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Fretting about world population growth has become politically risky over recent decades. Yet numbers are still rising. Today’s ageing baby boomers have experienced a trebling of the world’s human inhabitants; 2.5 billion in 1950 had reached 7.7 billion by 2019.

True, fertility rates are declining everywhere: a downward trend expected to continue. Recent UN projections nonetheless top 11 billion by 2100 and even this figure is accompanied by a proviso that it assumes concerted efforts to reduce worldwide birth rates to no more than two children per woman.

Save the planet: have fewer children?

It is too simplistic to identify any straightforward causal connection between population growth and environmental degradation. However, it is clear that humans are irreversibly, perhaps fatally, changing the planet’s geological and biological fabric. 

Population policies to stabilise or reduce human numbers have traditionally been unpopular. The poorest nations still have high fertility rates, and memories of coercive methods formerly used to reduce population growth mean that policy interventions are vulnerable to charges of racism or eugenics.

Because fertility management primarily concerns women’s bodies, feminists are also understandably suspicious of government efforts to control reproduction, despite their welcoming family planning services that empower women. And to put it simply, individuals generally resent being told how many children they may have.

Updating the politics of population growth

What is urgently required is a widescale update of how we view population politics. The late twentieth century’s acrimonious population debates used to position an over-developed, low-fertility North in contrast with an under-developed, high-fertility South. This model is now out of date. In the twenty-first century, global flows of capital and people, diverse national contexts and ecological impacts have complicated the picture.

Meanwhile, social and natural scientists are beginning to revisit the issue of stabilising or reducing numbers as a part of a sustainability portfolio that may be more achievable than alternative environmental measures. For examples, see Rockström’s influential Planetary Boundaries approach, or the Royal Society’s ‘People and the Planet’. Given that consumer aspirations are increasing globally, fertility decisions may actually be more tractable; and reproductive technologies more egalitarian, cost-effective and less risky than heroic projects like geoengineering.

The debate is complex, but there are at least three geographically-specific arenas that invite critical engagement.  

The particular case of Africa

First, in the world’s 48 least-developed (mainly African) countries, despite declining fertility, women on average still have four or five children. Africa’s 2017 population of 1.26 billion is projected to reach 4 billion by 2100. Nigeria’s population of some 38 million in 1950, for example, had exceeded 190 million by 2017, with nearly 800 million projected by 2100.

Although development is understood to be the main catalyst of fertility decline such high, rapid levels of increase also impede it. They are accompanied, furthermore, by rapid urbanisation, with vast slums becoming an endemic feature of new mega-cities, fed by impoverished migrants from over-worked and degraded farmland. Most governments in least-developed countries have policies for reducing fertility, even if they are not always very effective.

Given that surveys reveal significant unmet demand for family planning, the maternal health benefits of fewer births and the development benefits of educating girls (who are likely to choose smaller families), non-coercive reproductive health programmes suggest a win-win situation.

There are, however, reasons why Africa’s unique demographic journey may differ from that of Europe or Asia. Some are indigenous, but withdrawal of overseas aid and support for family planning programmes is also a critical factor. A renewed global commitment to stabilising numbers could bring many benefits, from empowering women to protecting the planet. But this needs to be advertised explicitly and funded properly. Any initiative also urgently needs a new moral discourse to counter abiding suspicions that population policies are colonial and coercive.

The hazardous growth conundrum

Second, today’s emergent, mainly Asian economies – exemplified by China and India – are home to some 2.7 billion people, or 37 per cent of the world total. Their fertility rates fell dramatically during the late twentieth century, albeit through sometimes draconian programmes. Will these dynamic populous societies now continue to endorse small families and stable numbers, or will they strive to revitalise fertility rates as their populations age?

Take China, for example. Producing fewer children initially resulted in a disproportionately large working-age population and low dependency ratio: a `demographic dividend’. This has been credited with making a significant contribution to China’s impressive economic growth. It is, however, a necessarily temporary opportunity. As this large economically-active generation ages, the dependency ratio rises again and economic growth falters.

The crucial question, then, is whether countries will put their longer-term environmental and wellbeing needs first, or will try to prolong their dividend by deploying pronatalist policies in order to sustain economic growth and cope with the challenges of population ageing. China abandoned its one-child policy in 2016 but its two-child substitute may be short-lived. There are already signs of the sort of pronatalist inducements practised in other Asian states, like Singapore or South Korea.

Should these attempts at reinvigorating fertility succeed and become normalised, the environmental consequences could be disastrous, especially inasmuch as emergent economies are producing substantial middle classes with western-style consumer habits.

All this produces a conundrum. Economic expansion is needed to support a growing population, while population growth generally increases economic growth (as measured by GDP, at least). When plentiful cheap labour supports rapid industrialisation, this is the most environmentally hazardous mode of development. A high-waged, high-tech alternative is more sustainable, and could be supported by knowledge and technology transfers from rich nations to those embarking on development. Yet this development strategy creates fewer jobs and increases inequality because individuals have different amounts of human capital. At the same time, it privileges smaller families, which have more resources to invest in each child.

Ageing populations

Where population ageing is well advanced, pronatalist (and sometimes more generous immigration) policies have been justified since the mid-1990s in almost all European, Anglophone and some Asian countries. This is the third arena for critical consideration. The UK, US and Australia are among other developed countries that are projected to have significantly more people by mid-century.

Given the association of pronatalist interventions with gender-equality policies (like subsidised childcare or shared parental leave) and the contested nature of immigration politics (justified economically for its benefits to GDP and normatively, by the association of social justice with open borders), it is unsurprising that the environmental benefits of fewer people are rarely discussed.

Yet these wealthy countries, with their stubbornly high levels of per capita consumption, are arguably the most over-populated and least sustainable. Given that creating or importing more people to service the elderly is a recipe for continuous population growth, since they will also age, the demographic implications of current ageing policies surely warrant more debate.

The end of growth?

If pronatalism becomes a worldwide solution to population ageing then we could actually surpass peak population predictions of 11 to 12 billion. Surely developed countries can export better demographic advice? And, as economic and demographic dimensions are inseparable, any alternative solution must be complemented by a more sustainable economic model than continual growth driven by consumer capitalism. The challenges of population policies loom large, but as a starting point they need a new ethical and political framework to sell them to the general public, sensitive to the particular context of each country.

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