Review of The Truth about Population
Transmitted on (UK TV) BB2 9pm Thurs 7th November 2013
On BBC iPlayer until Thurs 14th Nov 2013
Don’t panic: the truth about population
This enjoyable exposition got a lot right. Falling child mortality drove the enormous increase in human numbers over recent decades. Now, falling birth rates mean that we have reached ‘peak child’ – the number of children has stopped growing. In time, perhaps by the end of this century, human numbers will therefore stop growing, too.
Much of rural Africa is ‘left behind’, with large families continuing to be the norm. As child mortality falls with improved healthcare, its population will rise dramatically. Even in Africa, though, there is strong economic growth in much of the continent and hopes for an end to extreme poverty.
Does that means that everything is all right? Rosling defines himself as a possibilist. He seeks to provide reassurance, while acknowledging that humanity faces huge challenges.
One challenge is precisely that ‘peak child’ situation. There are, and will be, more young adults than ever before. Even though they will have fewer children than their parents, their sheer number will mean that we will have a century of many more children than in the recent past. Adding in increased longevity takes us to a peak of eleven billion people, compared with the seven billion of today. Given that humanity is already consuming 1.5 times what can be produced through renewable resources, that climate change could have grave consequences, and that resources of all kinds are being systematically depleted, that 60 per cent increase in our numbers has to be a cause for concern.
Another challenge is the enormous disparity of income. Much of the world is in catch up mode, aspiring to improve their living standards. They are succeeding, turbocharging carbon emissions and consumption of all kinds and creating a multiplier effect together with population growth. Yet, there are still a billion in extreme poverty, where they cannot rely on even having sufficient food and clean water for good health and child development.
Rosling acknowledges that climate change and resource adequacy are outside his field of expertise. He points to the undoubted potential in Africa for higher agricultural yields through transport improvements and modern farming techniques. More generally, he relies on the prosperous accepting the need to limit their consumption to a level that is sustainable in a world of eleven billion.
So, “Don’t panic” does not mean that he thinks we should be complacent. Poorer communities need to improve their productivity while richer ones need to move to sustainable lifestyles if we are to limit the degree and impact of climate change and continuing resource depletion.
Population, too, is something that we can do something about. Rosling notes that the fall in birth rates has been across cultures, religions and regions and references Bangladesh, a poor, Islamic and populous country that has dramatically reduced its birth rate through cutting child mortality, improving women’s education and employment and implementing a systematic public education programme for family planning and the benefits of smaller families. Despite this evidence that purposeful intervention works, very many governments and the international community support family planning in words, but fail to provide the funding needed to put family planning advocates in every community, as Bangladesh has. And how many actively promote the benefits of smaller families?
Rosling’s global average of 2.5 children per woman concealed an important truth: people vary. In the UK, the latest data for women reaching menopause is that one in five had no children, one in six had one, four out of ten had two, one in five had three and one in ten had four or more. We have a choice. The future will be brighter if we can say, with Bangladesh, “No more than two kids – one is even better”.