“Population decline could end China’s civilization as we know it.” How such silly statements by Andy Xie and those that think like him are completely wrong.
First, I would like to acknowledge that this hyperbolic, unproductive and misguided title could very well be the product of an editor whose zeal for clickbait overwhelms his or her journalistic duty to convey facts. Unfortunately, this is hardly uncommon. Article titles are a fascinating thing. Since most of us triage many articles via their title, while only reading a subset of those we flip through, such titles have an almost subliminal influence on how we view the world. This title is not helping.
Still, when you read Andy Xie’s full article, it is hard to imagine that he would not approve of the title.
As a Shanghai-based independent economist specializing in China and Asia, Dr. Xie appears to be a fair representation of the dominant world view within the discipline and professional of economics. One would have hoped that spending 5 years at the World Bank would have balanced out his private sector experience with global economics, financial markets, and corporate finance. But, it seems that World Bank has been home to plenty of neoclassical economists who similarly cannot conceptually separate prosperity and growth in individual prosperity from the inexorable growth of global GDP.
To Xie and others like him, I will simply ask them to read the chapter in A Planet of 3 Billion entitled “Reimagining Economics for an Era of Degrowth”. The global population curve will bend at some point in the future. That is an inevitability. Whether it is at 9.7B in 2064 as the Lancet article (see blow) projected, or sometime sooner, or sometime later, it is time to think it all through and to be prepared.
This is particularly true since we long ago exceeded our planet’s carrying capacity, and should be thinking proactively about how much we can invest in the empowerment of women and girls, and accelerate this inevitability, since that could effectively reduce global Total Fertility Rate below replacement value (2.1), and save our planet from ecological destruction through degrowth.
Half a year before I published A Planet of 3 Billion, Rob Harding proposed the creation of a United Nations Framework Convention on Population Growth. You can find the original post here at Stanford’s Millenium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere. The proposal was also published at the Overpopulation Project which you can find here.
In previous posts, I have rallied behind the concept of creating an 18th Sustainable Development goal which is focused on curbing runaway population growth and bending the global population curve to achieve a lower, more sustainable population plateau. Whether the SDG process might be reopened to add this 18th SDG is anyone’s guess. Certainly if they do not, we will overshoot all of our SDGs. Sigh.
Rob’s approach would serve a similar purpose. It would allow us to recognize that we (e.g., humanity) have exceeded our planet’s carrying capacity, and are accruing long term ecological debt that is threatening our planet and our species. And, it would allow us to collectively set goals for bending the global population curve in a particular timeframe. After all, what are goals with out due date! I have argued for a goal of 1.5TFR by 2030, but we could negotiate that within the UN process. Rob’s proposal is modeled on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has negotiated targets for carbon emissions. Yet, it completely failed to appreciate the role of runaway population growth in fueling climate change. History will look back on this failure with contempt.
So, why not just add discussion of runaway population growth to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change? Well, as I have said elsewhere, climate change and our collective carbon footprint is only one small part of our larger human footprint. And, to properly grapple with runaway population growth, a substantial agreement with many moving pieces would be required. It is not as simple as setting targets. Population issues touch every single Sustainable Development Goal, and every aspect of human rights discussions across the UN and its member nations. We have it at our fingertips to embrace just, ethical, and empowering strategies - particularly focused on women and girls - that can help us bend the global population curve. But, all nations would need to agree to them.
As such, I completely endorse Rob’s proposal to establish a UN Framework Convention on Population Growth - as an update and friendly amendment the Cairo Consensus established in 1994 during the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development.
I strongly recommend that everyone read this article in Frontiers in Conservation Science, by a group of prominent scientists who argue that:
”It is therefore incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and “tell it like it is.” Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”
As one might imagine with Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich as co-authors, runaway population growth plays a prominent role in their thesis, as does overconsumption. While they “contend that only a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges facing the international community might allow it to chart a less-ravaged future,” they are short on any real productive path forward.
I wonder what they might think about my proposal in the Journal of Population and Sustainability to target a Total Fertility Rate of 1.5 by 2030. This is a practical, if audacious, goal which if met would actually enable us to meet the larger suite of Sustainable Development Goals that we are currently managing to overshoot. Bend the global population curve. Save our planet and our species.
As a side note, it is heartening that Greta Thunberg actually tweeted out a Guardian story about this article. It seems that she is beginning to embrace the realities of how runaway population growth is driving climate change, and how we must stabilize and then decrease population if we are to avert climate catastrophe - as was clear in the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, November 2019.
Thanks to Jack Humphrey for hosting me on his “Rewilding Earth Podcast”, as part of the Rewilding Institute, to discuss “How To Have A More Constructive Conversation About Human Population Issues”. I am quite pleased with how this conversation played out, and all of the issues we were able to explore together. Rewilding is crucial if we are to rebalance our planet and our species, after humanity has annihilated so much of our planets natural habitat. While there are always opportunities to rewild in the face of runaway population growth, it will continue to get harder and harder as humanity’s ecological footprint continues to grow with population growth. Bending the global population curve is key to enabling broad based rewilding strategies that can help avert ecological and climate catastrophe. So, if you are at all interested in these topics, give this one a listen!
Everyone should make sure to tune in to #OvercomingOvershoot. I posted last month about it, but here is a bit more.
Thanks again to Gary Wockner for hosting me and my amazing colleague Dr. Phoebe Barnard (who was one of the lead authors of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency in BioScience in November 2019) for a discussion about my book A Planet of 3 Billion on his new podcast series #OvercomingOvershoot, this episode entitled “The Human Impact Crisis”. Sponsored by EarthX, this new podcast series was formulated to help us all better understand how runaway population growth and overconsumption have led us to overshoot our planet’s carrying capacity. I would encourage everyone to listen to the whole series available on EarthX OnDemand, where our episode was preceded by amazing guests such as: Episode 1’s Tom Butler, editor of the new book Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot. And, Episode 2’s Laurel Hanscomb, CEO of the Global Footprint Network. Stay tuned for what promises to be an insightful series of episodes that will address the complex and overlapping issues surrounding humanity’s overshoot of our planet’s carrying capacity.
If you have made it this far in the the blog, you will realize that we exceeded our planet’s long term ecological carrying capacity decades ago, and that runaway population growth is leading us to accrue ecological debt at an alarming rate that promises to undermine the viability of our planet and our species. I argue that there is a clear need to curb this growth, bend the global population curve, and decrease the human population to a level that can live in balance with our planet’s resources.
In this context, I would like to share with you my call to achieve a global Total Fertility Rate of 1.5 by 2030, published in a recent article in the Journal of Population and Sustainability. Thanks to the kind invitation of its editor, Dr. David Samways.
While the global TFR is currently at 2.45, it is important to understand that many urban areas and some nations already have a TFR of 1.5 or below. These patterns are driven by women’s empowerment, their education and integration in to the workforce, and and access to family planning technologies. This global TFR is projected to continue to trend downward. In the Summer of 2020, an article in Lancet determined that investment in women’s education and access to family planning technologies is, in effect, ahead of schedule, projecting that TFR would fall to 2.1 (replacement level) by 2064, with population peaking at 9.7 billion – well ahead of United Nations estimates. So, why should we not further accelerate this trend, by investing further in women and girls, worldwide?
To me, our understanding of the factors driving this inevitable bending of the global population curve is very encouraging. And, it forces us to ask the question, what investments could be made to accelerate this inevitable trend. Moreover, what levels of investment would be required to achieve this goal of 1.5TFR by 2030. These things are knowable, and doable. They simply have not been the object of our inquiry as we have all been lulled in to assuming that runaway population growth itself is the inevitable trend.
I invite all of you to join in this challenge, and to help integrate this goal in to the many complementary activities that are already afoot for the 2020’s. So many of you are touching one of the levers that could help bend this curve, and you may not even know it. I look forward to discussing with you how your corner of this very complex world might contribute to achieving this goal, as we all strive to make the world a better place.
“When we educate girls, and when we empower them and give them the quality education that they need, it actually helps us to tackle climate change because when girls are educated, they have fewer children,”
- Malala Yousafzai.
Congratulations to the Malala Fund for their gift from Apple’s climate program (https://www.fastcompany.com/90582955/why-apple-is-giving-to-the-malala-fund-as-part-of-its-climate-program). Kudos to Apple for recognizing the truth that empowering and educating women and girls can help us avert climate catastrophe by reducing fertility, and bending the global population curve. And, there is no better partner for empowering and educating women and girls than Malala and the Malala Fund.
This gives me great hope that a global network of women and girls is emerging, that will build bridges across various regions and cultures, in a way that accelerates the inevitable bending of the global population curve, through the empowerment and education of women and girls.
Thanks to Gary Wockner for hosting me for a conversation on EarthXTV’s #OvercomingOvershoot program exploring the intersections of our planet’s carrying capacity, human dominance and the climate crisis. It was a pleasure sharing the stage with my colleague Dr. Phoebe Barnard who was one of the lead authors of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency in BioScience in November 2019.
We, as a global community, recently made a major leap forward in our conversation about population. To little fanfare, outside of the conservation community, the International Union for Conservation of Nature passed a motion entitled “Importance for the conservation of nature of removing barriers to rights-based voluntary family planning” making it global policy. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the IUCN members that spearheaded this effort - the Margaret Pike Trust and the Population and Sustainability Network with consponsors @NNF_Namibia, @NatureUganda, @pheethiopia, @SAWCtweet, @BornFreeFDN, @wti_org_india, and @FZS_Frankfurt.
This motion is a critical step forward by the conservation community, which has long discussed the many ways in which human habitats have encroached on, or even annihilated natural habitats. It is heartening to see that they finally, publicly made the connection between continued population growth and continued loss of habitat and biodiversity.
Make sure to give it a read, and get involved.
Thanks to Aditya Chaturvedi for his review of A Planet of 3 Billion entitled “Reinventing Economics for the Age of Autonomy”. When you write an interdisciplinary book, it is always interesting to see what thread a reviewer pulls first. Aditya clearly keyed in on my arguments regarding how the myopic views of Neoclassical Economists often end up influencing nations to pursue pro-natalist policies - and my call for “Reinventing Economics for an Era of Degrowth”. I actually really like Aditya’sformulation, as women’s empowerment, women’s education, women’s integration in to the workforce, and their access to family planning technology promise to unleash a level of bodily autonomy, economic autonomy, and social autonomy for women that will allow us to close the gap between demonstrated and desired levels of fertility. And, when the global population curve bends, we will truly need a new set of economic concepts if we are to successfully navigate to this lower, more sustainable population plateau.