absurd paradox that is not supported by history. Also, the phrase "pure blood Italian" or "the Italian race" when speaking of people, not animals, was coined by the fascist regime of Mussolini, and I'm sure everyone knows what purposes that deluded notion served.

Just saying. That kind of talk gives me the creeps even if (I hope) it wasn't consciously meant in that same way.

More on topic, in terms of the decline of birth rates in Italy, it is already an over-populated country, the main urban areas are conglomerates with a very high density and lots of related problems (traffic, pollution, lack of affordable housing, etc.). You can't talk about a decline in birth rates without considering what it is in relation to, compared to what period and what prior economic and social situation, and what development there has been.

I don't have the answer to the general question about global population growth, but it seems to me it is still ever much taken seriously, at least outside of the various G8 conferences and such. That's the last place I'd look for a honest discussion of the problems of sustainable development.
posted by funambulist at 3:31 AM on October 5, 2005

I just want to add I had never even heard of the notion that the global population is set to decline or at least not keep growing at alarming rates. Maybe the doom predictions of the 70's were over the top, and I'm no expert on the topic, but saying it's no longer such an issue sounds very far-fetched to me.
posted by funambulist at 3:39 AM on October 5, 2005

"I had never even heard of the notion that the global population is set to decline"

Yeah, I find out facts I didn't know all the time on Metafilter! But I think the fact that population growth is leveling off is exactly the answer to the question posed.
posted by LarryC at 5:39 AM on October 5, 2005

Response by poster: "But I think the fact that population growth is leveling off is exactly the answer to the question posed."

Sorry LarryC but it's not! Just because the rate of growth is levelling does not mean growth itself is levelling. The world's population is set to grow by 50% over the next 45 years, which is hardly levelling.
posted by londonmark at 5:48 AM on October 5, 2005

LarryC: well ok but it's not really a "fact", it's a prediction (that population is set to decline - and even if it was, and it does so only after reaching 10 or 12 billion, I don't see how that answers the problem!), and it seems strictly related to that laissez-faire approach about environmental issues which isn't exactly universally widespread or popular, especially outside the US.

Anyway I am indeed glad to have learnt something new...
posted by funambulist at 7:08 AM on October 5, 2005

the world's population is set to grow by about 50% by 2050 (and the US alone by 43%)

londonmark, that US number is not the kind of population growth you think it is. Most of that growth in population is not going to be because Americans are having lots of babies -- that growth rate is down to 0.6%, and the rate will continue to fall. The population of the US continues to grow mainly because people keep moving here in large numbers.

Why don't western countries talk about reducing their own population growth? Because their rate of natural increase is already near or below zero, and falling. You can look this up for yourself. Belgium, Sweden, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Germany, the Baltics, Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine all have flat or negative rates of natural increase.

The only developed/OECD countries I can find with rates of natural increase over 0.5% are the US, Ireland, and New Zealand. And even there, Ireland is a special case as its population is only about half of what it was at its peak in ~1840.

Really, this is something you should have known if you've been paying any attention to population growth issues. Even very basic presentations of population growth note that the population of the developed/western/OECD world is predicted to stay flat or decrease, and that population growth for the next 50 years is going to be concentrated almost entirely within the developing world, especially in south Asia and Africa. Why don't people worry about this? They do. The usual answers are to educate women and encourage industrial development, both of which cut down dramatically on family size.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:47 AM on October 5, 2005

ROU_Xenophobe, I would assume londonmark already knows about that population growth difference between developed/developing world - who wouldn't? - but the question is specifically about the wider global perspective, not on a national basis.

Why don't people worry about this? They do. The usual answers are to educate women

Ouch! you hit the nail on the head. It's an answer on paper, what's being done is not enough - not enough funding, too many political/religious/cultural/economic obstacles, etc.
But donor countries' support for condoms and other forms of contraception has decreased over the past decade, while demand is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2015.

If more money isn't found, the number of people without access to birth control, prenatal health care and HIV/AIDS prevention is expected to grow, the report said. Currently in sub-Saharan Africa, an area devastated by AIDS, the average number of condoms per man is three a year, it said.
posted by funambulist at 9:14 AM on October 5, 2005

it's not really a "fact", it's a prediction

Fair enough.
posted by LarryC at 2:58 PM on October 5, 2005

I'm sure discussion is past, but it's hard to let this go by:

"we'd all be better off if there were only about three billion of us instead of the present six and a half"

How could we all be better off if more than half of us someohow ceased to exist?
posted by Good Brain at 10:55 PM on October 8, 2005

I don't think anyone was suggesting that we eliminate three and a half billion of the world's current inhabitants. The point is that our descendants would be better off if half of us refrained from reproducing.

In any event, the reason population control is not seen as a critical issue is that human beings are pretty much incapable of long-term planning, especially when it comes to resource management, and we don't really care about what happens to people living a hundred years from now (even if those people are our children and grandchildren).

In 1974, Ansley Coale calculated that at then-current rates of growth human population would occupy every square foot of land on earth within seven centuries, and within 6,000 years the mass of humanity would form a sphere expanding at the speed of light (Coale, A.J. (1974). The History of the Human Population. In Human Population. Scientific American. New York, NY, USA: viii + 147 pp.; illustr.; pp. 15-25). Growth rates have slowed somewhat since then, but we're still looking at a global population of 9.8 - 16.2 billion people in 2150. (Population Reference Bureau). It's not going to help anyone's commute time, that's for sure.
posted by BluntInstrument at 6:03 PM on October 11, 2005

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