books

Book review: Peoplequake, by Fred Pearce

The world is going through a massive demographic transition. It is a century in and has at least another century to run. Life on this planet, and even the planet itself, will be very different by the time it is over. This is the ‘peoplequake’, as Fred Pearce has named it, the boom in human population, and this is his book exploring the subject.

I’ve read plenty about population, from various points of view. This is one of the most balanced books I’ve come across. It sets out the facts of population growth, the direction of current trends, and then assesses these facts from a whole variety of angles. The first thing to remember is that population growth is its broadest context is not a straightforward upwards graph towards inevitable destruction, as the more panicky end of the environmental movement would have us believe. It certainly looked that way in the middle of the last century, when mothers were having five or six children. In fact, the fertility rate peaked in the 1960s and has been falling ever since.

Add a lifetime of 70-80 years on to that moment of peak fertility and you can see where we’re headed – a peak population scenario. Around 2070, the world’s population reaches a natural peak and then begins to decline. “If you are over 45, you have lived through a period when the world population has doubled. No past generation has lived through such an era – and probably no future generation will either. But if you are under 45, you will almost certainly live to see a world population that is declining – for the first time since the Black Death almost 700 years ago.”

To look at it another way, the ‘peoplequake’ is in many ways a population bulge. It starts as a baby boom, moves into a youth bulge, and then works its way out towards a ‘grey bulge’ of retirees. This is where it starts to get interesting. Is it a coincidence that Japan is the oldest country in the world, and that its economy hasn’t grown for 20 years? Or what about the revolutions sweeping the Middle East, considering that the average age in Egypt right now is 24, or 22 in Libya? Pearce doesn’t address all of those questions, but the book opens the box on demographics and all kinds of ideas come tumbling out.

All around the world, fertility is falling. From that five or six children 50 years ago, fertility is now around 2.6 births per woman. In many countries the birth-rate has fallen below the replacement level, and populations are declining. Italy, Germany and Russia all have falling populations, as do Japan and South Korea. Australia is paying bonuses to couples who have a baby. Singapore is the only country in the world where the government runs dating agencies. What does this mean? How will an aging population affect our politics, economy, and society?

One thing is for certain – meddling in population control is a dangerous thing. The opening chapters of the book tell the history of population studies, from Robert Malthus to the inhuman legacy of eugenics. We’ve forgotten far too many of the horrors detailed here, from the Malthusians who opposed food aid during the Irish famine, to the 60,000 forced sterilizations in the US between the wars, or the millions of poor men talked into vasectomies for cash in India. Any advocate of population control needs to read this book and see the kinds of things that can happen when that thought begins to become policy. If we’re not aware of this history, we’re likely to sleep walk into the same atrocities.

On the plus side, those decades of experiments have shown us what does work – emancipating women, and making contraceptives available.

There’s plenty more here to think about. Pearce looks at urbanisation and population, at the empty farming villages of Eastern Germany, and discusses the endless question of whether or not consumption is more important that population. For the most part, Pearce leaves the conclusions pretty open, making Peoplequake a great book for thinking through the population question for yourself.

51 comments

  1. Around the world fertility is falling? Pearce makes it sounds like actual numbers of people are falling. Our exponential growth may be slowing down, but our overall numbers is increasing. Some countries have reacted to sustainability issues by reducing the number of children, but there are other countries that are having a blow-out of population, outstripping food supplies. The analogy of middle aged spread in humans as a model of population growth and decline is dangerous. Population control is NOT dangerous – it’s the false distortion of it! On the contrary, ignoring our swelling numbers is what is dangerous. The planet, the rock in space we live on, will ultimately survive, probably better without rapaciously consuming humans on it. may it may not be in a human-friendly form. We have food security threats due to limited arable land, lack of fertlizers, peak oil, and climate change. The decline in our human “obesity”, if it’s not voluntary, could be through famine.

    1. Yes, overall numbers are increasing, and will continue to do so until population peaks in 2070 or so. Because of the youth bulge that we have globally, that happens whether we like it or not. That growth is locked in and population increase is a fact. It’s also a fact that fertility is falling, all around the world. Africa has yet to catch up, but in India and China, the places that caused the initial panic about population a few decades ago, fertility has dropped right back. Across the developed world, population is in decline. These are facts.

      Does that mean we haven’t got a problem? No, we clearly do. We’ve overshot the earth’s biocapacity feeding the seven billion of us, and nine is obviously a problem. But as I say, short of outlawing children, the growth is locked in. So the question that this website is dedicated to is ‘how do we create ecological space?’ And the answer is redistribution, and a massive scaling back of the unfair levels of consumption enjoyed in the industrialised world.

      I’d be interested to know what you think we should do about population numbers.

  2. VivKay: cheer up – gloom is unecessary.

    Since 1900, despite a 400 percent increase in population, per capita food production has increased by 50 percent. Moreover as Jeremy points out, a remarkable feature of today’s world is just how quickly birth rates are falling: in India, for example, without population control (distorted or otherwise), the rate has fallen from 5.9 children per woman in the 1950s to 2.6 today. The UN predicts world population will peak at 9.2 billion this century and fall thereafter. And the technology of food production continues to improve – GM foods are an example.

    There’s every prospect of feeding the world for ever.

    And, Jeremy, all this is happening because people have become and continue to become more prosperous. Make wealth history? Er … not such a good idea.

    1. Ah, welcome back Robin. I see you’re no closer to understanding my website, and I won’t bother to explain the title again. Suffice to say that I advocate ‘enough’, not nothing. Offering one billion people the consumer promise of an infinite ‘more’ has done enough damage already, without rolling it out to the rest of the world. The answer is enough – more for those who don’t have all their needs met, and less for those of using more than our fair share.

    2. Jeremy: yes, it’s fun to be back. And I still enjoy teasing you – especially about the misleading title of your always interesting blog.

      But I’m making a serious point. Of course, mankind faces some ghastly problems (many of them of the “unknown unknowns” variety) but nonetheless there’s sound reason to be optimistic. (Are you listening, VivKay?) As I’ve said here before, during my lifetime, despite a huge increase in population, less people live in poverty, more are healthier and live longer (child mortality has fallen dramatically), famine has largely been overcome, air pollution has improved and, overall, we are more prosperous and more free. And that has pretty well been the overall pattern throughout the Holocene (the last 10,000 or so years). All this has happened, not because people decided to “make wealth history” (or by more for some and less for others), but as the direct result of expanding global wealth. The increasingly wealthy China, India and Brazil, where hundreds of millions of people are escaping poverty, are prime examples. Perhaps “make wealth universal” would be a more appropriate title.

      Here’s an important example: business between these developing economies and Africa is booming. Sino-African trade alone has risen from $10bn in 2000 to $129bn last year. Africa’s GDP has been growing even more quickly than India’s – albeit from a low base. Despite its political and logistical problems, Africa’s on an economic roll. And increased prosperity (i.e. greater wealth) provides real hope for the world’s second-most populous continent.

      All this means that, despite our many problems, we are witnessing the emergence of a fairer, more prosperous and better world – a world where fewer people are slaves to survival and more have the time for enterprise, leisure and innovation. So, cheer up.

      1. Not entirely. Famine hasn’t been overcome, and the number of hungry people rose again in 2008 and is now over a billion. And air pollution is better here, but not globally – we’ve successfully exported our own pollution to China. It’s debatable whether or not the world is becoming more fair. And it’s hardly been an upward curve for 10,000 years. Remember the dark ages?

        ‘Making wealth history’ is a specific response to today’s situation. It’s obviously not what people have been out to do throughout history. Neither should it be the goal of poor countries. But why should the UK, or the US economy be growing? Why should people who are already overconsuming aspire to more?

    3. VivKay, 1) How certain are you of the safety of GM food? 2) Are you aware the increase in food production has been accomplished by converting finite and declining supplies of oil and gas into food, and by liquidating the planet’s aquifers and fertile soils? 3)I have some swamp land in Louisiana I’d love to sell you.

      Dave Gardner
      producing the documentary
      GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  3. Of course, Jeremy, I agree – famine hasn’t been entirely overcome. As I said, “mankind faces some ghastly problems”. China’s appalling air pollution is an excellent example of my point: as it becomes more prosperous, China is at last tackling it by phasing out its dirty coal-fired power stations and introducing “clean burn” alternatives. That’s typical of what wealthier countries do: it happened in the UK and now it’s happening in China, India and in Brazil. And it will happen in Africa. It’s economic prosperity that will eventually solve the world’s problems. Whether or not the UK and US continue to grow may seem important to us but it’s an irrelevant side issue to the developing and underdeveloped world.

    Changing your blog’s title to “make wealth universal” would be a dramatic way of helping people to understand this. I urge you to consider it.

    1. Robin, unfortunately there are not enough resources to support the “grow our way out of poverty and inequality scenario.” The only hope is degrowth in the rich world, sufficiency in the poor world, and gradual population reduction.

      Dave Gardner
      producing the documentary
      GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  4. Jeremy (and VivKay):

    Apologies for hogging this post, but I’ve got to share this with you. It seems today is “Earth Day” (whatever that means) and someone’s come up with some of the predictions made on the first Earth day in 1970. Here they are:

    We have about five more years at the outside to do something.”
    • Kenneth Watt, ecologist

    Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
    • George Wald, Harvard Biologist

    Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
    • Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

    By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”
    • Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

    “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.”
    • Denis Hayes, chief organizer for Earth Day

    Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”
    • Peter Gunter, professor, North Texas State University

    Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….
    • Life Magazine, January 1970

    At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.”
    • Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

    Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.”
    • Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

    By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”
    • Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

    Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”
    • Sen. Gaylord Nelson

    And this beauty:

    The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”
    • Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

    Compare all that with what really happened and perhaps you’ll see why I cannot take today’s gloom-mongers seriously.

    1. Yes, although you compile an equally absurd list of predictions about how the world’s problems were going to be solved, and we’d be living on the moon. And yet, here we are in 2011 and I still don’t have a jetpack. Making predictions is always a dangerous game, and it’s usually only attention-seeking scientists and writers that do it.

  5. The dangerous thing about what Pearce is saying is the assumption that population decline will take place. UN projections are only a little better than pure conjecture. If they are off just a little bit on where fertility rates settle, the world’s population grows to 30 billion within less than 200 years. And what of all the growth-addicted nations trying to incentivize births? Let’s hope they are not successful.

    Let’s also not forget that no serious scientists are calculating that a sustainable population for the world is over 5 billion. Most estimates are far lower. And without an endless supply of oil to convert into food, we’re going to find this out sooner rather than later.

    Finally, I think Pearce’s message that we can and should RELAX about population growth (and be more concerned about aging populations – a minor concern if you ask me) could actually steer the trend in the wrong direction. There is nothing wrong with being concerned and educating the world about the implications of their family size decisions.

    Dave Gardner
    producing the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  6. In an essay on ‘The Principles of Population’ in 1798, Thomas Malthus, a British scholar and cleric, proposed that reproduction operated on an exponential basis and agricultural production increased on a linear scale, so the final outcome of plague growth was guaranteed to be overpopulation of people, followed by mass starvation and population collapse.

    Admit it, we’ve become plague. And that will be corrected sooner or later. Nature’s forces are stronger than Economic ones, and human ideals, and more permanent. We will have a sustainable population eventually, and those deaths will come to befall on those who denied the importance of keeping numbers in balance.

    Those benefiting from the plague growth will be held responsible for that genocide.

  7. Well, Jeremy, your interesting comment on Fred Pearce’s seemingly sensible book (I haven’t yet read it) has brought out the sad gloomsters – “rapaciously consuming humans” Viv, “not enough resources” Dave and the really scary “plague growth” Francis. Why don’t people learn from experience? Have another look at the “Earth Day” predictions I quoted above. For example, this one, by Peter Gunter of North Texas State University (whom no doubt Dave would have characterised as a “serious scientist”):

    “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions… By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”

    What actually happened?

    Well, India instituted a revolution in agriculture – new types of crops, especially wheat, better use of fertiliser, pesticides and machinery, better irrigation, improved storage, processing, trade and communication. All this transformed yields so quickly that, within ten years of Gunter’s alarming prediction, India was exporting wheat. It’s a revolution that continues today and it’s been accompanied by increased income, better healthcare, better education, an improved environment and more equality. And one of the consequences was a reduction in population growth – from 5.9 children per woman in Gunter’s day to 2.6 today. And that, Francis, was without any compulsion.

    And China? Well, according to a recent UN report, China has (again within Gunter’s 30 years) “generated the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed” and is already achieving “the goal of halving the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015 set by the UN as one of eight Millennium Development Goals.” Whereas in 1978 one in four people were unable to feed themselves adequately, today that’s down to one in twelve – to less than 100 million people.

    I suggest that our gloomy friends should wake up to the real world. And cheer up.

  8. Yes, Jonathan, prediction is a dangerous game. As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. But I don’t think many of those amusing “jet-pack” predictions were made by professors from Harvard and Stanford – and, in any case, they didn’t give rise to calls for action and a need to spend zillions from our taxes in “educating the world” etc. Yet today even the most absurd pessimism (e.g. Norman Myers’ prediction in 1979 that a fifth of all species would be gone in two decades – a prediction based on zero evidence) is treated with reverence, whereas cautiously sober optimism is ridiculed. Needless to say, Myers called for government action.

  9. I’ve just found something especially amusing. As recently reported all over the blogosphere, in 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that climate change would create 50 million climate refugees by 2010. These people, it said, would flee a range of disasters including sea level rise, increases in the numbers and severity of hurricanes and disruption to food production. Well, far from that happening, many of the places from which these unfortunates were to escape have actually now got larger populations – and, needless to say, sea levels have barely changed, hurricanes have declined and food production is fine. So there’s another failed doomster prediction to add to the list.

    But I looked a little deeper. I found that it comes from a paper, “Environmental refugees – an emergent security issue” published by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in association with a conference in Prague. Here’s an extract from its web page: “There is general agreement about the current global environmental and development crisis.” (Yeah, right.)

    And the author? None other than good ole’ Norman Myers – see my previous post. He is, incidentally, a visiting professor at Oxford and (according to Wikipedia) “advisor to organizations including the United Nations, the World Bank, scientific academies in several countries, and various government administrations worldwide”. Doubtless he’s one of Dave’s “serious scientists”.

    PS: I seem to be taking over this item – sorry Jonathan. (I hope you’re enjoying the lovely weather.)

    1. Well done for finding that, I see every skeptic blog is repeating right now. Before you join the parade of gloating, bear in mind that there is no internationally recognised definition of environmental refugees. So nobody is counting them.

      Bear in mind that somebody may have crossed a border because of conflict, but the conflict may be over natural resources, land or water, making them indirectly environmental refugees.

      Besides, the UN document in question says there ‘could be’ 50 million refugees by 2010. It doesn’t say there will be. And it’s main point is to argue for a new category and seek to understand the issue, not to make predictions.

  10. “One of the most balanced books on population I’ve come across.” No, Jeremy, I don’t think so!

    Fred Pearce is quite eccentric on population. His selective vision minimises the huge harm done by the world’s vast and growing population, while trying (like the Vatican and some conservative think-tanks) to create concern about a future population-crash. In Pearce’s view of recent history, the harms done by trying to control population bulk far larger than the harms done by population growth.

    The kind view is that he is a strange amalgam of environmentalist and conservative Catholic.

    It is possible to offer mathematically valid scenarios whereby continual sub-zero fertility could, within a certain number of generations, reduce the world’s vast population down to double figures and then to zero; but these have little plausibility. As the demographer Lincoln Day remarks, even if we got down to such low figures, “It would take only one fertile female to start the population heading back up again”. More importantly, governments would surely offer incentives for an increased birthrate long, long before population became dangerously low.

    Suppose, just for example, the world adopted the long-term goal that Arthur C Clarke proposed for our descendants: to get humanity’s numbers back down to 1 billion. That surely is more than enough people for human cultural and social purposes, while leaving some room for other species (and even for a few carbon emissions) even if all one billion humans are living fairly affluently. So how would we get there?

    Well one doesn’t want too precipitate a decline, because this would give us a population heavily biased toward its older sections. So we might not want fertility much below 1.7 children per woman (except of course in countries with significant net migration, where lower fertility might be acceptable). At this rate it would still take many generations to get down to one seventh of the world’s present population.

    Eventually let us hope, the world will get down to a population such that we would in future need to take equal precautions against either major increases or major decreases — a desirable state, but not one we will reach in our great-great grandchildren’s lifetimes.

    For more on this see my and William Lines’s book Overloading Australia — at http://www.australianpoet.com/overloading.html

    1. Pearce does overstate the potential for a population crash a little, but he doesn’t suggest it’s going to hit zero! Neither is he anything like a conservative Catholic, who are against birth control entirely. Pearce is entirely in favour of contraception, and reserves his ire for eugenics.
      I say it’s a balanced book because it recognises that this is a demographic change that is impacting different parts of the world in different ways. Some places are booming, others are in decline – he visits towns in Eastern Europe that are practically empty, for example. I’m not making a ‘if you’re only going to read one book on population…’ endorsement, but it’s useful for broadening the debate.

  11. This issue is – why allow populations to maximise their numbers anyway? What is the advantage of allowing humanity to reach the brim of our “carrying capacity”? Surely when it comes to consumption and resources, conservatism is to our advantage. The planet Earth is not just a spaceship in the solar system just for humans. We share this planet with thousands of species, and their decline is due to human numbers and expansions. Surely balanced ecosystems are better than human numbers pushed to the limit, eliminating other sentient creatures? The Sixth Extinction is due to humans, not “natural” evolutionary impacts. Animals can’t evolve fast enough against human aggression. It’ s not only about ethics, conservation and conservatism, but maximising human numbers makes us vulnerable to resource declines, the energy crisis, shortages of potable water, natural disasters and climate change. Many large families are due to lack of female health education and contraception, not for better family lives. What’s the point of more people? Surely humanity can achieve what we need to with 7 billion people better than 9 billion?

    1. Absolutely, there’s no need to maximise population. It would be great if population peaked earlier, and I’m not aware of any agenda to aim for any higher carrying capacity. What I’m suggesting is that this population increase, in the short term, is inevitable. We can wish it wasn’t, but there isn’t any way to prevent it, so we have to live with it.
      And that’s always the problem with population issues. Yes, we have overshot the earth’s capacity already, and more of us is a bad idea. But what, practically speaking, do you do about it?

    2. Jeremy, why are we SO sure we can’t rein in population growth in the short term but SO sure we can rein in over-consumption? I’m beginning to think the odds of success for both of these objectives are a close match.

      1. Because it’s entirely possible to rein in consumption and still have a great lifestyle, whereas most population policies are either oppressive or don’t work. There are things we can do. Why the world isn’t funding free contraceptives for Africa I do not know. Beyond giving people more choice, I don’t see what more can practically be done.

    3. Jeremy, it is entirely possible to rein in reproduction and have great lifestyle, too – isn’t it? Geez! In fact it’s pretty clear that the less we work on overpopulation the harder we’ll have to work on reining in consumption. The fact that historically some population policies were oppressive or failed only indicates it is a challenging proposition. How have the consumption-reduction policies worked out so far?

      Let’s say we have a lot of faith in humankind and we are going to try to educate everyone about the perils of overconsumption and overpopulation. And we’re going to ask everyone to voluntarily do their part on both. I’d say our odds of success on each front are pretty similar. The only difference is that a lot of people assume doing something about overpopulation is impossible or takes longer. That’s only the case because we make it so by making and spreading that assumption.

      1. Absolutely, as long as we’re talking voluntary action. In which case I agree entirely, our chances of reducing consumption and population are about equal. My point is that it’s so much easier to control and reduce consumption in a fair way, through cap and trade mechanisms, green taxes etc. We can only ever do the voluntary stuff with population, but we do have options to legislate for consumption.

        I’m not suggesting we ignore population. We need to address the issue of population decline and encourage countries not to attempt to boost their birth rates, as Australia and Russia are doing right now. That’s going to need an international solution. We can by all means suggest people stop at two. Access to birth control needs to be universal. I don’t think it’s impossible to do anything about population – I’m just saying that given the current average age of the human race, a certain amount more growth is inevitable, unless a billion people choose to have no children at all.

  12. Jonathan: re that UNEC prediction, maybe you’re right and “nobody is counting” – but, come on, it would be a bit hard to miss 50 million however poor your counting methodology. Two further points: (1) the original statement spoke of “at least 50 million” implying it could (shudder) be even more and (2) that “could be” is the standard cop out: if Myers really meant that it might not happen and that it was merely a guess, do you think he would bother to even mention it? No, of course not: it was yet another example of irresponsible scaremongering.

    Does anyone learn from this? Er … sadly, no. Instead they move the goalposts. It’s hard to credit it but, according to this article (http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jnW80NlFZ259UCgMAHSd3ekHutiQ?docId=CNG.aa651167cd0af745b3cb395cf1d402e3.c41) a new report recently been published warning that

    ‘”Fifty million “environmental refugees” will flood into the global north by 2020, fleeing food shortages sparked by climate change, experts warned at a major science conference that ended here Monday. “In 2020, the UN has projected that we will have 50 million environmental refugees,” University of California, Los Angeles professor Cristina Tirado said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).’

    Wow – there’s that 50 million again – this time, we really are all doomed.

    What is the point of perpetuating this nonsense? Crying “wolf” over and over again has one simple result: it means that people no longer believe anything that environmentalists tell them, even when it’s accurate and important. It’s stupid and dangerous.

    1. Whoops – apologies, Jeremy.

      Hmm. But just consider for a moment. Suppose a solicitor calls you to say a long forgotten aunt has died and left you some money. You ask: how much? He says, “it could be more than £100,000”. I’m sure you’d assume he meant something in the region of £100,000 and quite possibly more. So, if you went to his office and he told you it was really £10 (after all he did say “could be”), I suggest you’d feel, quite rightly, that you’d been grossly misled.

      And to pursue the analogy, how would you feel if you went to his office and he denied even calling you? Relevant because that’s in effect what the UNEC tried: people who tried to access the map that contained details of their 2005 prediction found it had mysteriously disappeared.

      1. Not the same thing at all. A solicitor has a fixed amount of money and that fixed amount will be distributed. UNEP here are extrapolating trends into a future we can’t know. The best you can do is say it ‘might be’, ‘it could’, ‘if current trends continue’. The UN almost always gives a range of figures, a high and low estimate and a most likely scenario.

        There are cranks and attention seekers in every branch of science, but generally speaking predictions are conditional. We know that if we continue overfishing at the current pace, there will be no fish left in the sea by 2048 for example. It’s just a logical extrapolation of the data trend. But that’s an ‘if’. It’s highly unlikely that it pans out like that. All science can do is tell us how things might shape up if nothing changes, but of course things often do change. That doesn’t make their warnings irrelevant.

        Incidentally, everyone does that. Accountants deal with precision, but the moment they have to address the future, you see how this works. My pension statements make difficult reading that way, telling me that depending on how the markets go over the next 40 years, I might have a fairly generous annual payout, or I might have £400 a year.

        And I presume the people who tried to access the 2005 map were doing so on the internet, in which case I’d hesitate to read too much into it.

    2. This is nonsense, Jeremy. It’s quite obvious that “could be at least 50 million” was intended to be an alarming prediction. Far better now to admit they got it wrong and to move on – and especially not to try pathetically (and unsuccessfully because of Google cache) to hide the evidence.

      This is a serious matter: such antics bring all environmentalists into disrepute. I’m disappointed that you’re defending it.

      1. Wait a second, you can’t accuse people of being ‘alarmist’ when they make rash predictions, and then call it a cop-out when they make a reasoned and qualified one!

        I presume you haven’t read the document, since you prefer to get your news from the foregone conclusions of the skeptic sites. You should, because it really isn’t intended to be alarmist, although the media may have made it so at the time. I have read it. The analysis was done with 1995 figures, when UNEP estimated that there were 80 million people facing hunger in Africa because of environmental factors, many of them on the move. China had 120 million internal migrant workers, and many of these were either moving because of environmental factors or had been moved off their land for development or dam projects and so on. Worldwide, millions of people were moving into cities, and nobody was counting how many of these people were moving because of environmental changes.

        Looking back now as a skeptic, determined to read falsehood into every environmental document of the last century, you see a predictions and ‘antics’. But you only see that because that’s what you’re looking for – the document isn’t even about environmental change! It’s about migration and how we categorise people movements. The whole point of the document is to highlight the fact that because we have no official category for environmental migrants, the issue is ignored.

    3. Jeremy:

      I continue to be surprised that you insist on defending this. Professor Myers made the original assertion in 1997 (doubtless based on the 1995 figures you mention). He said then, “…at least 50 million people could be at risk through increased droughts and other climate dislocations.” Now, according to UNHCR, refugees to industrial nations are falling quite sharply (http://www.unhcr.org/4d8cc18a530.html), so you’d think that, when making the claim in 2005, UNEC might have first checked the figures – which at the very least suggest Myers got it wrong. So UNEC was not extrapolating a trend. Instead, it has continued to reiterate Myers’ assertion. This, for example, comes from a UNEC Press Release of 2008: “According to a report published by the United Nations University, there are now about 19.2 million people officially recognized as “persons of concern”-that is, people likely to be displaced because of environmental disasters. This figure is predicted to grow to about 50 million by the end of the year 2010.” Note three things: (1) it was published as recently as 2008 (a mere 2 years before 2010); (2) it’s about “environmental disasters” and (3) it quotes a UN “prediction” – without even Myers’ “could” qualification.

      There are many threats to our world (including mass migration) that require publicity if they are to be better understood so that, where possible, mitigation can be initiated. But alarming press releases such as this are counter-productive and therefore dangerous. Surely you can see that?

      PS: your claim that I am “determined to read falsehood into every environmental document of the last century” is unworthy of you and of your serious and interesting blog.

      1. For starters, you’re displaying your ignorance of migration issues here. Asylum numbers in the industrialised world has very little bearing on this debate, as the developing world has vastly more refugees than the developed countries. People tend to flee across the nearest border, meaning the graphs for Tanzania, Kenya or Pakistan are far more relevant. People displaced within their own countries fall into a different category still, and China or Sudan have large numbers of IDPs.

        Second, the quote you use there that says”at least 50 million” refers to 2050, not 2010. Here it is in context: “global warming could threaten large numbers of people with displacement by 2050 or earlier. Preliminary estimates indicate the total of people at risk of sea-level rise in Bangladesh could be 26 million, in Egypt 12 million, in China 73 million, in India 20 million, and elsewhere, including small island states, 31 million, making a total of 162 million. At the same time, at least 50 million people could be at severe risk through increased droughts and other climate dislocations.”

        I mention these things not to attempt to defend the report. I make them to point out that you’re not looking at this stuff objectively. The skeptic sites where you get this information aren’t looking for the truth, they’re looking for reasons to support the beliefs they already have, that everything is okay and we can carry on as we are.

    4. Jeremy: please read my posts. The UNEC Press Release to which I referred plainly said, “This figure [people likely to be displaced because of environmental disasters] is predicted to grow to about 50 million by the end of the year 2010.” If the UNEC chose to misquote from and misinterpret a more balanced report, that demonstrates precisely what I mean by dangerous and counter-productive alarmism.

      BTW I do not get my data from “skeptic sites” – I’m assiduous about, wherever possible, going to original sources.

      Anyway, we’re getting way off topic. So I’ll try to get that important discussion going again.

      1. I am reading your posts. This UNEP thing is another of these shock-horror supposed cover-up stories that Anthony Watts and his ilk can’t find enough of. It’s sound and fury, signifying nothing. Read the quote yourself – according to the press release, by 2010 there could be 50 million ‘persons of concern’. I don’t have any problem believing that. There probably are 50 million people at risk of displacement. But that’s a far cry from the ‘UN disappears 50 million refugees’ headlines of the skeptic blogs, which is where you picked up this story.

        Look at it again. It isn’t even a prediction that there will be 50 million refugees. It’s saying there may be 50 million people at risk of being displaced.

    5. My source was the UNIP story here: http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=538&ArticleID=5842&l=en

      Read it. It plainly refers (in the penultimate paragraph) to people displaced by “environmental disasters … predicted to grow [from 19.2 million] to about 50 million by the end of the year 2010”. Not 2050 as you claimed. And that Press Release was dated 2008 – so they’re talking of 30 million people displaced by environmental disaster in just two years. In my book, that’s alarmism.

      When I say such things as ‘UN disappears 50 million refugees’ then you may criticise me for doing so. Otherwise please don’t. Thanks.

      BTW I’ve looked at Anthony Watts’ comment. Far from “shock-horror” he clearly finds it amusing.

  13. To get back on topic, I suggest to you all that, contrary to nearly everything said here and despite serious problems and challenges, the news about population is good and getting better. Something remarkable and unexpected is happening: birth rates started to fall the 1970s and that has continued – and accelerated – up to the present day. Moreover, it’s a world-wide phenomenon: about half the world today has a female/birth ration of below 2:1 – and, again, that’s accelerating. In essentially no country (a possible exception is Kazakhstan) are birth rates high and rising. And all that’s happened despite failed (and often seriously unpleasant) government attempts at coercion and despite lower death rates and increasing birth survival rates. The UN prediction (based, Jeremy, on trend extrapolation and not, Dave, on conjecture) of world population peaking at about 9 billion looks increasingly likely to be accurate – and, with it, the realistic prospect of feeding the world for ever.

    Why has this happened? Well, it’s been a bottom-up and evolutionary process. But essentially its mechanisms are mysterious. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: increased wealth (sorry Jeremy), consumption (sorry everyone) and commerce are the friends of population control. So, if we want to give it a push (and surely we do?), the West and the newly emerging economic giants should be prioritising trade with the less developed economies. And, fortunately, that’s exactly what the latter are doing. It’s time for the West (and especially Europe with it’s selfish and short-sighted Common Agricultural Policy) to catch up.

    1. Actually not all that mysterious Robin. Here are some of the mechanisms at work in the fertility decline:
      1) The green revolution – when people no longer need children to work the fields, they become a net drain on the family rather than an asset. People start choosing to have fewer children.
      2) The availability of contraceptives
      3) The increasing role of women in a global society. When countries open up education and career options to women, many choose to have fewer children and live their own lives.
      4) Urbanisation – over half the world lives in cities now, where children do not have such an obvious economic role, and where families may have less space.

      These are all more important than economic development in and of itself. It’s why countries like Bangladesh, which are still very poor, have still seen a dramatic drop-off in the fertility rate.

      And sure, trade with less developed countries is vital. On that we can agree, along with the scrapping of the CAP.

    2. Well, Jeremy, we seem to be essentially in agreement on this. I do, however, view that phenomenal and unexpected change in women’s birth rates to 2.1 children each (not a 2:21 ration as I said) as mysterious. Yes, it’s possible, as you have, to identify various causes. And I agree with yours. But they don’t apply universally. For example: (1) probably the top candidate is falling child mortality (the more children are likely to die, the more children parents have) – but Burma has twice the infant mortality and half the birth rate of Guatemala; (2) the next candidate is wealth – but, although it’s becoming increasingly less common, more income can still sometimes mean more babies; then (3) there’s female emancipation (the correlation between female education and low birth rate looks good) – but Kenya has pretty good female education yet twice the birth rate of Morocco with far less female education; and then (4) urbanisation (a move from the land means less need for children to help with crops) – yet Nigeria is twice as urbanised as Bangladesh and has twice its birth rate. So a specific universal reason is hard to pin down.

      But two things are clear. Coercive population control doesn’t work and economic freedom does: nearly always, countries reduce their birth rates as they get wealthier – and therefore healthier, better educated, more urbanised and the women more emancipated. And that’s why I’m pleased the emerging economic giants are prioritising trade with less developed economies.

      You and I seem to be in broad, if not total, agreement. But I’d be interested to see the views of Viv, Dave, Francis and Mark.

      1. There’s some common ground. I agree that coercive population control hasn’t got us anywhere in the past. And you’re right, there’s no universal reason, just lots of interlocking and interdependent trends. The link between prosperity and population is more complex than you suggest however – see the demographic window idea in my reply to Dave.

    3. I’ve already invested too much time here, but I have to correct the mispercetpion Robin repeats about the UN scenario. Robin selects 9 billion from the middle of 3 scenarios, and even the middle scenario does not assume growth stops at 9 billion; it continues beyond that a bit. And if the UN’s assumptions are off by just a little bit, population will continue to grow to 30 billion in less than 200 years. (I’m not saying that will happen, but it is really dangerous to assume the UN is right, particularly because the UN assumes we will not all relax and become complacent about overpopulation.

      Robin also repeats the common assumption that increased wealth causes reduced fertility. I believe those intimately familiar with the statistics would tell her it is the reverse.

      I try to discourage repetition of common misassumptions and encouraging people to celebrate some kind of population victory when we are liquidating aquifers, fisheries, and fertile topsoils just to keep 6 billion from starving today, while a billion are quite hungry.

      1. Thanks for your comments Dave, I know you’re a busy man! You’re right, there can be no sense of victory or mission accomplished about population while we are in overshoot. That kind of complacency commits us to the higher ends of the UN’s predictions and very serious possibility of collapse of one kind or another.

        As for wealth, there is the phenomenon of the ‘demographic window’. Better healthcare and higher crop yields start a population boom. A few years later, as that wave of children reaches adulthood, you have a corresponding boom in the workforce. According to the theory, you can ride that wave to prosperity, like Japan or South Korea. It takes huge investment, timed to maximise the new potential for productivity. If you fail to invest, you face soaring inequality and youth unemployment, which is where several Middle Eastern countries appear to be right now. The flipside of the demographic window is that they all retire at the same time – see Japan again.

        It’s this link between population and economic activity that is probably the key motivation for countries to try and boost their flagging populations, as Russia is doing right now. Countries fear a decline in economic activity. It’s why we have to talk steady-state economics at the same time as addressing population issues, not to mention peak oil, species loss and climate change. It’s all part of the same problem.

    4. Dave:

      So you think you’ve “invested too much time here“? Hmm … that’s odd. You’re promoting a documentary film that asks “why population conversations are so difficult to have“. Yet here’s Jeremy’s blog, courteous and broadly sympathetic to your position, that’s trying to develop just such a conversation – and you’re too busy to continue with it.

      As for the UN prediction, if you’d read my comments, you’d know I distrust prediction. You’d also know that my views are based on extrapolation of what’s actually happening in the world. I’m not claiming that everything’s fine (far from it: the world faces some ghastly problems) – merely that recent history is encouraging and gloom (Viv) unwarranted. My point about the UN prediction (more accurately “projection”) is that it confirms that. But, for what it’s worth – and it is interesting – here’s an extract from the Executive Summary of the UN’s 2004 report (here):

      In these projections, world population peaks at 9.22 billion in 2075. Population therefore grows slightly beyond the level of 8.92 billion projected for 2050 in the 2002 Revision, on which these pro- jections are based. However, after reaching its maximum, world population declines slightly and then resumes increasing, slowly, to reach a level of 8.97 billion by 2300, not much different from the projected 2050 figure.

      (Note: it’s the UN that selected the middle scenario – not me.)

      I’d be most interested to see the source data that shows, as you claim, that increased wealth means increased birth rates. Perhaps, as Jeremy has suggested, it can do so in the short term (I agree with him that the prosperity/population relationship is complex) but the medium/longer term correlation (increased wealth means reduced birth rate) would seem to be clear. OK, I know correlation doesn’t prove causation – but the history of the past hundred years strongly supports an increased wealth/reduced birth rate relationship.So please refer me to the statistics showing otherwise with which you say some are “intimately familiar”. Thanks.

      (BTW I’m male – check Google.)

  14. There are 80 million more humans on our planet every year, due to exponential growth. As Prof Al Bartlett (retired US physicist) said, we humans have an evolutionary inability to understand exponential arithmetic, and the denial of overpopulation growth on our finite planet is evidence of this. There is also another dimension of humanity that blocks reason – narcissism! We humans think we own the planet, and it was “made” or created especially for us! (even though most people deny God’s existence). It’s all about arrogance and thinking that we are beyond reproach, that more of us is better, that there can never be “too many” of us because we are so wonderful! Denial is rampant and dangerous but necessary for those who think that humans aren’t in ecological overshoot! A bit of humility and realism would not go astray!

  15. Another good and thought-provoking discussion under way, I see! Here’s my five cents – could it be that humanity is not yet making full use of the resources available? Here are some articles I’ve found interesting:

    The Economist, on Brazil’s agricultural revolution:
    http://www.economist.com/node/16886442

    The World Bank, on a potential agricultural revolution in Africa:
    http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/20964/icode/

    The World Bank’s original report “Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant – Prospects for Commercial Agriculture in the Guinea Savannah Zone and Beyond” is here (it’s a truly massive url, so I’ve shortened it at tinyurl.com):
    http://tinyurl.com/63jydn9

    I wonder whether it could it be that the wherewithal to feed Earth’s population in the mid to late 21st century is already available, and the only real barriers are the ones that have always been a problem, such as warfare, tribalism, bureaucratic incompetence and inertia, etc.

    Peoplequake, by the way, sounds like an interesting book and is now on my list to read.

    1. Excellent links, Alex. Thanks. Further support for my view (see comment above) that gloom is unnecessary as, contrary to pessimistic predictions, there’s every prospect of feeding the world for ever.

      Perhaps, however, “human plague” Francis and “rapaciously consuming humans” Viv will find a solution in this article. And maybe it could help Dave in his search for a way of fulfilling his ambition to “rein in population growth”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: