26/04/2012 - 11:00

Turning population debate on its head

26/04/2012 - 11:00


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A US expert argues we should celebrate more people and progress, which help the planet.

A US expert argues we should celebrate more people and progress, which help the planet.

If there’s one statement you can be confident will attract widespread agreement it’s that the world is overpopulated and this is dangerous and will continue growing.

My guess is that 95, 96, perhaps even 98 in every 100 people encountered believe this to be so.

But, because the odds are stacked so heavily against a contrary view, it does not mean it’s true.

I had a friend who regularly repeated a saying that’s appropriate to recount here. It was: “If most believe it to be so, it’s almost certainly incorrect.”

Now, although that certainly does not apply in all cases, there’s something to be said for his contention. 

By which I mean certain issues attract widespread agreement, but such broad consensus, or  ‘urban myths’, are actually right off target. 

This came to mind in February when I had the good fortune to attend a lecture in Melbourne delivered by world leading demographer, Steven Mosher, president of the non-profit Virginia-based Population Research Institute (PRI).

Mr Mosher’s contention, which he backed with well-reasoned arguments, was that the world was far from over-populated.

The situation was, he said, quite the opposite.

Now that I have the transcript of his address, I summarise below his thesis and let one and all decide who is correct – the demographic alarmists, aka the neo-Malthusians, or Steven Mosher.

Here goes.

“A few months ago, the United Nations told us that we had reached, for the first time, a milestone in human history,” Mr Mosher began.

“On October 31, 2011, the UN said that the population of the world for the first time had reached seven billion.”

He said this naturally prompted the “over-population crowd ... to don sackcloth and ashes and bemoan the fact that there were so many people on the planet.”

This news should in fact prompt us “to celebrate the fact that the planet is now home, for the first time, to seven billion people.”

Here therefore is the clash – some saying seven billion is too many, while Mr Mosher says, definitely not so.

“What is there not to celebrate?” he asked.

“At the PRI, we look at the various indicators by which you measure human well-being. We look at infant mortality, life expectancy, average caloric intake and education levels.

“By nearly every measure of human well-being, life on planet Earth has been getting dramatically better.” 

He supported this by saying that in 1800, when “there were only one billion of us”, lifespans were about 24 years of age “which is to say that most of us in this room wouldn’t be here”.

By 1927, there were two billion, with average life expectancy averaging 40 years.

“Today, as we pass seven billion, average lifespans around the planet are now closing in on 70 years of age.”

Mr Mosher then got to the nub of this issue. “Now, this in part explains why there are seven billion of us, because, as people live longer, naturally there are more of us around at any given time,” he said.

How true. Brilliant insight, I thought. Why hadn’t someone ever said that before?

“A large part of the increase came about not because people started suddenly breeding like rabbits – birth rates were declining over this entire period [1800s and 1900s],” he said.

“This increase in numbers came about because we stopped dying like flies.” 

He backed this pivotal point by saying that in the 19th century four in every 10 children died before the age of five. “Today, worldwide under-five mortality is under 6 per cent and falling,” he said.

Food adequacy is something else demographic alarmists panic over.

But, according to Mr Mosher, world food production has never been higher than now, with enough being produced for everyone to consume 3500 calories daily, which is way more than what anyone requires.

“There’s no need for anyone to starve in the midst of this plenty,” he said.

Food distribution, globally and across lawless regions of the world, is a problem. Aggregate output, however, is adequate and will grow.

But man-made problems are easily remedied by cessation of fighting, removing suppression of enterprise and provision of modern transport.

“Economies continue to expand, productivity is up, poverty is down,” he said.

“Pollution is declining, political freedom is growing. What is there not to like about this picture?” 

Clearly, the determining but ignored factor is that humans have “stopped dying like flies” not “started suddenly breeding like rabbits”.

He next canvassed the argument that the Greens and other extreme environmentalists promote, namely, that humans threaten mother Earth.

The Greens and their various extremist allies view mankind as somehow being the arch enemy of the environment, which they claim ad nauseam they are seeking to save.

To this, Mr Mosher said: “The big enemy of the environment is not people. The big enemy of the environment is poverty.

“It’s poverty that leads people to cut down the last tree for fuel to cook their food or to build shelter for themselves. It’s poverty that leads them to plant the last square foot of land to feed their families.

“It’s poverty that leads them to pollute the very water they need to drink because they can’t afford to dig a well on the one hand or build a sewage treatment plant on the other.

“We know how to cure poverty. We know the road to economic development.

“It leads through property rights, through the rule of law, through the limiting of government corruption and through to helping people with infrastructure, the roads they need to get their goods to market so they can participate in a cash economy.”

Here one needs to look to the great Indian-born scholar, Ibn Warraq, author of the just-released book, Why the West is Best.

In it he writes: “The West is responsible for almost every major scientific discovery of the last 500 years, from helio-centrism and the telescope to electricity, to computers.” 

Mr Warraq could also have listed the West’s countless life-saving medical science breakthroughs (surgery, inoculation, virtual elimination of the great plague killer diseases like typhus and more); agronomy (boosting grain output to once unattainable levels); and revolutionising transport (especially oceanic transport of bulk commodities at unimaginably low costs).

All these ingenious Western breakthroughs have contributed to boosting longevity, life expectancy of billions worldwide over the past two centuries.

Clearly, there’s a high correlation between prosperity and tumbling birth rates whenever it arrives and is permitted to prevail.

But won’t this mean that the world’s population, over the coming half century, see proportionately fewer births and increase in the proportion and number of elderly.

Consequently, a turning point will come, and quite suddenly, when global population will begin tumbling, just as it’s been doing in Japan for decades and, more recently, across several European countries.

Humanity is thus unlikely to ever reach, let alone exceed, say eight to nine billion, because the aged proportion will exceed those capable of reproducing adequately.

The prospect, therefore, is not a population explosion but an implosion, meaning the eight to nine billion, if actually reached, will rapidly slump to seven, six, perhaps even as low as three billion. Think about it, humanity’s numbers going into reverse, with most aged 65 plus.

That will please the Greens.



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