Population growth: the facts continue to be ignored

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Humans are the real threat to the planet, Stephen Emmott informs us in this week’s Observer. This may be so, but unfortunately Emmott writes like a 19th century thinker who has just got his hands on an early print of Thomas Malthus. His views on population growth are not only highly inaccurate, but dangerously so. Consider the original image that fronted the story:

This conjures up rather questionable images of the black and brown skinned swamping the planet. Clearly, someone at the Observer decided this is of questionable taste, because it is now missing from the website version of the story, replaced by something rather more benign:

Yes, this is rather more accurate. The white and the rich pollute and screw the planet far more on a per capita basis than anyone else. But unfortunately the image of African and Asian babies is still to be seen on the Guardian environment home page.

Environment news  comment and analysis from the Guardian   Environment   The Guardian

OK, I can’t blame Emmott for fronting the story with questionable imagery. That’s probably the fault of a sub-editor at the Observer.

However the deeply misleading statements he makes about population growth are all down to him. Consider the following:

 I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.

The source of this figure is the United Nations Population Division, which produces the most respected (if at times questionably high) population projections. What Emmott fails to point out, and I assume he knows, is that fertility rates are in decline everywhere on the planet. And very quickly. This phenomenon is brilliantly visualized at the Gapminder website. Emmott’s suggestion that birth rates will stay at current levels is either uninformed or wilful scaremongering. Either way it does not help further an informed discussion about population growth.

Quite remarkably Emmott implies that reducing the number of children women have is not a very viable option:

Saying “Don’t have children” is utterly ridiculous. It contradicts every genetically coded piece of information we contain, and one of the most important (and fun) impulses we have.

Well, all Emmott needs to do here is look at the data. Women around the world are contradicting whatever genetically coded information Emmott is referring to. Consider Taiwan, a country where women have an average of 0.9 babies, something Emmott would have us think is impossible. Or how about that Islamic theocracy Iran, where women have on average 1.6 babies. And I could go on. There are 79 countries where women are having on average less than 2.1 babies. Not only is getting people to not have babies possible, it is happening on a widespread basis.

A greater problem is Emmott running through scary numbers about the future growth in populations of many modernising countries, which I guess is supposed to prompt images of human numbers overwhelming the planet. He cites the following countries, and how much their populations are expected to grow by:

Afghanistan by 242%.

Democratic Republic of Congo 213%.

Gambia by 242%.

Guatemala by 369%.

Iraq by 344%.

Kenya by 284%.

Liberia by 300%.

Malawi by 741%.

Mali by 408%.

Niger by 766%.

Somalia by 663%.

Uganda by 396%.

Yemen by 299%.

These statistics are rather frightening. However, like Emmott, I am a privileged westerner typing this sentence on a computer imported from China and writing a blog post saved somewhere in North Carolina or Norway. The people in the countries listed above mostly don’t have such privileges. So, instead consider how many people living in each of these countries it would take to produce the same amount of carbon emissions as the average American. This comparison puts these growth rates in perspective.

Afghanistan – 83

Democratic Republic of Congo – 34

Gambia – 66

Guatemala – 16

Iraq – 5

Kenya – 55

Liberia – 126

Malawi – 235

Mali – 419

Niger – 222

Somalia – 264

Uganda – 160

Yemen – 17

If it takes 420 people from Mali to screw up the climate as much as the average American, then I think we should not worry that much about a population boom in Mali. Assuming these projections are correct, Mali will go from 14 to 72 million people, an increase of 59 million people. But if we keep per capita emissions were they are this is like adding 140,000 Americans to the planet. Of course per capita emissions are likely to increase in Mali and other modernising countries, but these vast disparities in per capita emissions far outweigh differences in population growth.

So the statistics make it rather clear: population growth is largely occurring in countries that per capita aren’t damaging the biosphere at anywhere close to western levels. The impact the above increases in population will have on carbon emissions could probably be offset simply by Americans and Canadians driving sensible vehicles. I’m more worried about Americans driving Hummers instead of Honda Civics than I am worried about people from India or elsewhere “breeding like rabbits” as Paul Ehrlich occasionally complains about:

Of course such statements ignore an obvious reality: Ehrlich’s grand children are (I’m guessing) likely to contribute far more heavily to the civilization collapse he refers to than the poor of the world breeding like rabbits.

Population growth is often referred to as the elephant in the room. It is not. The facts indicate that the population bomb is being defused, and that continued worries about population are simply one thing: the deflection of the cause of a problem away from those who have caused it.

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7 thoughts on “Population growth: the facts continue to be ignored

    costrike said:
    July 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    At risk of calling down the thunder, I’ll mostly agree with you, but need to take exception with one point. I know my footprint as a westerner is clearly outsized, but I’m one of many people working to reduce it. I sold my car over a year ago and began commuting to work via bike among many other things. My point being that there’s plenty of fat to be trimmed from the typical western lifestyle. (We’ll need to cut into the bone eventually, but will save that argument for another day.) More importantly, the growing population around the globe is force fed a desire to live like westerners, which acts as a multiplier for those whose impacts you’ve dismissed. Yes, we are far more impactful on a per capita basis, but the impacts of the rest of the world are growing on a per capita basis, while the absolute numbers are also increasing. I don’t think that deserves to be dismissed out of hand.
    Okay. Now you can release the hounds…

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    dsula said:
    July 3, 2013 at 11:03 am

    So, does the author suggest it’s better to have MORE people live miserable lives in shit-holes, than LESS people with a reasonable standard?

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    Frank Kling said:
    July 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    It’s factually inaccurate articles like this that provide the politicians with just enough cover to do nothing. Meanwhile, mankind continues his relentless assault on the natural world. The signs are everywhere that we are destroying the Earth’s life support system-Chytrid is wiping out amphibians the world round, White Nose Syndrome is responsible for killing millions of bats, Mother Nature’s most critical insectivore, and Colony Collapse Disorder resulted in the loss of 50% of all honey bee hives in the US over this last winter. The proximate cause for all these problems is that taboo of topics-human population overshoot. There I said it.

    Regardless of whether “the population bomb is being diffused” or not, every 24 hours the world human population bloats by 219,000 (births minus deaths) while during this same time period 200 animal and plant species, on average, are driven extinct. These are verifiable facts.

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      Robert Wilson said:
      July 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm

      Thank you for both not reading my article and not responding to a word of it. I’ll now go away and think deeply about your critique.

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    Decarbonise SA said:
    July 5, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    A very, very good piece.

    What an elegant example, to be found in the comments, of those with ideological attachment to a view of the world simply digging their heels in further when evidence is presented that threatens the view.

    I am pleased to report that this is the exception. My experience, from delivering similar message with similar evidence in lectures, is that nearly everyone is very relieved to to have an evidence-based framework with which to let go of their fear of the poor masses, and a new parameter to think about sustainability i.e. their will be about 10 bn people in 2050, that’s our challenge, let’s find a way to make it work.

    Interesting that the “Constant Fertility” variable gives a 2100 outcome that is fully 12 bn people higher in 2100 than the UN scenario they termed “High Fertility”. I.e. constant fertility is utterly beyond even the high end of expectations. Building an article around this bit of data was just plain deceptive of Eammott in the first place.

    Good piece Robert.

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    […] down and write a lengthier post about Stephen Emmott’s book 10 Billion to go only with the shorter critical post I wrote about his Observer article, but have noticed that Chris Goodall has written an excellent one and my time would be better spent […]

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