The Danger of Complacency, Derision & Fear
I share the lower human population dream of Cal Flyn’s Op-Ed in the Observer on 24th January, but certainly not her complacency about “an end to population growth”. Nor do I appreciate the mocking tones of derision with which she describes “certain sections of the environmental movement” when referring to Sir David Attenborough & Prof. Paul Ehrlich; nor her fear-mongering characterisation of falling human population as a “post-peak world” that is somehow a ‘problem’ because there are “ too few people”.
In her complacency, Cal asserts that human populations are set to decline and that “the UN now believes that we will see an end to population growth within decades”. Well, we only need go back a few decades to see that the UN has been asserting that very same thing for decades.
It’s not long ago that the UN was telling us that global human population would peak at 9bn, but now they tell us we will exceed 9bn in about 25 years time and go on to exceed 11bn by the end of the century, with little sign of the mythical peak.
In fact, roughly every 2 years for the last several, the UN has revised it’s forecast upwards and pushed the mythical peak further right on the graph, as each prediction that they made has proven to be inadequate. Far from Cal’s complacent view, human population is not set to decline across the planet any time soon unless we take decisive action to drive a decline.
The most frightening thing about her complacency is her ignorance of the fact that, as Global Footprint Network data tells us, current population and consumption, already exceeds the planet’s ability to replenish renewables by over a third; almost everyone on the planet is striving to ‘improve their lifestyle’ (aka increase personal consumption) and we continue to grow in number. To meet that deficit we are chopping down vital rainforest to create food producing land; fishing the oceans to empty (and filling them with plastic); using farming practices that are causing accelerating land degradation, driving all the insects to extinction and driving the 6th mass extinction of species on the planet… not to mention causing accelerated climate change.
Cal is, of course, right to point out that growth in human population has slowed as birth rates have fallen. But that’s not the same as falling human population. In the 1960s, when fertility rate (TFR) was 5 & growth rate was 2% (doubling time ~34 years), total population was ‘only’ around 3 billion. So adding 2% a year in the 1960s added roughly 60 million people to the total. Fast forward to 2021 where human population has rocketed to 7.8 billion, even though fertility has fallen to 2.4 and growth rate is at 1.05% per year, we are adding the much larger number of 82 million people to the total each year. This is hardly “population decline”. Meanwhile, birth rates in the USA, Canada & Western Europe have pretty much flat-lined: they are not falling much, if at all from decade to decade. That, combined with population momentum, means that tangible & significant population decline is not going to happen soon.
But if human population is to actually decline to levels that deliver sustainability and allow for rewilding, by what mechanism does Cal imagine that would come about? Certainly not through complacency, but by focussing on the facts about human overpopulation; educating people about the issue; ensuring that everyone on the planet has access to the tools needed to control their own fertility & by ditching the unsustainable growth model.
Cal attempts to rubbish the ideas of Paul & Anne Ehrlich, calling them ‘Neo-Mathusians’ (as if that’s some kind of an insult!) & describes a recent documentary by Sir David Attenborough as “fears that were recently given voice”. But the ‘evidence’ that she supplies to support her mockery is merely the fact that fertility rates and growth rates have fallen … and who can argue with that? That’s certainly not evidence that either the Ehrlichs or Attenborough have got it wrong and, in being so dismissive, one wonders what qualifications or experience she actually has in environmental science, biology, demographics, ecology or population dynamics, to enable her to pour such derision on those who have studied and followed the subjects close up for their entire working lives?
Perhaps Cal is also unaware of the numbers of humans currently without enough to eat; the large number who live in poverty; or the enormous numbers of people who are currently in the process of migrating across the planet in order to escape drought, famine and resource driven conflict? She certainly seems unaware of the precarious nature of Norman Borlaug’s ‘green revolution’. Even Borlaug recognised that the mechanisms put in place to feed millions in the 1970s were unsustainable. As he said. it was a “temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space”. I’m also guessing, when he said, “But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only”, he didn’t imagine that we would use the green-revolution as an excuse to reach 8 billion and beyond: teetering on an unsustainable & collapsing ecological support network.
Cal’s third main theme seems to be the fear that “birth rates around the world are stuttering and stalling” and an assertion that “falling fertility rates have been a problem in the world’s wealthiest nation” bringing about “a crisis of a different kind, as ageing populations place shrinking economies under ever greater strain”. That, of course, is Ponzi scheme thinking.
The idea that ever more young people are needed to support the old or the economy is entirely unsustainable, because those young people grow old requiring ever more young people to support them.
The problems associated with an ageing and shrinking population & economy are tiny in comparison with the problems associated with ever more people on a finite planet.
Reclamation of habitats by other species is a really good thing, but its not going to happen unless we stop being complacent about the enormous number of humans on the planet and actively help falling birth rates to fall much further and much faster. It’s not going to happen if we deride those who raise the issue: allowing society to continue to ignore it & permit continued poor access to contraception and family planning education. It’s not going to happen unless we ditch the fear that declining human population is a bad thing because growth, including economic, is the only measure of human success — it’s not. On a finite planet of finite resources, nothing can grow forever.
Jem Randles, C.Eng, MSc dist, B.Eng hon, MIET, is a Fellow of World Population Balance. He is a campaigner on environmental issues, the impact of human population & consumption. He runs World Population Balance social media & is a contributor to the Population Counts Facebook & Twitter feeds.