Numbers Have Consequences

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Reversing the rise in human numbers is the most overlooked and essential strategy for achieving long-term balance with the environment. Contrary to widespread opinion, it does not require “population control”.

In an era of changing climate and sinking economics, limits to growth are back and squeezing us painfully. Whereas many people once meant more ingenuity, more talent, and innovation, today it just seems to mean less for each. Less water for every cattle herder in the Horn of Africa. Less land for every farmer. Less capacity in the atmosphere to accept the heat-trapping gases that could fry the planet for centuries to come. Scarce and higher priced energy and food. If the economy does not bounce back to its glory days, less credit and fewer jobs.

To make a dent in these problems- in the short term without throwing anyone overboard, we will need to radically reduce individuals’ footprint on the environment through improvements in technology and probably standards in the lifestyles.

But until the world’s population stops growing, there will be no end to the need to squeeze an individual’s consumption of natural resources. The low consuming billions of the developing world would love to consume as Americans do, with similar disregard for the environment – and they have so much of a right to do.

Population growth constantly pushes the consequences of any level of individual consumption to a higher plateau. Reductions in individual consumption can be overwhelmed by the increase in population. The simple reality is that acting on both, consistently and simultaneously, is the key to long-term environmental sustainability. The sustainability benefits of level falling human numbers are too powerful to ignore for long.

As noted, the United Nations (UN) estimates that the global population will continue to grow until about the end of this century, resulting in a more or less stable world population at about double the current number.

Population growth, population ageing and decline, as well as migration and urbanization, affect virtually all development objectives that are on top of national and global development agendas. They affect consumption, production, employment, income distribution, poverty and social protections, including pensions; they also complicate efforts to ensure universal access to health, education, housing, sanitation, water, food, and energy.


Some of the African migrants crossing to Europe. Net photo

Population growth, in particular, places particular pressures on the planet’s resources- water, forests, land and earth’s atmosphere- contributing to climate change and challenging environmental sustainability. However, population dynamics do not affect critical development objectives; they are themselves affected by social, economic and environmental changes.

In Africa, population growth affects efforts to reduce poverty, ensure food security, preserve the environment, and improve education, employment, and health. Population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is more rapid than any other regions in the world.

Rapid population growth and climate change are speeding up the region’s environmental degradation. It has made people in the continent more vulnerable to climate change impacts. Furthermore, it has undermined sustainable development of most countries which still lag behind in development.

Despite the strong links between population and climate change, and their role in sustainable development, these issues are not a priority in broader development policies and strategies. Unfortunately, population, climate change, and development are often addressed separately at policy and program levels.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Africa is the only continent which is projected to have more than twice its population size by 2050. This will increase its world share of the world’s population to 20%. The continent’s population will continue to grow exponentially if far-reaching measures are not adopted to reduce the current growth rate.

According to Mutunga et al, 2012 ( Towards Sustainable Development in Africa), the inseparable linkages between population dynamics and sustainable development hold concrete policy implications for developing countries and their bilateral and multilateral development partners. To promote sustainable development, Africa will need to ensure:

  • Universal access to reproductive healthcare and family planning.
  • Investment in education with a focus on gender disparity
  • The empowerment of women
  • The systematic integration of the population projection in development strategies and policies.

Planning for the projected changes in population size and age structures, or migration and urbanization is an indispensable precondition for sustainable rural, urban and national development, as well as for efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change and reduce the risks of natural disasters. Without planning for these demographic transitions and seizing their benefits, governments will be forced to operate in a permanent crisis mode, reacting to demographic challenges as they arise- which is typically costlier and less effective.

Without global population stabilization, governments will increasingly struggle to address critical issues facing humanity including global warming, biodiversity, environmental degradation, as well as shortages of energy, food and water supplies. High-growth countries and in particular those in Africa must pass as quickly as possible through the demographic transition to low death and birth rates as has already been realized throughout much of the world.

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