The population of the planet will increase to at least 9 billion by 2050. Even a major war or other catastrophe will not change this. Professor Corey Bradshaw, from the University of Adelaide and Simon Ross, the Chief Executive of the London-based charity: ‘Population Matters’ explain why.
We are ‘locked-in’ to an ever-growing global human population; there will be least 9 billion of us by 2050. Even if dramatic efforts are made to decrease population growth (which is unlikely give humans’ track record so far), the inertia of growth means that explosive growth is unavoidable. Change is possible, but we have to take urgent measures now to avoid this. Wars over raw materials and territories are already part of our civilisations and it seems highly probable that others will break out. What can we do? Professor Bradshaw and Simon Ross describe the implications of the current situation, and what some of the options are.
Why, Professor Bradshaw, are your figures so frightening in comparison to the UN figures which are not quite so bad?
Professor Bradshaw: I'm actually not sure from where the 25 billion came in, because we modeled actually almost spot onto the UN figures, at about 10.5-11 billion, thereabout.
That must be journalistic flare.
Professor Bradshaw: So, the medium projections are actually very close to the UN projections. The one main difference about what we did is that we considered, very hopefully, quite unrealistic scenario just to look at how much change we might expect, even under the catastrophic changes to the normal way we do things.
Why is this so serious?
Professor Bradshaw: Let’s take the example of the WW III that might mimic what happened during the first and second world wars. And we don’t have a perfect data for those sorts of things, we have a rough idea about how many people died in the WW I from the direct conflict, from the Spanish flu and also from the WW II. It was about 130 million people dead over that 10-15-20-year window. We take that as a proportion of the total number of people that were alive at the end of the WW II. That represents about 5% of the total world population at that time that died.
Now, that’s huge and it was a travesty of almost uncontemplatable proportions. But let’s say you have the same proportion of mortality happening in 2050 or 2056, which is the half-way point from to today to the end of the century. If you do that, these 5% of the world population, we expect, based on projections, that would be about 500 billion people.
In terms of the total numbers of people dead, that’s unprecedened. We’ve never experienced anything like this before. But it is the same proportion, as those three major mortality events at the turn of the last century. And if you do that and you project right through to 2100, making certain assumptions about what happens post-war, the real shocking thing is that it actually makes very little difference to the final population size in 2100.
I don’t remember or recount any violent conflicts as the result of overpopulation. Why do you think that overpopulation is such a problem?
Professor Bradshaw: There are two points to this. Wars often start for what seems to be very clear political reasons usually. But if you scratch beneath the surface, there is usually some land grabbing component or, essentially, a resource grabbing component. I mean, I’ll take a semi-modern example with the annexation of Tibet to China in the middle part of the last century. And one could argue that that was very much a resource\space acquisition. Because of the lack of the capacity or a threat to respond to that in a military sense, it didn’t necessarily result in a full-scale war.
But you need to only look as far as, say, Pakistan and India that both are nuclear powers. And if the conflict accelerated to such an extent that there was an exchange of nuclear weapons, even in the global sense a “small nuclear exchange” could seriously challenge the civilization as we know it. There are plenty of examples of that.
But my second point is that the conflict associated with what we call in the ecological circles the density feedbacks – the idea that competition increases as the resources decline, as the population grows. So, the average number of resources per individual decline and for every other species on the planet that I've ever studied, and I've studied everything from bacteria to whales, you get an increasing competition, increasing aggressive conflict and, as the result, reduced individual survival rate and lowered fertility.
Simon Ross: I think one shouldn’t take population on its own, because I think there are two factors. There is the factor of, yes, human numbers have doubled in my lifetime, in the last 50 years, from 3.5 to 7 billion, and will probably rise to, perhaps, 9 billion by the mid-century, perhaps, 11 billion by the end of the century. And the Professor is absolutely right about the numbers. We all know how devastating the WW II was with about 70 million killed. And we know how awful it was in Russia. But the population is increasing by more than that number every single year.
Now people are talking about will that lead to a conflict. And I guess there are two answers to that. Right now I think a conflict is mainly within states, places like Syria, the conflict in Iraq, a lot of places. So, there is a conflict between the communities and, ultimately, at the end of the day, that is around the individuals not being able to get houses or jobs and competing.
But I think the real danger is not the countries fighting now over the resources, because we've pretty much got enough. But what happens in the future when there are many more people, when the whole areas like Africa try to industrialize. So, the competition is much-much greater for resources. And when the key resources would start to run out – when a country doesn’t have enough water, when a country doesn’t have enough energy, enough oil – that’s when the wars will come.
And we are already seeing it I think. When there are food spikes, the price rises. I think Russia has stopped doing exports when there were devastating fires. Thailand stopped rice exports when there was a shortage of rice. People need to feed their own population, otherwise there are riots and revolutions. So, I think the real conflicts will come in the future, as the resources decline and as the competition increases.
You say that if we spent some $4 billion, we could see positive results in terms of reducing population growth?
Simon Ross: That’s right. I mean, that is only a third of the UK overseas aid budget. And that’s definitely one country’s aid budget. So, it is not a big amount. And what that would do, it’d get modern family planning into the hands of all the women in the developing countries who really want to either delay pregnancy or avoid it altogether, but don’t have access to that family planning.
I mean, that’s not the only thing. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the modern contraception in some countries. And I think some people are quite happy to have large families. That’s their traditional model and there has to be a bit of an education campaign around that. But there obviously needs to be contraception, as well as education.
And I would really criticize, firstly, the Catholic Church and, secondly, certainly some very conservative Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia, that are really hostile to any idea of women’s rights or family planning. And I think the rest of the world has to take on these very conservative views and say – no, actually this is wrong for human rights, it is wrong for women and it is wrong for the sustainability and environment that some countries and, as I said, the Catholic Church still set its face against the modern family planning.