Economics is competing with Thomas Malthus as the world’s seventh billion inhabitant is born. Global population has grown from 2.5bn to 7bn just in my lifetime, so there is plenty to alarm doomsayers. But this landmark arrives at a very different cultural moment to the six billionth baby, twelve years ago.
Some see beyond the extra hungry mouths to feed or scarce natural resources exhausted, and are excited by the prospect of new consumers that will power global demand and growth in the future. They have a point. The last decade or so of dizzy economic growth, however precarious it currently looks, has lifted up large, heavily-populated countries such as China, India and Brazil. At the same time, the Malthusian expectation of the world running out of energy and food has also been pushed back. The development of shale gas deposits has started to turn assumptions about any early exhaustion of non-renewable energy resources on its head.
Over the last forty years we have seen a three and a half fold increase in food production. Food supply has largely kept up with population and famine. The bread riots in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of the Arab Spring, were more often a consequence of low incomes or rising prices, not global shortage. Indeed, in a savage challenge to conventional thinking, there are now more obese than hungry people in the world.
Population patterns stack up very differently in an increasingly urbanised world of cities with apartment buildings and tightly-packed homes. Although it brings social dislocation and often poverty, the great movement of surplus labour from an inefficient, over-crowded agricultural sector to metropolitan areas makes the former more efficient, and the latter an ever-growing market not just for farmers but for a range of goods and services as the new urbanites step onto the consumer escalator.
But population growth is slowing. It is now half the annual rate of what it was in the 1960s. Indeed many rich countries, notably in Europe, face imminent labour shortages unless they relax their immigration laws. It won’t be until 2050 that world population grows by the next 2bn. Almost none will be born in Europe.
This global demographic slowdown is down to parents responding to a fundamental shift in their economic lives where children are no longer a resource to help in the fields, but a cost. They are turning to family planning to limit the size of their families.
But this extra population is not going to bear as heavily on global climate change as many of us here already. Leaving aside the possible impact of green technologies, most of the newcomers will be born into countries that emit about a twentieth of the carbon of those in developed countries. They are not the problem.
Does that mean we should be entirely sanguine in greeting Monday’s birth of the world’s seventh billionth person? No. The fastest rates of population growth are in the poorest countries, notably Africa. Indeed, more than half of the growth between now and 2050 will be in that continent. While parts of Africa may be able to absorb these extra numbers, some countries are caught in a trap of endemic economic and political weakness, environmental degradation and food insecurity without any of the incentives of modern employment to encourage the transition to smaller family size. So famine, as at present in Somalia, is going to remain with us.
While modern Malthusians may have been wrong for now about the energy situation, it is doubtful that similar happy surprises lie around the corner when it comes to water scarcity, or the slower gains in agricultural productivity as urban diets increase food demand at a much faster rate than population growth. We have a western development model, which has had the few, if not yet the many, living way beyond the world’s means. As fast-growing middle classes in countries such as China and India emulate western consumption patterns, the real stresses on our global systems will be exposed.
The world is an over-burdened place, but not because there is no room for our seventh billion neighbour. The problem is less about how many of us there are, and more about how we choose to live. Malthus might feel he has not lost the argument yet.
The writer is chairman for Europe, Middle East and Africa at FTI Consulting, and former head of UN Development Programme.