Some time later this year, probably toward the end of October, the 7 billionth person will be born, and judging by birthrates, (s)he will most likely be Indian. The jump from 6 billion to 7 billion people on the planet will only have taken 12 years.
The birth of this 7 billionth person raises important questions about the future of the planet, and indeed many commenters on my blog posts argue that population growth is the biggest challenge we will face in the years to come. Inevitably it boils down to a question of resources, alarm about whether the planet will be able to support populations of the future, citing evidence that we have already overshot the earth’s carrying capacity. For example, the WWF has released a study showing “by 2030 humanity will need the capacity of two earths to absorb carbon dioxide waste and keep up with natural resource consumption”.
But blaming humanity’s ecological impact simply on the world population (which inevitably implies birth rates in the impoverished and developing worlds) is a nasty bit of logic that needs to be squashed once and for all. For although we should definitely be thinking about human populations, it’s instructive to put those populations in perspective: to see which sectors of the human population are in fact causing the most strain on our ecosystems.
Take the population of Bangladesh for example1. A person there has an ecological footprint of roughly 0.62gha — the amount of resources they use averages around 0.6 global hectares, in South Africa it is 2.32gha, and in the US and Belgium that figure rockets to 8gha: almost 13 times the footprint of someone in Bangladesh! Interestingly the nation with the heaviest impact is the United Arab Emirates, sitting at 10.68gha.
The point is a simple one: although people in the developing world often have many more children than people in more affluent countries, the ecological impact of those born in the developing world is far less than that of those growing up in developed nations.
What does become clear, though, is that birthrates do bear some relationship to affluence, and specifically to women’s empowerment. Generally speaking, the more money a country has, the lower its birthrate, which is rather ironic. It means that although there is a global trend towards a lower birthrate (which would seem to be good news), because that lowering is a function of increased affluence, we can assume that those born will consume a lot more, so that even a marked reduction in birthrates is unlikely to reduce humankind’s ecological impact. In other words, even though we may be heading towards a world where fewer people are being born, those born will have a much larger impact than in the past, meaning that we still won’t decrease our impact on the earth.
Which is why in the game of getting back to within the world’s carrying capacity, consumption is king. Ultimately our levels of consumption play the largest role in determining whether or not we overshoot the earth’s capacity to provide for us.
It’s this short-sightedness that annoys me most about those who self-righteously denounce overpopulation as the main cause of the ecological mess we are in. It smacks of racism in some ways, an irritation that they are too stupid to realise what damage they’re causing. Why do they keep breeding when they’re already struggling to feed the babies they have? Many of us fail to realise the economic value of big families in impoverished countries — but more than that, we fail to realise that we are the one’s too stupid to realise the damage we’re causing.