Posts Tagged ‘Population growth’

Waves of aging

December 15, 2013

The aging of the world is not news, but visualising the change is done very well here:

Population By Age, Japan

Population By Age, Japan

Population By Age, U.S.

Population By Age, U.S.

Not all countries are getting older. Many developing countries still have high fertility rates, and children account for a huge share of the people in those countries. (Typically, fertility rates don’t start falling until countries hit a certain stage of economic development.)

When you look at the whole world, you see a blend of these two trends — the population of the globe is aging, on average, but there are still far more children than old people.

World Population Breakdown By Age

World Population Breakdown By Age


David Attenborough is my hero but humans are not “a plague on earth”

September 10, 2013

David Attenborough is reported in the Guardian as being rather pessimistic about the future of humans.

Sir David Attenborough warns things will only get worse

People should be persuaded against having large families, says the broadcaster and naturalist

Much of what he is reported to have said is perfectly sound but many of the conclusions then present a pessimistic and apocryphal – a very Guardianesque – view. In fact I suspect that the spin is entirely due to the Guardian’s reporter and the Guardian’s remarkable ability to see a looming catastrophe in every advance.

That with falling fertility rates, world population will continue to rise at a decreasing rate and stabilise by 2100 is just a matter of arithmetic. But a 100 years from now we will face the challenges of a slowly declining population. That natural selection is “defeated” when even weak individuals are cared for and are not allowed to die is not something to regret. We are in the process of artificial selection over-riding natural selection and at a quite different pace, but it is just another challenge for humans – not something to wring our hands over. In fact we are already practicing a sort of eugenics by default.

Sir David Attenborough has said that he is not optimistic about the future and that people should be persuaded against having large families.

The broadcaster and naturalist, who earlier this year described humans as a plague on Earth”, also said he believed humans have stopped evolving physically and genetically because of birth control and abortion, but that cultural evolution is proceeding “with extraordinary swiftness”.

“We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 90-95% of our babies that are born. We are the only species to have put a halt to natural selection, of its own free will, as it were,” he tells this week’s Radio Times.

“Stopping natural selection is not as important, or depressing, as it might sound – because our evolution is now cultural … We can inherit a knowledge of computers or television, electronics, aeroplanes and so on.”

Attenborough said he was not optimistic about the future and “things are going to get worse”.

“I don’t think we are going to become extinct. We’re very clever and extremely resourceful – and we will find ways of preserving ourselves, of that I’m sure. But whether our lives will be as rich as they are now is another question.

“We may reduce in numbers; that would actually be a help, though the chances of it happening within the next century is very small. I should think it’s impossible, in fact.”

… he also appeared to express qualified support for the one-child policy in China.

He said: “It’s the degree to which it has been enforced which is terrible, and there’s no question it’s produced all kinds of personal tragedies. There’s no question about that. On the other hand, the Chinese themselves recognise that had they not done so there would be several million more mouths in the world today than there are now.”

He added: “If you were able to persuade people that it is irresponsible to have large families in this day and age, and if material wealth and material conditions are such that people value their materialistic life and don’t suffer as a consequence, then that’s all to the good. But I’m not particularly optimistic about the future. I think we’re lucky to be living when we are, because things are going to get worse.”

“Worse” is a matter of judgement.

We will feed and house more people than ever before. We will take care of more of the elderly than ever before. We will each have more and affordable energy available to us than ever before. We will educate and empower more people than ever before. More of us will see more of this world than ever before. We will face more challenges than ever before.  That’s not “worse”.

Food production can double and solutions are available for feeding the planet

October 14, 2011

A new study shows that alarmist, Malthusian, doomsday scenarios regarding feeding the world’s population which may reach 9 billion in 2050 are not justified.

A team of researchers from Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Germany has concluded from modelling results that it is feasible to double the world’s food production while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature.

Solutions for a cultivated planet, by Jonathan A. Foley, Navin Ramankutty, Kate A. Brauman, Emily S. Cassidy, James S. Gerber, Matt Johnston, Nathaniel D. Mueller, Christine O’Connell, Deepak K. Ray, Paul C. West, Christian Balzer, Elena M. Bennett, Stephen R. Carpenter, Jason Hill, Chad Monfreda, Stephen Polasky, Johan Rockström, John Sheehan, Stefan Siebert, David Tilman, David P. M. Zaks. . Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10452

Science Daily:

By combining information gathered from crop records and satellite images from around the world, they have been able to create new models of agricultural systems and their environmental impacts that are truly global in scope. ….

The researchers recommend:

  1. Halting farmland expansion and land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly in the tropical rainforest. This can be achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism. This change will yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
  2. Improving agricultural yields. Many farming regions in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe are not living up to their potential for producing crops — something known as “yield gaps.” Improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production nearly by 60 per cent.
  3. Supplementing the land more strategically. Current use of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals suffers from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. Strategic reallocation could substantially boost the benefit we get from precious inputs.
  4. Shifting diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on prime croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 per cent. Even shifting nonfood uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
  5. Reducing waste. One-third of the food produced by farms ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path that food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 per cent.

The study also outlines approaches to the problem that would help policy-makers reach informed decisions about the agricultural choices facing them. “For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” said lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “It will take serious work. But we can do it.”


Malthusian doomsday postponed – indefinitely 

7 billion people from October 31st by UN decree – but it is an opportunity not a problem

Malthusian doomsday postponed – indefinitely

September 21, 2011

In August I wrote:

Sometime soon the world’s population will exceed 7 billion. No one knows exactly when. According to the UN Population Reference Bureau, this will happen on 31st October in India or in China. The world’s 6 billionth living person was “suppposedly” born just 11 years ago in Bosnia, and world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. …

But I am no Malthusian and have a strong belief that the catastrophe theories are fundamentally misguided. Peak gas will never happen. Peak oil is a long way away and will be mitigated by new ways of creating oil substitutes as oil price increases. All the dismal forecasts of food production not being able to cope with population have not transpired. …..

Today Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, has an excellent piece on his blog which is also published in the Ottawa Citizen:

Room for all

…… Clearly it is possible at least for a while to escape the fate forecast by Robert Malthus, the pessimistic mathematical cleric, in 1798. We’ve been proving Malthus wrong for more than 200 years. And now the population explosion is fading. Fertility rates are falling all over the world: in Bangladesh down from 6.8 children per woman in 1955 to 2.7 today; China – 5.6 to 1.7; Iran – 7 to 1.7; Nigeria – 6.5 to 5.2; Brazil 6.1 to 1.8; Yemen – 8.3 to 5.1. 

The rate of growth of world population has halved since the 1960s; the absolute number added to the population each year has been falling for more than 20 years. According to the United Nations, population will probably cease growing altogether by 2070. This miraculous collapse of fertility has not been caused by Malthusian misery, or coercion (except in China), but by the very opposite: enrichment, urbanization, female emancipation, education and above all the defeat of child mortality – which means that women start to plan families rather than continue breeding. ……

Already huge swaths of the world are being released from farming and reforested. New England is now 80 per cent woodland, where it was once 70 per cent farm land. Italy and England have more woodland than for many centuries. Moose, coyotes, beavers and bears are back in places where they have not been for centuries. France has a wolf problem; Scotland a deer problem. It is the poor countries, not the affluent ones, that are losing forest. Haiti, with its near total dependence on renewable power (wood), is 98-percent deforested and counting.

Read the entire article.

7 billion people from October 31st by UN decree – but it is an opportunity not a problem

August 30, 2011

Sometime soon the world’s population will exceed 7 billion. No one knows exactly when. According to the UN Population Reference Bureau, this will happen on 31st October in India or in China. The world’s 6 billionth living person was “suppposedly” born just 11 years ago in Bosnia, and world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.


The billion mark was reached only after 1800. As many as a billion have been added in the eleven years of the 21st century alone, and predictions on future population growth are now treated with the same caution and scepticism as long-range weather forecasts. David Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health says that the multitude of unpredictable factors means that taking a global view is problematic. ‘Among them are infectious diseases, war, scientific progress, political change and our capacity for global cooperation,’ he says.

The general expectation is, however, that population growth will tail off, with UN predictions for 2050 ranging from 8.0 to 10.5 billion.

Interactive UN map is here

source: UN (via Time)

The annual rate of increase seems to have peaked around 1988 and is decreasing slowly. The UN medium scenario seems to be close to the actual development.

Annual increase of world population: Source United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision, 2005.

But I am no Malthusian and have a strong belief that the catastrophe theories are fundamentally misguided. Peak gas will never happen. Peak oil is a long way away and will be mitigated by new ways of creating oil substitutes as oil price increases. All the dismal forecasts of food production not being able to cope with population have not transpired. In my own lifetime I have only seen human ingenuity increase. Every doomsday scenario has had to give way before human ingenuity responding to human needs. I also believe that our children and our grandchildren will be considerably “smarter” than we are and will have (or will develop) technologies and tools that we cannot even dream of. I am not very convinced or impressed by those who would ban things today “for the sake of our children and our grandchildren”.

Even by the wildest stretch of his imagination my grandfather – who died around 1918 – would not have been able to imagine the technologies available today. Even my father – an engineer – who died in 1988 would not have been able to forecast the technologies we have at our command today.

With the definition below I would have no problem to be labelled a cornucopian.

cornucopian is a futurist who believes that continued progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by similarly continued advances in technology, and the abundance of matter and energy in space would appear to give humanity almost unlimited room for growth.

What population problem? More brains and hands could well cater for the extra mouths to feed


What population problem? More brains and hands could well cater for the extra mouths to feed

July 30, 2011

Malthus’ ideas haven’t quite been discredited but his alarmism certainly has. As world population increases from the current 6 billion and approaches around 9 to 10 billion by 2100 studies suggest that population growth can have economic and environmental benefits.

A new article in  Science 29 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6042 pp. 544-546

DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6042.544

Are More People Necessarily a Problem?

by David Malakoff

In 1937, A bureaucrat serving in the British Empire’s Kenya Colony penned an alarming memo to his bosses about conditions in the Machakos Reserve, a hilly, drought-prone farming region 50 kilo meters south of Nairobi. “Benevolent British rule” had encouraged the explosive “multiplication” of the “natives,” he reported, leading to massive environmental degradation. “Every phase of misuse of land is vividly and poignantly displayed in this Reserve, the inhabitants of which are rapidly drifting to a state of hopeless and miserable poverty and their land to a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand.” The apocalyptic warning came as the region’s population approached 250,000.

Today, more than 1.5 million people call Machakos home. Rather than a cautionary example of the perils of overpopulation, however, for some experts Machakos has become a symbol of something very different: the idea that rapid human population growth, even in some of Earth’s driest, most challenging environments, is not necessarily a recipe for disaster—and can even bring benefits. They argue that, over the past 75 years, population growth in Machakos and nearby Nairobi has triggered social and economic shifts that have made it possible for residents to regreen once-barren hillsides, reinvigorate failing soils, reduce birth rates, and increase crop production and incomes. “A landscape that was once declared good for nothing is now like a garden when the rain falls,” says Michael Mortimore, a geographer with Drylands Research, a United Kingdom–based nonprofit organization, who helped document the turnaround in More People, Less Erosion, a 1994 study that is still influential—and controversial—today. “Too many people still have the simplistic notion that too many people is a problem,” he says. “What happened in Machakos challenges that pessimism.”…..

 ……. Many see crisis looming in those numbers for people and the environment. Others, however, see some hope for a transition to more sustainable livelihoods and cite Ester Boserup, a Danish economist who died in 1999, as one source of their optimism. In 1965, the then-little-known Boserup, who spent most of her career consulting for international development institutions, published a slim volume titled The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure(pdf Boserup1965) It examined the history of subsistence farming and offered a theory that essentially turned Malthus upside down. Instead of rising population density leading to barren fields and starvation, Boserup suggested it could naturally trigger “intensification”: the use of new technologies and more labor to get bigger harvests from less land.

“The idea was that people weren’t just mouths to feed but also brains that could think and hands and legs that could work very hard”.

….. In some parts of Africa, meanwhile, researchers are documenting a notable, Machakos-like “regreening” of arid areas with fast-growing populations. …. There’s some evidence that the extra greenery is helping to make poor farm communities more resilient to droughts and economic setbacks, but the long-term outlook remains at best unclear.

In the forest frontiers of South and Central America, researchers have found both Malthusian and Boserupian forces at work in deforestation. Depending on local circumstances, families faced with growing population densities have responded by both migrating to clear new farms in forested areas, the agricultural “extensification” predicted by Malthus, and intensified land use à la Boserup, a team led by David Carr of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported in a 2009 study in Population and Development. Paradoxically, the result is that areas with relatively low population densities can have much higher deforestation rates than those with higher densities.

Read the whole article 


 Sustainable growth in Machakos by Francis Gichuki , Mary Tiffen , Michael Mortimore, ILEIA Newsletter • 9 nº 4 • December 1993

More People, Less Erosion, Overseas Development Institute UK, 1994



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