Seven billion reasons to think about sustainability…
The United Nations estimates that the world’s population will reach seven billion sometime in late October or early November. The sixth billion was arrived at in 1999, and it is significant that the seventh billion took the same number of years (12) to add as the sixth.
This is relevant because prior to that, there had been a progressive shortening of the time taken to add billions to the human population. The first billion was reached in 1804, taking many thousands of years of human evolution to achieve. Thereafter successive billions were added in 123, 32, 15 and 13 years respectively.
This reflects a slowing down in global population growth from a high of 2.1 per cent per annum in the late 1960s to 1.2 percent per annum currently.
This slowdown has occurred despite a significant decline in mortality which has seen global life expectancy at birth increase from 47.7 years in 1950 to 67.9 years in 2010. The decline has been driven by a remarkable decline in global fertility from 4.95 births per woman in 1950 to 2.52 births per woman in 2010.
The attainment of seven billion world citizens is cause for both optimism and concern. Optimism derives from the massive achievement in bringing down global fertility in the last three decades. When I was working in villages in West Java in the early 1970s women were having close to six children on average, and I must admit to not being at all optimistic about this being reduced significantly in the short term.
Yet the numbers have more than halved in a generation. Writers such as the Ehrlichs in The Population Bomb were envisaging that the globe’s population may reach as much as 12 billion before stability, but the United Nations in the early part of this century projected that it would stabilise at 9 billion around 2050.
However, there are concerns. The United Nations has revised its stabilisation figure at around 10 billion late in the second half of this century. Fertility decline, especially in Africa, hasn’t proceeded as rapidly as anticipated. This must be a clarion call to redouble commitments to reduce poverty, extend education (especially of females) and intensify maternal, child, reproductive health and family planning programs especially in Africa.
There are real concerns, too, in terms of feeding perhaps an additional 3 billion world residents during the current century. Between 850 and 925 million people currently experience food insecurity and undernourishment. In The New York Times, population expert Joel Cohen states that in 2009-10 the world produced 23 billion metric tons of cereal grains – enough calories to sustain 9 to 11 billion people.
However, the pattern of distribution of that grain has meant that a significant part of the global population remains underfed.
Pressures on the environment are increasing exponentially as levels and modes of consumption accelerate. It is estimated that a seventh of the world’s population live without an adequate safe supply of water. In several areas climate change is anticipated to exacerbate those pressures. Yet stopping population growth should not be seen as a substitute for the necessity of reducing consumption in high income countries and the movement toward sustainable practices of resource consumption.
There are some striking changes occurring in the world’s population other than its inexorable growth. Ageing is not just an issue for OECD countries. It is a corollary of the massive decline in fertility. Joel Cohen has shown that whereas in 1950 there were more than six children aged 15 or less for every person aged 65 or older, in 2070, the latter will outnumber the former and there will be only three working age people to every 2 people aged 65 plus.
In 2010, the world passed a significant demographic milestone when the balance between urban and rural inhabitants shifted with more than a half of the world’s population living in urban areas. Almost all of the net growth in global population for the rest of this century will be in urban areas of low income countries. Rapid urbanisation brings with it many challenges.
Seven billion is an important milestone for our planet. The last century has indeed been ‘the demographic century’ more than 5 billion added to the world’s population. We need to move as quickly as we can toward a stabilisation of the global population size and this can be best achieved by improving the lives of people in low income countries and achieving a more sustainable pattern of resource consumption.
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