Seven Billion: What Does it Mean?

On October 31st, the UN Population Division has predicted the planet will see its 7 billionth person. In advance of that event, UN Dispatch spoke to William Ryerson about what that kind of population growth means. He’s well placed to answer the question. Mr. Ryerson is the founder and President of Population Media Center, Chairman of Population Institute (Washington DC), fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and recipient of the 2006 Nafis Sadik Prize for Courage.

UND: What happened? How did population go from a non-issue to an issue again?

Population was a huge issue in the 60s and 70s. I have been working on this for 40 years. The first earth day was largely about population growth, then it became taboo. Part of why it become taboo was human rights violations committed by India and China, and partly was because of Ronald Reagan, who said that population growth was a good thing. He was influenced by Julian Simon, who said there was no limit to how many people the planet could support. We saw a negative response to publications like The Limits to Growth, which predicted that in the early part of the current century, we’d run into resource limits.

What is clear now is that oil production has gone flat, no matter how much we spend on trying to find more. And our whole agriculture system is based on cheap oil. The oil component of the price of food is a major component. People were suddenly finding they were unable to buy food. The spike in oil and then food prices led the media to realize there really was a problem.

There was also a major effort by our organization and other organizations to start talking to the media. The Limits to Growth was basically on track in terms of their forecast. We are running into limits on all kinds of resources. Not just oil – water, minerals and metals, too. By ignoring the issue of population we have really failed to take the somewhat simple steps to address this component of what is clearly a demand and supply problem.

For example, at the Cairo population conference – which occurred at a time the US was becoming more conservative – there were great promises of investment into family planning. These promises were not kept. In fact, funding for family planning has been reduced by 50% since the conference. People have not had access to the information and services needed to control their family size. As a result, the UN population division has had to keep raising their population growth estimates because the fertility rates have not come down as fast as was projected a decade ago. That combined with high oil and food prices and growing shortages of fresh water has led to the current situation.

Many optimistic forecasts were made in 1999 based on a lot of progress that had been made, and these forecasts have not come true. The International Energy Agency didn’t expect oil to go past $28 a barrel by 2020, for example. Even with progress in providing family planning and supporting women’s rights, it’s hard to slow the momentum of population growth. This is an aircraft carrier. It’s hard to turn it around. It’s clear right now we are running into all kinds of limits.

UND: What does the worst case scenario look like?

It’s a subject I see debated by experts every day. I hate to paint a very bleak picture, but if oil prices go to double the peak of 2008 – say they go to $280 barrel and we have no alternate energy infrastructure, or the cost of alternative energy is much higher than the traditional price of oil, it could drive the price of food out of the reach of the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1 a day.

Right now WFP responds to famines in Sahel or East Africa but they have never dealt with a billion people starving all at once. The worst case scenario would be a billion people starving in a few weeks’ time. There would simply be no ability of the donor countries to respond to a situation of this magnitude. It could happen between 2012 and 2015, according to an estimate by the U.S. military. There could be political chaos all over the world as a billion people rampage for food.

Even if the wealthy countries have lots of food, you can’t ignore what’s underneath. Part of what we saw in Tunisia was triggered by rising food prices. A billion people unable to get food all at once would lead to political and military chaos all around the planet. Combine this with climate change making too much or too little water available, the loss of glaciers, and the overpumping of underground aquifers all of which is leading to loss of farmland. In India the water table is sinking deeper and deeper. Some farmers are giving up on their farms as their farms turn to desert, since they can no longer reach water. All three countries that are our biggest food producers – India, China, and the US – are overpumping. It is keeping people alive but when the water runs out there is going to be disaster. India has over a 100 million being kept alive by overpumping.

The combination of rising oil prices and declining water could lead to a perfect storm where suddenly all these things lead to human catastrophe around the planet. A report that came out in the last couple of months by two biologists looking at global biodiversity has shown that biodiversity is declining globally and the 100,000 preserves that have been set up are doing nothing to protect biodiversity. Spreading human habitation is systematically reducing the life support system of our planet. Cutting down large rainforests is a major aggravator of climate change. It took 3 billion years of evolution to make our planet habitable for humans. Setting up large zoos – which is what reserves are – isn’t going to protect us. We are risking the long term habitability of the planet. Some scientists think that humans could be extinct by the end of the century.

We do have options and the population part of this problem is probably the easiest to solve. Elevating the status of woman, delaying girls’ marriage, providing reproductive health and family planning information, and providing family planning services is a formula that has led to stopping population growth in many countries. This has great potential to reverse the damage and bring about a solution.

UND: Can you speak to the argument that it is a resource issue, not a population number issue? What if we all become vegetarians?

If we double human efficiency of food consumption, go from meat to grain, that kind of thing, it does help. But if you have 5 children and each is 10% more efficient, we are not better off. Population is the multiplier of everything else. Unless we address population issues, it will eat up the progress we make in everything else. Both are important. There is little public demand to consume less or change lifestyles, but there is huge unmet demand for family planning. It is in many ways the easiest thing to address. Some biologists feel that after oil and fossil fuels are gone, the planet could sustain 2 billion people in a Western European lifestyle. At the Ethiopian lifestyle, we could maybe sustain 10 billion people. The question is which kind if life we want.

UND: Why do you think population is such an emotional issue?

It happens for a whole host of reasons. Some religions, like the Catholic Church, forbid contraception. It leads the church to make the argument that population is not an issue.

There are corporations that profit from population growth. A great example is Australia. Australia is a continent with very little water, and the Australian government pays $5000 for every baby born; Australia is growing faster than Indonesia. At the same time they’re asking people to ration water because there’s not enough water to grow crops or fight fires. From the outside it makes no sense, but there are moneyed interests funding politicians to pursue pro-population growth policies that are contrary to long term stability.

There are economists that believe that endless population growth is necessary for economic growth. This is a Ponzi scheme form of economics. It will not last. We must persuade governments to celebrate low fertility rates and declining populations.

UND: Are mainstream economists really arguing that we have to keep growing our populations forever?

They are, and that leaves us eventually occupying every square inch of the planet. This is clearly impossible. In the long term future, the future of economics is sustainable economics. We cannot have endless economic growth. The true measure of human welfare is per capita income, not GDP. If we find a system where we have a declining number of people with more resources per capita as a result, if real estate prices are going down and people have better homes, why upset that to help companies that make their profits from population growth? Most people do not benefit from population growth. We need to find a way to have sustainable welfare for the people that nations already have, not push population growth to maintain the current system.

UND: Can you give us something optimistic to end on?

I’ll talk about the work of Population Media Center. It’s the wave of the future. We’ve gone from 10% of the world’s couples using FP in 1960 to 56% today. However, in sheer numbers we have more non-users because of population growth.

Today’s non-users are not using methods because of informational and cultural barriers – large desired family size, fear of side effects, and so on. But we can address that.

We have soap operas that show mass audiences how to overcome obstacles to change. The media center did a serial drama in Nigeria that was listened to by 72% of the population at least weekly in some very conservative areas. We had 67% of clients coming into clinics naming our program as the reason they came in. Using role models has been a very effective way to achieve sustainable behavior change. You can address a whole range of issues, from family planning to trafficking of women. It’s been very effective in getting people to avoid HIV risk behavior.

This strategy is effective and inexpensive. It is highly successful in bringing about behavior change.  We can get to personal, national and global sustainability with the right tools, and this is one of them.

(photo credit: John Baldock NZ)