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What Is Worse, An Older Population Or Running Out Of Resources? PDF Print E-mail
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by Simon Ross, Population Matters   
17 June 2014
ImageHaving a small family is the most important individual contribution we can make to a sustainable future

Human population growth is a major driver of unsustainable consumption levels. Like any issue, it has its pessimists and optimists. Pessimists point to the doubling of human numbers over the last half century and the projected addition of a further 50% or some 3.5 billion by the end of the century. Optimists point to the fall in the birth rate by one third over the last fifty years and that over half of the world’s citizens now live in countries at or below fertility replacement rate.

Two things need to be said about these scenarios. The first is that they are not incompatible: both come from UN figures. We are generally living longer and previous above-replacement birth rates mean that there is over a billion young people entering their childbearing years. Even if they have fewer children than their mothers, that is still a lot of babies.

The second is that they are not fixed. A combination of culture, circumstances, chance and personal preferences determine how many children we each have. That number varies enormously, both between and within communities. Some people have none; some have lots.

Poorer communities benefit from smaller families

A few countries impose penalties on people with large families in order to limit population growth. However, for most of the world, people end up with more children than they want. Improving their rights would result in smaller families, helping them and society. In some poorer countries, family planning, education and employment and personal rights go hand in hand. Women need all three if they are to secure an independent and respected social role and some aspect of control over their futures. This is particularly the case for adolescents where hopes for education, opportunities and fertility control can be replaced by a reality of withdrawal from education, child marriage and frequent, multiple unsafe pregnancies.

In wealthier countries, too, education and employment opportunities, high quality sex- and relationship-education and affordable family planning services go hand in hand in reducing unplanned pregnancies.

Women's control over their lives has multiple benefits

Promoting women’s control over their lives and people’s right to determine their family size is still controversial in some cultures. However, it has a lot going for it in comparison with other environmental and development initiatives. It is relatively cheap: contraception pays for itself through the amount it saves in avoided health complications and other social care. It has no problematic side-effects: rather, smaller families reduce pressure on resources and services of all kinds and increase the funds at household, community and state level available for investment.

Reducing the birth rate also addresses two other major population related issues: urbanization and migration. Both are becoming increasingly serious issues.

It does worsen one issue: our ageing profile. With increasing longevity and a falling birth rate, populations are ageing all over the world. However, what is worse, an older population or running out of resources? Ensuring a sufficient workforce to provide for the elderly can be addressed through reducing unemployment, providing support to enable those with family commitments to work more and designing work to help the healthy old to continue in employment. We might even think about improving productivity, looking at society’s spending priorities and spreading the wealth more evenly.

Some people look further ahead and worry about the effects of a declining population, as if 7-11 billion is the right range to be in. This is understandable: modern society is built on ever greater consumption, unachievable though this ultimately is. In fact, fewer people would mean greater space and resources for all. As our non-renewable resources become inevitably exhausted and climate change increasingly affects agriculture, we will welcome any reduction in our numbers.

For the children in a family or society, too many of them for the available food and water -- for the ecological carrying capacity -- is unkind and breeds violence. Children matter so much that words cannot express it. So let us put action behind our words, and make a better world for the children we actually can take care of!

Simon Ross, photo courtesy Population Matters

Simon Ross, is the chief executive of Population Matters, a UK based charity and membership organization that has existed for (see About) more than 20 years. It promotes smaller families and mindful consumption in order to make the world a better place. Homepage:

Top graphic courtesy International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Further Reading:

Hempel, Marilyn (ed.). Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders. Blue Planet, 2014

May, John. Population Policies: Their Origin, Evolution, and Impact. 
Springer, 2012.

Robbert Engelman's book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want (Island Press, 2008) was reviewed by John Wertime, September 11, 2008 on Culture Change website.

Comments (8)Add Comment
a good article on a less covered topic
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A decreasing human population will help reduce mankind's destructive impact on the biosphere. But population is only half of the equation.

A large component of human destruction is the result of a capitalism economy based on perpetual growth. This is impossible in a world of finite resources, even with a steadily declining population. Fewer consumers will only heighten the call for greater consumption. Six billion times two equals 2 billion times six.

Regardless of the absolute numbers or demographics of human population, we must move toward a steady state economy, based on limited consumption and waste production. The Earth has a limited capacity which cannot be exceeded by human consumption without disastrous outcomes fro all life on the planet.

For more information on steady state economics:
Michael A. Lewis, PhD
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Votes: +7
... that bears repeating until people get it. And while I've been calling for a steady-state economy for over a decade (others for much longer), that's only part of the picture. Excess, historically, does drive population growth, but so could sufficiency were inequality not so rampant. So, the bottom line for true sustainability is carrying capacity--the balance point among population, consumption, and waste assimilation. One can have a non-growing industrial economy that strips Earth bare (at least the parts that aren't toxic or radioactive) with too large a population.
Dave Ewoldt
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Votes: +5
I don't know how I got on the receiving end of this but since I did I'll post a comment. There was nothing new here, these observations have been going around for decades. To me the interesting part is how the author seems to be ignoring the two elephants in the living room, the first of which is the grossly unequal distribution and access to wealth and resources. The two comments before me bring it up and I applaud. I think at the present time there are enough resources to take care of everybody if the knotted concentrations are broken up.

The second elephant is religion which is a major stumbling block to much of human progress and particularly in matters of population control. Religion needs to be seriously defanged. Then we could get somewhere.
Jim Page
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Votes: +2
I know that this is important. Unfortunately the large families will be the ones that can out-consume and out-vote the un-born children of people who care so much that they don't have kids.
Ed Cooley
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The quantity of Us and the quality of Us in Our morality and Our social and economic systems, all need to be worked on...changed for the "Better".

It is just not adequately intelligent to overload a system, or systems. We must master the "Arts Of Dynamic Balance"...without destroying a large degree of diversity.
Dan 1
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I agree that per capita consumption must also be addressed. For sustainability, we need a collective acceptance of more moderate, equitable and environmentally aware consumption.

On religion, the mainstream of all religions recognise the importance of family planning and environmental sustainability. We do need to marginalize the fundamentalists and can best do that by working with mainstream religions.
Simon Ross
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Votes: +1
Simon is a lovely fellow and his heart is in the right place, however the real "elephant in the room" is an actual elephant, although deceased and rapidly heading to extinction. Everyone is underestimating the true magnitude of our over-population-over-consumption quandary. Consider that we were 6 million as a steady, sustainable Hunter-gatherer population world-wide. Now we are 7.3 billion petrochemical dependent, long past sustainable, over-stressed primates. We are so far out of "balance" with our natal environment (EEA-environment of evolutionary adaptedness-where we came from) that only 1/1217 of us would be able to survive on a former Earth by a Hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This number tells the tale. I have shown in my free e-book "STRESS R US" that our long evolved population regulation mechanisms, based in our neuro-endocrine systems, have been attempting to reduce our unsustainable numbers for hundreds of years. However, our ability to unsustainably over-harvest every necessary natural resource our existence depends on has been developed exponentially, in parallel to our exploding populations. This is a doomsday scenario and will soon collapse. No wonder we refuse to face this reality and just keep-on channel surfing, tweeting, selfie snapping, over-eating, and dying from stress-caused diseases. We can choose to look the dead elephant right in her glazed eyes, or just come to an end as a population, and, perhaps, as a species. Not to worry, that fatal asteroid strike is right around the corner. Pass the Cheetos, or read my book and change your life-style. Thanks to Simon and Jan!
Greeley Miklashek, MD(retired)
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