8 Billion – Our Greatest Mistake

Eight billion people alive today is a milestone in human history. We accept this figure as though it is normal: a minor news story, nothing to worry about. But it is the most dangerous place we’ve been in the history of civilization. In only eleven years, one billion people have been added to our numbers; a number that’s still rising, and not set to peak before the end of the century. Eight billion people on the planet. It is unprecedented and unsustainable. Unsustainable, meaning logically that it will fall. But how and when it will fall is not discussed as it means facing an inconvenient truth.

When you take a look at the figures, where we actually are, it is truly mind-boggling how we have just walked blindly into this mess. Our numbers have quadrupled in the last hundred years. Fossil fuels have enabled us to multiply, by providing us with a blast of energy and food, resulting in us massively overshooting our planet’s capacity. We found the energy, we took it and we burnt it as fast as we could. Now we’ve gone into overdraft but we are still spending, addicted, and there is no easy way to stop.

Isaac Asimov once said overpopulation is more dangerous than nuclear weapons, which you make an active decision to use, but “to bring about destruction by overcrowding… there is no need to do anything. We need only do what comes naturally, and breed. And how easy it is to do nothing.” We have done almost nothing to prevent overpopulation, and the writing is now on the wall: the impacts are going to hit harder and harder in the coming decades, as the effects become exponentially worse. The climate is changing and is going to change faster. Temperature records are broken annually. Polar ice is melting and the oceans are acidifying. Plastic pollution is everywhere. We have a freshwater crisis. We are depleting soils, relying on artificial fertilizers to grow enough crops to feed ourselves. We’re in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction and have lost 69% of vertebrate animals in the last 50 years. The shocking list goes on, and we are becoming used to one disaster after another. Change is becoming the norm.

There are two ways out of this. The first is a massive reduction in consumption: lessening our use of fossil fuels, less eating of meat, less flying, less driving, less ‘stuff’. But this is very difficult to achieve in a capitalist growth-based system that constantly bombards us with messages to spend, spend, spend, for the sake of the god of ‘economic growth’.

Many of us are looking at this answer while turning a blind eye to the second answer which, simply put, is to lower birth rates – a possibility that is rarely discussed for many reasons, all spurious. But it is the easiest and most practical thing to do. All it takes is for contraception to be made freely and globally available. If the average global fertility rate were reduced by just half a child on average, the population would peak and decline far sooner than if we did nothing – and could result in several billion fewer people by the end of the century.

The long-term benefits of reduced fertility rates are immense. It means we can bend the curve on population. A world of diminishing resources will be able to cope much better with a smaller population than with a larger one. The quality of life for everyone will be much better when there are fewer of us. It is a small change that has long term impacts. Had we acted sooner, we would not be facing the existential crisis that we are now.

So why have we done nothing, and why do we continue to do nothing? Talk about population size has been shut down from all corners. The Left won’t talk about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative; the reason given is that it’s just the richest 10% doing the damage and if we shared more equitably everything would be fine. But this ignores the fact that as nations develop, they consume more, and have every right to do so. Capitalism thrives on overpopulation: the more people, the more competition for work, meaning cheaper wages and more profit. Governments want more people, as more people equals a higher GDP. The Catholic Church refuses to admit that condoms are not the work of the devil. Population has become unmentionable and, with all sides singing from the same hymn-sheet, the circle of silence on population is complete.

Today we want everything fixed immediately, but population doesn’t work like that; we have to wait. Time-scales matter. Recently I visited Stourhead in Wiltshire where, in the old stable yard, there are a number of big old walnut trees. The trees are over a hundred years old and in the prime of their life, providing a crop of nuts every year, for nothing. The ground that day was littered with walnuts and I took home two coat-pocketfuls. These trees were planted with the future in mind: of little use for the first ten years, then slowly producing nuts. The Chinese proverb says, ‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is today.’

It’s the same with population. Acting on population is a slow process. Sea level rise is also a slow process. Sea levels are rising exponentially and will be rising for hundreds of years. Carbon in the atmosphere has already locked this rise in and it will happen, unless we can find the miracle cure to prevent it. Hundreds of coastal cities are set to be swamped by unstoppable rising tides, which will displace millions of people. As these areas become uninhabitable, corresponding falls in the human population could mitigate the loss of land, as other housing becomes freed up. This would prevent the carbon intensive and destructive need for building new cities in order to relocate hundreds of millions of displaced people.

We should change the current narrative and talk about population as we did back in the 1970s. The benefits of a declining population are enormous. We’ve never experienced a smaller population and so don’t know what we’re missing.

But here’s what we’re missing. A world where population has stabilised means we won’t need to build more: an end to the sprawling new estates on the edge of towns, an end to more dominating skyscrapers and lifeless roads built to connect these new developments. Emissions will plummet, since building requires immense amounts of concrete, fossil fuels and human labour. This possibility is not considered in future emissions calculations, despite the benefits it would bring. We are hell-bent on building “for the economy”. We need to change this mindset.

If there were an effort to slow birth rates further, the only side effect would be economists panicking, self-interested politicians crying and profiteering builders going bankrupt. The rest of us would raise a cheer: no more soulless developments planned in our towns and cities, and we could breathe a collective sigh of relief. We could concentrate on quality, not quantity. We could improve instead of expand. The vast force of workers who are constantly building more and more would be re-purposed to quality employment, and the environment would recover.

Small families would become the norm everywhere; this would be better for the families themselves. It leads to a better life for parents, as they are able to afford everything that their one or two children need, rather than being squeezed on all fronts by the costs of providing for four or five children. In the longer term it means a better inheritance for the one or two children, rather than it being split between four or five siblings. The most environmentally damaging thing you can do in the (over)developed world is add another person to the planet.

Developing countries will improve when populations stabilize and begin to fall. Instead of facing poverty, starvation, homelessness and mass migrations, a stable population created by free access to contraception will lead to an escape from the poverty trap, better life chances for all and an end for the need for international aid. Can you even imagine charities such as Oxfam and the WWF finally being able to close their doors as world poverty ends and wildlife recovers?

With the retreat of humans, everything will start to improve as pressure is taken off the natural world. Forests will begin to regrow – not because of laws or a change of policy, but because the land won’t be needed for crops. Species under threat will be removed from the ‘endangered’ lists as their habitat returns and their numbers recover. Wildlife charities across the globe will find themselves without a cause, as animals are enabled to look after themselves, just as they did before our population exploded.

With the retreat of humans, roads will become less crowded: traffic jams will disappear as the roads remain but the numbers of vehicles decrease. Journey times will be quicker and pollution reduced. Housing will become affordable for everyone. Not everyone will be happy to see house prices fall, but the pros will outweigh the cons as families find themselves able to buy a house without the need for a crippling lifetime of mortgage debt.

The list of benefits goes on and on. We need to look forward to a reduction in our numbers; start talking about it, help it, encourage it and aim for it. We need to realise that our current state is abnormal: we’re in a state of colossal overshoot that cannot continue. We either drive ourselves back to sustainable numbers or nature will do it for us in a future which does not bear thinking about. We must do it ourselves, proactively and positively. When talk related to population growth comes up, speak out. Explain how numbers matter. There are still too many who haven’t connected the dots or who are too scared to mention it. But more and more people are seeing the reality of where we are and are not afraid to talk about our species’ numbers. We need to talk about population.

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4 Comments

  1. I agree completely, but you don’t answer the argument that’s always presented by those in favor of population growth: We need more childbirths to keep the workforce going. A decline in building activities would, as you say, reduce the need for labor, but I’d add a second remedy: Stop treating young people as infants.
    During all human history except the last century, a 15 year old man or woman was considered an adult. Now, they’re supposed to languish in educational facilities for another decade. Introduce life long learning programs for everyone, but let it be part time. Reinvent apprenticeships and accept 15 year olds in paying jobs again. They’re quick and smart, and eager to learn.

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    1. Yes, I totally agree that often further education is unnecessary. Young people could be productive and valuable members of society. Instead they spend extra years getting into debt via unrequired further education

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