When I was born, this web page says there were approximately 4,879,117,362 people on earth.
Today, 31st of October, the world will welcome its 7 billionth inhabitant.
This realization is a scary one, for all kinds of reasons. Every new person will require access to resources in order to grow and develop, yet every day one billion people go to bed hungry, the same number lack access to clean water and 2.6 billion do not have adequate sanitation.
As the world marks the ‘day of the 7 billion’, population issues are once again being brought to the forefront of discourse, and rightly so. Human population growth has been made possible by the bonanza that is fossil fuels, but this has come at a price. Industrialization has led to economic growth in those countries where it has taken place, and more consumption of natural resources, first by the western world, and now by the Asians, who aspire to the same standard of living enjoyed by the west for decades. The result is that there is less for everyone else. It is this consumption by the wealthy, combined with the population increases seen in the developing world, that are like twin forces which could lead to chaos.
There is no doubt that increasing population over the last century has put a huge strain on the earth’s resources, because of their finite nature. Human activities are primarily to blame for climate change, the effects of which are obvious all over the globe, increased competition for water and energy resources, extinction of species and desertification.
What is most worrying is the absence of any real local and global conversation about how to combat these issues. There are a number of reasons for this: Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, former Health Minister and now Executive Director at the UN Population Fund, says the intensity of the focus on HIV/AIDS meant that population issues took a back seat. The US, often looked to for leadership on global issues has been massively distracted, first by a costly and largely unnecessary war on terror, then the global financial crisis which they are still dealing with.
Unfortunately, the forces set in motion by exponential population growth, technology and consumption will not tarry. There is a need for an honest global conversation about where the human race is headed, and the hard choices all nations have to make to avert a brutal population reset forced on us by nature in form of war, famine, disease, or all three. The rich countries need to take the lead and consume less. If they don’t, they would have no right to tell any other nation to do the same. One British person has the same effect on the environment as twenty-two Malawians. Developing countries need to educate their people about family planning, and make it easier for them to practice it. Increased literacy and educational attainment of girls is also directly linked to decreased fertility.
In Africa, rapid urbanisation has not been addressed by an increased availability of infrastructure, pushing many cities to breaking point. Africa’s 373 million urban inhabitants are expected to double by 2030, and this will require a complete remaking of its cities to accommodate them. The efforts must be towards better urban planning that uses resources more efficiently. Governments must accelerate the delivery of social amenities and plan for future demand, or risk unrest.
Africa is home to the 10 youngest countries in the world. They will need, among other things, jobs. Lots of jobs. As China becomes more prosperous, they will begin to shed the low wage jobs that started their move away from poverty. Those jobs will need to go somewhere, and there is a lot to be done to encourage inflows of foreign capital – not aid – and also to spur innovation from within. Properly harnessed, a huge labour force can be a blessing instead of a curse.
The challenges posed by increasing population, especially on the African continent, range from the economic to the environmental. Everything is linked, and it will require focus, creativity, urgency and cooperation by governments and communities to address them. They are not insurmountable, but Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb is of the opinion that the inability of the global community to address population issues gives humanity only a 10% chance to avert a collapse of global civilisation in the next few decades. I hope he is wrong.