July 11 is World Population Day. Originally conceived in 1989 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this global event aims to focus the world’s attention on the importance and urgency of population issues. It seeks to raise greater awareness of population, including its bearing on such vital topics as the environment, development, migration and sustainability.
At a time of seismic demographic shifts that affect virtually every nation and every individual on the planet, no issue could be more important or fraught, and no issue more neglected or misunderstood.
By the time this single 24-hour period has elapsed, approximately 403,000 infants will have been born across the world, and 157,000 people will have died, for a net increase of some 246,000 human beings. Spaceship Earth is rapidly filling up with humans, our stuff and our waste products.
Multiplied by 365 days in a year, that is nearly 90 million people net (births minus deaths) added to the Earth’s burgeoning population annually, at a time when the planet is already, by many ecological measures, severely overpopulated. This is an unfolding, slow-motion catastrophe for humanity, the biosphere and the other creatures for whom the Earth is their only home in the universe and which we are squeezing out of existence.
Yet huge swaths of people continue to be blind to this, including some very smart and influential ones. For example, on July 6, billionaire mogul, solar visionary, climate activist and Tesla electric car CEO Elon Musk tweeted to his nearly 10 million followers that: "The world's population is accelerating towards collapse, but few seem to notice or care."
Just to be clear, Musk was not decrying a rapidly increasing population that is overshooting its carrying capacity, destroying its environment, using up its natural resources, and which will eventually collapse because of a damaged, depleted biosphere that can no longer support it. Rather, he was lamenting just the opposite: that collapse is imminent because people are deciding for themselves to have too few babies!
What? More than 400,000 new babies a day and 147 million new babies a year are not enough for Musk? In recent decades, the world has been adding a billion new people net every 12 years! Maybe he would prefer that we add a billion every five years instead. That would indeed be “accelerating.”
We are at 7.5 billion right now, and the U.N. predicts there will be more than 11 billion of us by 2100. If this is “accelerating toward collapse” I’d hate to see “exponential increase!”
Does Musk believe Earth can support unlimited numbers of people, like the late guru of growth Julian Simon did? Since Musk himself has fathered six children, this might well be the case. If so, he is badly deluded.
Musk, and many other bright, dumb, decent, not-so-decent and powerful people are both very confused – and very confusing to their herds of followers – when they blurt out uniformed, pretentious claptrap, or at best half-truths, about population.
Yes, global fertility rates have declined by about 50% over the past half century, and overall, this is a tremendous achievement for humanity and for women in particular, who can devote more of their lives to pursuits other than motherhood. In scores of countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas, fertility rates are now at or below “replacement level” (approximately 2.1 births per female). If other developing countries, primarily in Africa, could follow suit, this would eventually lead to a stable or slowly declining population sometime after 2100.
However, that is a mighty big “If.” In fact, the UN projects that Africa’s population alone will swell from about one billion at present to more than four billion by 2100. Virtually all of the world’s growth in numbers in this century is expected to occur in Africa. (see graph).
This rapid growth is already posing dire consequences for Africa’s more affluent neighbors, namely Europe. There has been a veritable explosion in the numbers of desperate African migrants from countries like Nigeria (with 187 million people now and 400 million projected for 2050) crossing the Mediterranean Sea hoping for a better future to the north.
Probably because of their unsavory history of imperialism and colonialism, guilt-ridden Western Europeans (if not Eastern Europeans) seem paralyzed about how to respond to this issue. Leaders have been unwilling to turn away or return the migrants, many or most of whom are clearly economic migrants, that is to say, illegal immigrants, and not refugees fleeing conflict or a legitimate fear of persecution.
In many more developed countries, there is a whole different demographic reality. It is true that fertility rates in countries such as Portugal, Italy, Greece, Singapore and Japan are extremely low, averaging about 1.4, only about two-thirds of the replacement rate (2.1).
It is also true that a number of more developed countries such as Japan, Germany and Russia are already living through a population decline. But by and large, they are managing just fine. Both Japan and Germany are overpopulated and overcrowded and would enjoy a higher quality of life and better environments with somewhat fewer people.
Yet, if those peoples don’t want to disappear demographically over the coming centuries, their average family size needs to grow by about a third to get back to replacement level. This could be a tall order, because the reasons for desired family size are complex and often not amenable to alteration by government policy.
In short, on this World Population Day, the situation is far more complex than those hitting the panic button about “too few babies” seem to realize:
In ecological terms, as a whole, Earth is already overpopulated and unsustainable, as shown by Ecological Footprint analysis and many other measures.
Major progress has been made in reducing fertility levels and population growth rates in most of the world, but much more progress still needs to be made, primarily in Africa.
For those countries with ultra-low fertility rates – which have already transitioned to zero or negative population growth – there is no need for panic or mass immigration to prop up economies or support pensioners.
It’s time for the Elon Musks of the world to take a chill pill and learn a bit more about these demographic and environmental realities before mouthing off.