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What is harming Earth more? Demographer Srinivas Goli explains

Greater damage to planet is unsustainable consumption and inequalities, he says

Srinivas Goli Srinivas Goli, Associate Professor and demographer at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai

We are now 8 billion strong, just 11 years after the world’s population touched 7 billion. The United Nations designated November 15 as the official day to mark the 8 billion milestone, although it’s hard to identify precisely when we reached it. 

What exactly does it mean to be a world of 8 billion for humanity? Experts have varying opinions. Many are pessimistic, saying the milestone tends to gloss over how continued growth could adversely affect people and the planet, including the climate and environment, food security, water, health, civil conflict, refugees, displacement, and rising global inequity. Some economists and demographers argue population growth with a declining rate is a good thing for the economy and innovation.

Here, Srinivas Goli, Associate Professor and demographer at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai answers some of the most important questions on the issue. 

Q. Is it a myth that the planet cannot provide for all of humanity?

Going by a reading of global population trends, technological progress, consumption and income inequalities together, the concern that the planet can't carry 8 billion is not completely correct.

There is no doubt that the optimum population a planet can carry is essential for the sustainability of not only humanity but also nature. However, it is equally important to know answers to the question: how much is the earth's carrying capacity? In very simple terms, the earth's carrying capacity is defined as the population per a given number of resources. Since the early 1970s, alarmists like Neo-Malthusians or Club of Rome have been suggesting that the earth's carrying capacity is around 4 billion, but we are feeding 8 billion today alongside tremendous heterogeneity in consumption and wastage owing to social and economic inequalities. 

Furthermore, the planet's carrying capacity changes according to technological innovations in generating new resources and optimizing the use of existing resources. Precisely because of this reason, unlike what Malthus predicted, the world has not ended with a rise in population. Except for a few isolated famines in some parts of the world, contemporary societies have not seen persistent global famines killing a large number of people. Moreover, the reasons for famines in some geographies are attributable to misgovernance and existing socio-economic inequalities in the distribution of resources rather than the population numbers.

Q. Then why does rising population receive far more importance than inequalities in consumption and wastage for example? 

It is true that population growth is a visible problem; thus, attention seeking. While inequalities in consumption, land, capital holding and wastage often receive less attention due to their invisible nature.

Therefore, a more pertinent question for humanity is: what is harming the planet more? Is it growing uneven and undesired consumption patterns, which also often results in greater wastage, or is it the population numbers?

However, today's truth is that the population of most countries is declining or on the path to stabilization.

Q. Would it be fair to say that the haves of the world have always unfairly put the onus of population control on the have-nots?

Developed countries today express a greater concern for climate change because of three reasons: (1) they have already achieved a decent standard of living; (2) Unlike their developing counterparts, a majority of them either overshoot their resource budget or are near about to overshoot; (3) Climate change harms everyone irrespective of who is causing the damage.

Since wealthier nations and more affluent people have a voice and greater social capital to communicate their opinion, they have been more strongly expressing population growth concerns by often blaming their poorer counterparts. But, the truth is most developing countries have completed the fertility transition much faster than developed countries. For instance, India completed its fertility transition in 46 years; for the same, it took around 225 years for France, 215 years for the United Kingdom and 140 years for the USA.

Similarly, within India, the contribution of fertility change among illiterate and poor women is also significant, despite limited resources to achieve their fertility choices. Today, there are hardly any differences across the desired number of births among different social groups. However, some end up giving birth to more children than the desired number, mainly because of a lack of access to family planning services.

Q. The world population is declining instead of rising. What do you think then is an important debate for now?

Believe it or not, the shrinkage of the human population globally could be the next big threat to geopolitics and economies. Also, the current decline in birth rates, to a large extent, is irreversible. According to the latest United Nations Population Prospects, fertility levels across 124 countries are less than the replacement level (i.e. two parents replacing two children), and in several countries, a lower number of births is a serious concern.

Over 80 countries worldwide suffer from shrinking population sizes due to very low fertility, and 55 have introduced pro-natalist measures to increase birth rates. These measures have proven largely ineffective. In large countries like China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, fertility is either at the replacement level or below. Except in Africa and a few Arab countries, fertility levels are not a big concern globally. However, population growth will continue for some more time because of the population momentum effect, i.e. future mothers who are already born and continue to have children.

Q. What about a shift to the distribution of planetary resources, rather than only talking about consumption?

Scientific evidence suggests that population size alone is not a reason for today's climate change concerns. Climate change is more attributable to the unequal distribution of resources and unsustainable consumption, which further leads to wastage. An average Indian consumes 16 times lesser resources than an average American.

Today people attribute poverty to climate change, but poverty also stems from the unequal distribution of resources. So, alarmingly rising income inequalities and persisting inequalities in opportunities and resources will continue to drive more unsustainable forms of consumption (i.e. overconsumption or less climate-friendly consumption) and wastage. Therefore, the greater damage to the planet is caused by unsustainable consumption and inequalities than population numbers.

With rising education, urbanization, family planning, and child survival numbers; the population in India and the global population are in the process of stabilization. A greater focus on reducing inequalities will yield better results for human sustainability than coercively pushing the population to shrink to more unsustainable levels.

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