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183

Are There Too Many People In The World?

Aug 10, 2021
Economics
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23
minutes
Economics
Natural world
Politics
Philosophy
Africa
18th Century
Consumption

Throughout history there have been gloomy predictions that the world is running out of space.

Is this really true?

In this episode we'll explore the history of world population, and ask ourselves whether 10 billion people really is too many.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be tackling a big question, that of population growth.

[00:00:30] We are going to be asking ourselves whether there are too many people in the world? 

[00:00:35] And if indeed that is the case, does it matter? 

[00:00:39] What will some of the implications be, for us personally, for our children and their children, and for the world we live in?

[00:00:47] These are, to state the obvious, some big, important questions, so let’s get cracking right away.

[00:00:55] In this episode we’ll start by outlining some numbers, to emphasise how the world’s population has grown over time.

[00:01:04] Then, we’ll talk a little bit about some of the reasons that people are scared by population growth, both now and historically.

[00:01:14] Then we'll talk about what most experts think the future of the world’s population will look like, and why having 10 billion people on Earth might not actually be as scary as you might think it would be.

[00:01:28] Let’s start with some numbers, because we are indeed talking about the number of people that exist on planet Earth.

[00:01:36] Homo Sapiens, us, you and I, are thought to have arrived on Earth about 200,000 years ago.

[00:01:45] The world population hit 1 billion people in around 1800, so it took more or less 200,000 years for us to go from zero to a billion people.

[00:01:58] The next billion took 127 years, then 32 years, then 15, then 13, then 12, and it took another 12 years for us to reach 7 billion people on earth in 2011. 

[00:02:16] The population at the moment, in 2021, is just under 8 billion. 

[00:02:22] And although most academics believe that it will continue to grow for the majority of the next century, it is thought that it will stabilise at somewhere between 10 and 12 billion towards the end of the 21st century, double the population in the year that I was born, 1987.

[00:02:43] Throughout history there have been concerns that there are too many people on the planet, that there is a natural ceiling, and the Earth simply can’t sustain the human population.

[00:02:58] There is evidence of this concern right back in Carthage, in the second century AD, but the most famous critic of population growth came in late 18th century Britain, with an article called “An Essay On The Principle of Population”, by a scholar named Robert Malthus.

[00:03:19] This was published in 1798, shortly before the world had welcomed its billionth inhabitant.

[00:03:27] Malthus proposed that population growth happens more quickly than the ability of a society to increase its food production. 

[00:03:37] Therefore societies lose the ability to feed everyone, there is famine, war and death, and the population returns to its normal, correct size.

[00:03:50] Malthus has remained popular ever since, yet his theory proved to be completely wrong, at least for the period he was writing in.

[00:04:01] Malthus failed to predict the Industrial Revolution, which came shortly afterwards, and resulted in huge improvements in mankind’s ability to feed itself. 

[00:04:14] There is an entire episode on The Industrial Revolution if you’re interested, it’s episode 150, and I’m sure you know a lot of this already, but long story short, industrial improvements meant that food suddenly became much easier to produce.

[00:04:31] The population was growing faster than ever before, but society’s ability to feed itself was improving faster than the population was growing, meaning that in fact the opposite of what Malthus had suggested was happening.

[00:04:48] Indeed now, when there have never been more people on Earth, there has never been a smaller percentage of the population involved in agriculture, involved in actually producing food.

[00:05:02] So, from the point of view of the world collapsing in famine and war at 1 billion people, that certainly didn’t happen, luckily for all of us.

[00:05:13] The world’s population has continued to grow, it is up almost eightfold, an increase of 8 times since Malthus’ gloomy prediction.

[00:05:22] But there are still those that predict that the world cannot sustain itself, or rather, the world has no problem sustaining itself, the problem comes from the amount of humans on the planet that destabilise it.

[00:05:38] In 1968 Paul Ehrlich, an economist at Stanford University, was to follow in Malthus’s footsteps, when he published a book with the title “The Population Bomb”.

[00:05:51] The first sentence of the book read “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.”

[00:05:59] Ehrlich proposed that the world was too crowded, that there were too many people, and that we were on a fast train towards mass starvation caused by overpopulation.

[00:06:13] And you will no doubt have seen gloomy headlines, prophetic news stories, about population growth, and how we have to do something about it in order to guarantee our survival.

[00:06:26] But there are also plenty of academics and scientists who say that 10 billion people is nothing to worry about, and that the world’s population growth is already slowing fast enough, and that it will naturally come to a stop. 

[00:06:43] And ultimately, that we don’t need to worry about population growth at all.

[00:06:48] Who is right?

[00:06:50] Let’s start with where both sides agree.

[00:06:53] There is no doubt that an increased population puts increasing pressure on the environment. 

[00:07:00] People use resources, there are a finite amount of resources on planet Earth, and the more people you have, the more difficult it is to make sure there is enough to go around.

[00:07:12] That “enough” can be food, it can be water, it can be clean air. 

[00:07:17] And of course, depending on where you are in the world, you have different concerns, and it is almost always those living in poorer countries that get a worse deal.

[00:07:29] Both sides also agree that population growth is slowing. 

[00:07:34] This is an undeniable fact - it is slowing.

[00:07:38] Despite sensationalist headlines about how population growth is out of control, it really isn’t. 

[00:07:45] In percentage terms, growth is slowing. 

[00:07:48] It peaked at around 2% in the late 1960s, it was at its highest in the late 1960s, and is now down to 1.05%, and has been reducing every year.

[00:08:02] So while the world population is still growing, it is growing more slowly than any time in recent memory. 

[00:08:11] And the growth is unequal.

[00:08:13] Countries like Niger, in west Africa, have been growing at just under 4% a year, while the population of countries like Japan is actually shrinking - there are fewer people every year.

[00:08:28] Indeed, the entire Sub-Saharan region is growing at around 2.7% a year, versus 1.2% for South East Asia, 0.9% for Latin America and just 0.1% in Europe.   

[00:08:42] If it continues at this rate, the population of Africa is set to double by 2050, at around 2.5 billion, or more than a quarter of the world’s population. 

[00:08:57] And this is in a region that contains some of the poorest countries in the world, so some economists are predicting huge tragedy in the region, as the population booms but is unable to feed itself.

[00:09:13] Others point out that this level of population growth is nothing to be concerned about, and is completely normal in any developing country. They show that we have the history of every developed country to go by, and that there is a clear pattern which can be divided into four broad stages.

[00:09:34] The first stage is of high rates of child mortality, of children dying, and therefore parents want to have as many children as possible to ensure that they have enough to survive. For much of human history, until there was proper medicine and access to clean water, this was how people lived, they never got past this first stage.

[00:09:59] The second stage involves improved living conditions, including better access to healthcare and sanitation, therefore child mortality decreases, and more children survive, leading the population to increase dramatically.

[00:10:16] The third stage is that families realise that they don’t have to continue to have lots of children, because most are surviving, so there are fewer births, fewer children are born, and population growth starts to slow.

[00:10:31] And the fourth stage is full stabilisation, it’s what most developed countries are currently in now.

[00:10:39] We’ve seen this happen in every single developed country - there are no exceptions. 

[00:10:44] Birth rates are high, and they decrease as living conditions in a country increase.

[00:10:51] This is one of the reasons that both sides of the “what to do about population growth” debate agree that one of the highest impact things that can be done to reduce the speed of population growth is help poorer countries improve their healthcare and education systems. 

[00:11:12] While not everyone agrees on the best way to do that, all of the data suggests that by doing things like increasing literacy rates, especially female literacy rates, improving healthcare, and educating people about contraception will lead to a reduction in the number of children, and therefore a slowing in population growth.

[00:11:37] And as the number of children per woman drops worldwide, the theory goes that it will stabilise somewhere around 2 children per woman, which is what’s called the “replacement rate”. 

[00:11:50] For a population to remain at a similar size, and if you assume that as many people immigrate to a country as emigrate from it, each woman needs to have two children on average for the population to remain the same size.

[00:12:08] So, if this is the case, if there aren’t more children being born globally, why is the population still increasing?

[00:12:16] Well, quite simply it is because people are living for longer.

[00:12:22] We used to think of our society as a sort of pyramid structure, with lots of children at the bottom, and fewer and fewer people as you got up to the top of the pyramid.

[00:12:34] In most developed countries, society doesn’t look like a pyramid any more, and looks more like a tower. Indeed, in some countries it is starting to look like an inverted pyramid, an upside down pyramid, as there are more older people than younger people.

[00:12:53] So, coming back to where the rest of the population growth is coming from, it is mainly going to come from children who are already born, who will continue to live a much longer life than their parents and grandparents. 

[00:13:09] If you think about our old pyramid structure, instead of the number of bricks reducing as you go up, it will remain more or less the same. That is where the population growth is coming from, not there being many more children being born.

[00:13:26] Globally, there are the same amount of children being born, more or less, but they are just being born in different countries. 

[00:13:34] In developing countries the birth rate is still relatively high, but this is offset by people in the developed world having fewer children.

[00:13:45] So, yes the world population is still growing slowly, but no it seems unlikely that it’s going to continue to grow forever.

[00:13:54] Ok then, you might be thinking, does this mean that we simply don’t have to worry about population growth?

[00:14:01] Were Malthus, Ehrlich, and anyone talking about the dangers of population growth simply...wrong?

[00:14:09] Well, they weren’t 100% wrong, and of course, an increased population means greater strain, greater pressure on the world’s resources.

[00:14:20] But what does this actually mean to me and to you?

[00:14:23] What can we actually do about it, if indeed there is anything that should be done?

[00:14:30] There are only two ways of reducing population size - by reducing how long people live, and stopping babies from being born in the first place.

[00:14:41] In terms of the former, of reducing how long people live, thankfully nobody seems to be suggesting anything like that. We all seem to agree that we should do everything we can to allow people to live for as long as possible.

[00:14:56] And in terms of stopping babies from being born, at least in the majority of the developed world now nobody seems to be proposing anything quite so radical as a limit on the number of children a couple can have, like the one-child-policy that was in place in China, and there seems to be an agreement that it isn’t right to stop women from having the amount of children that they want to.

[00:15:23] Indeed, there is a limited amount that any government can do, that a government can impose on its citizens, to slow population growth.

[00:15:32] But not all pressure has to come from above, and sometimes pressure comes from below, from the individuals in society.

[00:15:42] There is a growing segment of people in the West advocating for people to reduce the number of children they have.

[00:15:51] Here is activist Alexandra Paul, who made her name as an actress in Baywatch, describing how she sees the current world situation:

[00:16:01] Alexandra Paul: [00:16:01] And all of this made sense when it was important for us to procreate for our survival, but now for our survival, we have to not procreate and we have to change and rewire our biology and our culture to recognize the benefits of a one-child family. Because right now, mostly what we see as the negatives. 

[00:16:23] Alastair Budge: [00:16:23] There are frequent articles about people who have taken the decision not to have children because of a fear of overpopulation, and of the child’s environmental impact. There’s even a movement in the UK called BirthStrike, essentially couples going on strike against having children because of the environmental footprint that a person has.

[00:16:49] Of course, a child, like an adult, has an environmental footprint

[00:16:54] It’s estimated at just under 60 tonnes of CO2 per year for someone in the developed world. 

[00:17:03] To put that in perspective, a child’s annual carbon footprint is the equivalent of around 37 transatlantic flights or 73 people switching to a meat-free diet.

[00:17:17] While this is not to question what was no doubt a difficult personal decision that these couples have taken, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the calculations aren’t quite correct.

[00:17:30] A child born in 2021 will, over the course of its lifetime, most likely produce significantly fewer carbon emissions than a child born 50 years ago, as there simply won’t be fossil fuels for them to burn, petrol cars won’t exist, and in fact the carbon footprint of future generations is predicted to be significantly lower than ours.

[00:17:56] Clearly, having one child will result in a greater environmental impact than having zero children, but the point is that the impact will actually be a lot smaller than many people think.

[00:18:10] And when it comes to the question of population growth, and of the planet having enough space both for people to live in and enough food for everyone to eat, most scientists are in agreement that there is certainly enough space and food for everyone, it is just a question of distribution, of getting food to the people who need it.

[00:18:34] You have probably heard statistics such as about 30-40% of all of the food in the United States is wasted, or that around a billion and a half tonnes of food is wasted every year globally.

[00:18:48] The world currently produces more than enough food to satisfy everyone’s caloric needs, to feed everyone on the planet, it just turns out that the current economic system is not very efficient at distributing it to the people who need it, or you could even say that it’s too efficient for its own good.

[00:19:09] And in terms of whether there is enough space for everyone to live, that’s an easy question to answer. 

[00:19:15] Most definitely.

[00:19:17] In fact, you could fit 11.5 billion people into Italy if they all lived as New Yorkers did, if the population density was as high as it currently is in New York City.

[00:19:31] Of course, this doesn’t factor in all of the land that is required to produce food, goods and so on, and I’m not suggesting that we all move into one Italian mega-city, but the point is that the world isn’t going to run out of space for people to exist, it is that our society may have to adapt to different living styles.

[00:19:53] So, to wrap things up, when it comes to population, is there really a problem of there being too many people in the world?

[00:20:03] It certainly seems that there isn’t a problem with the number of people, and most developed countries are certainly doing everything they can to encourage people to have more children.

[00:20:15] From giving out grants, economic incentives to parents through subsidising childcare and providing free schooling, countries all over the world are busy encouraging their populations to continue to multiply.

[00:20:30] If there were some great problem inherent with population growth then these policies would make little sense. 

[00:20:39] And indeed, if a government wanted to discourage its citizens from having children, then making having children even more expensive than it currently is would be a very quick and effective way of doing so.

[00:20:53] So, the world is changing, there are more people than ever before living on Earth. 

[00:21:00] Indeed, one in fifteen people who have ever set foot on Earth are alive today.

[00:21:07] Certainly, there are all sorts of demographic and societal changes that await us, from how to care for an ageing population to how to make sure that food is distributed to the places where it is needed most.

[00:21:22] But is population growth itself anything to be worried about? 

[00:21:26] Do you believe that there is some Malthusian catastrophe waiting to happen, a population bomb is ticking, ready to explode?

[00:21:36] Or do you believe that we should carry on as normal, and the global economy will find a way of adapting?

[00:21:44] I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle. 

[00:21:48] No matter what you think, and what side of the population question you believe is right, it is undeniable that the world is going to be a very different place at the end of this century. 

[00:22:00] But whether that’s a world that you or I would look forward to living in is a different question altogether.

[00:22:09] OK then, that is it for today's episode on global population growth.

[00:22:15] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it may have made you think about things in a slightly different way.

[00:22:23] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. I think this is a topic that we can all have an opinion on, and I’m sure that it’s a subject that invites particularly strong opinions.

[00:22:37] So, let’s get the discussion started.

[00:22:40] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds, and of course, to me.

[00:22:51] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:56] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]



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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be tackling a big question, that of population growth.

[00:00:30] We are going to be asking ourselves whether there are too many people in the world? 

[00:00:35] And if indeed that is the case, does it matter? 

[00:00:39] What will some of the implications be, for us personally, for our children and their children, and for the world we live in?

[00:00:47] These are, to state the obvious, some big, important questions, so let’s get cracking right away.

[00:00:55] In this episode we’ll start by outlining some numbers, to emphasise how the world’s population has grown over time.

[00:01:04] Then, we’ll talk a little bit about some of the reasons that people are scared by population growth, both now and historically.

[00:01:14] Then we'll talk about what most experts think the future of the world’s population will look like, and why having 10 billion people on Earth might not actually be as scary as you might think it would be.

[00:01:28] Let’s start with some numbers, because we are indeed talking about the number of people that exist on planet Earth.

[00:01:36] Homo Sapiens, us, you and I, are thought to have arrived on Earth about 200,000 years ago.

[00:01:45] The world population hit 1 billion people in around 1800, so it took more or less 200,000 years for us to go from zero to a billion people.

[00:01:58] The next billion took 127 years, then 32 years, then 15, then 13, then 12, and it took another 12 years for us to reach 7 billion people on earth in 2011. 

[00:02:16] The population at the moment, in 2021, is just under 8 billion. 

[00:02:22] And although most academics believe that it will continue to grow for the majority of the next century, it is thought that it will stabilise at somewhere between 10 and 12 billion towards the end of the 21st century, double the population in the year that I was born, 1987.

[00:02:43] Throughout history there have been concerns that there are too many people on the planet, that there is a natural ceiling, and the Earth simply can’t sustain the human population.

[00:02:58] There is evidence of this concern right back in Carthage, in the second century AD, but the most famous critic of population growth came in late 18th century Britain, with an article called “An Essay On The Principle of Population”, by a scholar named Robert Malthus.

[00:03:19] This was published in 1798, shortly before the world had welcomed its billionth inhabitant.

[00:03:27] Malthus proposed that population growth happens more quickly than the ability of a society to increase its food production. 

[00:03:37] Therefore societies lose the ability to feed everyone, there is famine, war and death, and the population returns to its normal, correct size.

[00:03:50] Malthus has remained popular ever since, yet his theory proved to be completely wrong, at least for the period he was writing in.

[00:04:01] Malthus failed to predict the Industrial Revolution, which came shortly afterwards, and resulted in huge improvements in mankind’s ability to feed itself. 

[00:04:14] There is an entire episode on The Industrial Revolution if you’re interested, it’s episode 150, and I’m sure you know a lot of this already, but long story short, industrial improvements meant that food suddenly became much easier to produce.

[00:04:31] The population was growing faster than ever before, but society’s ability to feed itself was improving faster than the population was growing, meaning that in fact the opposite of what Malthus had suggested was happening.

[00:04:48] Indeed now, when there have never been more people on Earth, there has never been a smaller percentage of the population involved in agriculture, involved in actually producing food.

[00:05:02] So, from the point of view of the world collapsing in famine and war at 1 billion people, that certainly didn’t happen, luckily for all of us.

[00:05:13] The world’s population has continued to grow, it is up almost eightfold, an increase of 8 times since Malthus’ gloomy prediction.

[00:05:22] But there are still those that predict that the world cannot sustain itself, or rather, the world has no problem sustaining itself, the problem comes from the amount of humans on the planet that destabilise it.

[00:05:38] In 1968 Paul Ehrlich, an economist at Stanford University, was to follow in Malthus’s footsteps, when he published a book with the title “The Population Bomb”.

[00:05:51] The first sentence of the book read “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.”

[00:05:59] Ehrlich proposed that the world was too crowded, that there were too many people, and that we were on a fast train towards mass starvation caused by overpopulation.

[00:06:13] And you will no doubt have seen gloomy headlines, prophetic news stories, about population growth, and how we have to do something about it in order to guarantee our survival.

[00:06:26] But there are also plenty of academics and scientists who say that 10 billion people is nothing to worry about, and that the world’s population growth is already slowing fast enough, and that it will naturally come to a stop. 

[00:06:43] And ultimately, that we don’t need to worry about population growth at all.

[00:06:48] Who is right?

[00:06:50] Let’s start with where both sides agree.

[00:06:53] There is no doubt that an increased population puts increasing pressure on the environment. 

[00:07:00] People use resources, there are a finite amount of resources on planet Earth, and the more people you have, the more difficult it is to make sure there is enough to go around.

[00:07:12] That “enough” can be food, it can be water, it can be clean air. 

[00:07:17] And of course, depending on where you are in the world, you have different concerns, and it is almost always those living in poorer countries that get a worse deal.

[00:07:29] Both sides also agree that population growth is slowing. 

[00:07:34] This is an undeniable fact - it is slowing.

[00:07:38] Despite sensationalist headlines about how population growth is out of control, it really isn’t. 

[00:07:45] In percentage terms, growth is slowing. 

[00:07:48] It peaked at around 2% in the late 1960s, it was at its highest in the late 1960s, and is now down to 1.05%, and has been reducing every year.

[00:08:02] So while the world population is still growing, it is growing more slowly than any time in recent memory. 

[00:08:11] And the growth is unequal.

[00:08:13] Countries like Niger, in west Africa, have been growing at just under 4% a year, while the population of countries like Japan is actually shrinking - there are fewer people every year.

[00:08:28] Indeed, the entire Sub-Saharan region is growing at around 2.7% a year, versus 1.2% for South East Asia, 0.9% for Latin America and just 0.1% in Europe.   

[00:08:42] If it continues at this rate, the population of Africa is set to double by 2050, at around 2.5 billion, or more than a quarter of the world’s population. 

[00:08:57] And this is in a region that contains some of the poorest countries in the world, so some economists are predicting huge tragedy in the region, as the population booms but is unable to feed itself.

[00:09:13] Others point out that this level of population growth is nothing to be concerned about, and is completely normal in any developing country. They show that we have the history of every developed country to go by, and that there is a clear pattern which can be divided into four broad stages.

[00:09:34] The first stage is of high rates of child mortality, of children dying, and therefore parents want to have as many children as possible to ensure that they have enough to survive. For much of human history, until there was proper medicine and access to clean water, this was how people lived, they never got past this first stage.

[00:09:59] The second stage involves improved living conditions, including better access to healthcare and sanitation, therefore child mortality decreases, and more children survive, leading the population to increase dramatically.

[00:10:16] The third stage is that families realise that they don’t have to continue to have lots of children, because most are surviving, so there are fewer births, fewer children are born, and population growth starts to slow.

[00:10:31] And the fourth stage is full stabilisation, it’s what most developed countries are currently in now.

[00:10:39] We’ve seen this happen in every single developed country - there are no exceptions. 

[00:10:44] Birth rates are high, and they decrease as living conditions in a country increase.

[00:10:51] This is one of the reasons that both sides of the “what to do about population growth” debate agree that one of the highest impact things that can be done to reduce the speed of population growth is help poorer countries improve their healthcare and education systems. 

[00:11:12] While not everyone agrees on the best way to do that, all of the data suggests that by doing things like increasing literacy rates, especially female literacy rates, improving healthcare, and educating people about contraception will lead to a reduction in the number of children, and therefore a slowing in population growth.

[00:11:37] And as the number of children per woman drops worldwide, the theory goes that it will stabilise somewhere around 2 children per woman, which is what’s called the “replacement rate”. 

[00:11:50] For a population to remain at a similar size, and if you assume that as many people immigrate to a country as emigrate from it, each woman needs to have two children on average for the population to remain the same size.

[00:12:08] So, if this is the case, if there aren’t more children being born globally, why is the population still increasing?

[00:12:16] Well, quite simply it is because people are living for longer.

[00:12:22] We used to think of our society as a sort of pyramid structure, with lots of children at the bottom, and fewer and fewer people as you got up to the top of the pyramid.

[00:12:34] In most developed countries, society doesn’t look like a pyramid any more, and looks more like a tower. Indeed, in some countries it is starting to look like an inverted pyramid, an upside down pyramid, as there are more older people than younger people.

[00:12:53] So, coming back to where the rest of the population growth is coming from, it is mainly going to come from children who are already born, who will continue to live a much longer life than their parents and grandparents. 

[00:13:09] If you think about our old pyramid structure, instead of the number of bricks reducing as you go up, it will remain more or less the same. That is where the population growth is coming from, not there being many more children being born.

[00:13:26] Globally, there are the same amount of children being born, more or less, but they are just being born in different countries. 

[00:13:34] In developing countries the birth rate is still relatively high, but this is offset by people in the developed world having fewer children.

[00:13:45] So, yes the world population is still growing slowly, but no it seems unlikely that it’s going to continue to grow forever.

[00:13:54] Ok then, you might be thinking, does this mean that we simply don’t have to worry about population growth?

[00:14:01] Were Malthus, Ehrlich, and anyone talking about the dangers of population growth simply...wrong?

[00:14:09] Well, they weren’t 100% wrong, and of course, an increased population means greater strain, greater pressure on the world’s resources.

[00:14:20] But what does this actually mean to me and to you?

[00:14:23] What can we actually do about it, if indeed there is anything that should be done?

[00:14:30] There are only two ways of reducing population size - by reducing how long people live, and stopping babies from being born in the first place.

[00:14:41] In terms of the former, of reducing how long people live, thankfully nobody seems to be suggesting anything like that. We all seem to agree that we should do everything we can to allow people to live for as long as possible.

[00:14:56] And in terms of stopping babies from being born, at least in the majority of the developed world now nobody seems to be proposing anything quite so radical as a limit on the number of children a couple can have, like the one-child-policy that was in place in China, and there seems to be an agreement that it isn’t right to stop women from having the amount of children that they want to.

[00:15:23] Indeed, there is a limited amount that any government can do, that a government can impose on its citizens, to slow population growth.

[00:15:32] But not all pressure has to come from above, and sometimes pressure comes from below, from the individuals in society.

[00:15:42] There is a growing segment of people in the West advocating for people to reduce the number of children they have.

[00:15:51] Here is activist Alexandra Paul, who made her name as an actress in Baywatch, describing how she sees the current world situation:

[00:16:01] Alexandra Paul: [00:16:01] And all of this made sense when it was important for us to procreate for our survival, but now for our survival, we have to not procreate and we have to change and rewire our biology and our culture to recognize the benefits of a one-child family. Because right now, mostly what we see as the negatives. 

[00:16:23] Alastair Budge: [00:16:23] There are frequent articles about people who have taken the decision not to have children because of a fear of overpopulation, and of the child’s environmental impact. There’s even a movement in the UK called BirthStrike, essentially couples going on strike against having children because of the environmental footprint that a person has.

[00:16:49] Of course, a child, like an adult, has an environmental footprint

[00:16:54] It’s estimated at just under 60 tonnes of CO2 per year for someone in the developed world. 

[00:17:03] To put that in perspective, a child’s annual carbon footprint is the equivalent of around 37 transatlantic flights or 73 people switching to a meat-free diet.

[00:17:17] While this is not to question what was no doubt a difficult personal decision that these couples have taken, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the calculations aren’t quite correct.

[00:17:30] A child born in 2021 will, over the course of its lifetime, most likely produce significantly fewer carbon emissions than a child born 50 years ago, as there simply won’t be fossil fuels for them to burn, petrol cars won’t exist, and in fact the carbon footprint of future generations is predicted to be significantly lower than ours.

[00:17:56] Clearly, having one child will result in a greater environmental impact than having zero children, but the point is that the impact will actually be a lot smaller than many people think.

[00:18:10] And when it comes to the question of population growth, and of the planet having enough space both for people to live in and enough food for everyone to eat, most scientists are in agreement that there is certainly enough space and food for everyone, it is just a question of distribution, of getting food to the people who need it.

[00:18:34] You have probably heard statistics such as about 30-40% of all of the food in the United States is wasted, or that around a billion and a half tonnes of food is wasted every year globally.

[00:18:48] The world currently produces more than enough food to satisfy everyone’s caloric needs, to feed everyone on the planet, it just turns out that the current economic system is not very efficient at distributing it to the people who need it, or you could even say that it’s too efficient for its own good.

[00:19:09] And in terms of whether there is enough space for everyone to live, that’s an easy question to answer. 

[00:19:15] Most definitely.

[00:19:17] In fact, you could fit 11.5 billion people into Italy if they all lived as New Yorkers did, if the population density was as high as it currently is in New York City.

[00:19:31] Of course, this doesn’t factor in all of the land that is required to produce food, goods and so on, and I’m not suggesting that we all move into one Italian mega-city, but the point is that the world isn’t going to run out of space for people to exist, it is that our society may have to adapt to different living styles.

[00:19:53] So, to wrap things up, when it comes to population, is there really a problem of there being too many people in the world?

[00:20:03] It certainly seems that there isn’t a problem with the number of people, and most developed countries are certainly doing everything they can to encourage people to have more children.

[00:20:15] From giving out grants, economic incentives to parents through subsidising childcare and providing free schooling, countries all over the world are busy encouraging their populations to continue to multiply.

[00:20:30] If there were some great problem inherent with population growth then these policies would make little sense. 

[00:20:39] And indeed, if a government wanted to discourage its citizens from having children, then making having children even more expensive than it currently is would be a very quick and effective way of doing so.

[00:20:53] So, the world is changing, there are more people than ever before living on Earth. 

[00:21:00] Indeed, one in fifteen people who have ever set foot on Earth are alive today.

[00:21:07] Certainly, there are all sorts of demographic and societal changes that await us, from how to care for an ageing population to how to make sure that food is distributed to the places where it is needed most.

[00:21:22] But is population growth itself anything to be worried about? 

[00:21:26] Do you believe that there is some Malthusian catastrophe waiting to happen, a population bomb is ticking, ready to explode?

[00:21:36] Or do you believe that we should carry on as normal, and the global economy will find a way of adapting?

[00:21:44] I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle. 

[00:21:48] No matter what you think, and what side of the population question you believe is right, it is undeniable that the world is going to be a very different place at the end of this century. 

[00:22:00] But whether that’s a world that you or I would look forward to living in is a different question altogether.

[00:22:09] OK then, that is it for today's episode on global population growth.

[00:22:15] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it may have made you think about things in a slightly different way.

[00:22:23] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. I think this is a topic that we can all have an opinion on, and I’m sure that it’s a subject that invites particularly strong opinions.

[00:22:37] So, let’s get the discussion started.

[00:22:40] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds, and of course, to me.

[00:22:51] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:56] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]



[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be tackling a big question, that of population growth.

[00:00:30] We are going to be asking ourselves whether there are too many people in the world? 

[00:00:35] And if indeed that is the case, does it matter? 

[00:00:39] What will some of the implications be, for us personally, for our children and their children, and for the world we live in?

[00:00:47] These are, to state the obvious, some big, important questions, so let’s get cracking right away.

[00:00:55] In this episode we’ll start by outlining some numbers, to emphasise how the world’s population has grown over time.

[00:01:04] Then, we’ll talk a little bit about some of the reasons that people are scared by population growth, both now and historically.

[00:01:14] Then we'll talk about what most experts think the future of the world’s population will look like, and why having 10 billion people on Earth might not actually be as scary as you might think it would be.

[00:01:28] Let’s start with some numbers, because we are indeed talking about the number of people that exist on planet Earth.

[00:01:36] Homo Sapiens, us, you and I, are thought to have arrived on Earth about 200,000 years ago.

[00:01:45] The world population hit 1 billion people in around 1800, so it took more or less 200,000 years for us to go from zero to a billion people.

[00:01:58] The next billion took 127 years, then 32 years, then 15, then 13, then 12, and it took another 12 years for us to reach 7 billion people on earth in 2011. 

[00:02:16] The population at the moment, in 2021, is just under 8 billion. 

[00:02:22] And although most academics believe that it will continue to grow for the majority of the next century, it is thought that it will stabilise at somewhere between 10 and 12 billion towards the end of the 21st century, double the population in the year that I was born, 1987.

[00:02:43] Throughout history there have been concerns that there are too many people on the planet, that there is a natural ceiling, and the Earth simply can’t sustain the human population.

[00:02:58] There is evidence of this concern right back in Carthage, in the second century AD, but the most famous critic of population growth came in late 18th century Britain, with an article called “An Essay On The Principle of Population”, by a scholar named Robert Malthus.

[00:03:19] This was published in 1798, shortly before the world had welcomed its billionth inhabitant.

[00:03:27] Malthus proposed that population growth happens more quickly than the ability of a society to increase its food production. 

[00:03:37] Therefore societies lose the ability to feed everyone, there is famine, war and death, and the population returns to its normal, correct size.

[00:03:50] Malthus has remained popular ever since, yet his theory proved to be completely wrong, at least for the period he was writing in.

[00:04:01] Malthus failed to predict the Industrial Revolution, which came shortly afterwards, and resulted in huge improvements in mankind’s ability to feed itself. 

[00:04:14] There is an entire episode on The Industrial Revolution if you’re interested, it’s episode 150, and I’m sure you know a lot of this already, but long story short, industrial improvements meant that food suddenly became much easier to produce.

[00:04:31] The population was growing faster than ever before, but society’s ability to feed itself was improving faster than the population was growing, meaning that in fact the opposite of what Malthus had suggested was happening.

[00:04:48] Indeed now, when there have never been more people on Earth, there has never been a smaller percentage of the population involved in agriculture, involved in actually producing food.

[00:05:02] So, from the point of view of the world collapsing in famine and war at 1 billion people, that certainly didn’t happen, luckily for all of us.

[00:05:13] The world’s population has continued to grow, it is up almost eightfold, an increase of 8 times since Malthus’ gloomy prediction.

[00:05:22] But there are still those that predict that the world cannot sustain itself, or rather, the world has no problem sustaining itself, the problem comes from the amount of humans on the planet that destabilise it.

[00:05:38] In 1968 Paul Ehrlich, an economist at Stanford University, was to follow in Malthus’s footsteps, when he published a book with the title “The Population Bomb”.

[00:05:51] The first sentence of the book read “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.”

[00:05:59] Ehrlich proposed that the world was too crowded, that there were too many people, and that we were on a fast train towards mass starvation caused by overpopulation.

[00:06:13] And you will no doubt have seen gloomy headlines, prophetic news stories, about population growth, and how we have to do something about it in order to guarantee our survival.

[00:06:26] But there are also plenty of academics and scientists who say that 10 billion people is nothing to worry about, and that the world’s population growth is already slowing fast enough, and that it will naturally come to a stop. 

[00:06:43] And ultimately, that we don’t need to worry about population growth at all.

[00:06:48] Who is right?

[00:06:50] Let’s start with where both sides agree.

[00:06:53] There is no doubt that an increased population puts increasing pressure on the environment. 

[00:07:00] People use resources, there are a finite amount of resources on planet Earth, and the more people you have, the more difficult it is to make sure there is enough to go around.

[00:07:12] That “enough” can be food, it can be water, it can be clean air. 

[00:07:17] And of course, depending on where you are in the world, you have different concerns, and it is almost always those living in poorer countries that get a worse deal.

[00:07:29] Both sides also agree that population growth is slowing. 

[00:07:34] This is an undeniable fact - it is slowing.

[00:07:38] Despite sensationalist headlines about how population growth is out of control, it really isn’t. 

[00:07:45] In percentage terms, growth is slowing. 

[00:07:48] It peaked at around 2% in the late 1960s, it was at its highest in the late 1960s, and is now down to 1.05%, and has been reducing every year.

[00:08:02] So while the world population is still growing, it is growing more slowly than any time in recent memory. 

[00:08:11] And the growth is unequal.

[00:08:13] Countries like Niger, in west Africa, have been growing at just under 4% a year, while the population of countries like Japan is actually shrinking - there are fewer people every year.

[00:08:28] Indeed, the entire Sub-Saharan region is growing at around 2.7% a year, versus 1.2% for South East Asia, 0.9% for Latin America and just 0.1% in Europe.   

[00:08:42] If it continues at this rate, the population of Africa is set to double by 2050, at around 2.5 billion, or more than a quarter of the world’s population. 

[00:08:57] And this is in a region that contains some of the poorest countries in the world, so some economists are predicting huge tragedy in the region, as the population booms but is unable to feed itself.

[00:09:13] Others point out that this level of population growth is nothing to be concerned about, and is completely normal in any developing country. They show that we have the history of every developed country to go by, and that there is a clear pattern which can be divided into four broad stages.

[00:09:34] The first stage is of high rates of child mortality, of children dying, and therefore parents want to have as many children as possible to ensure that they have enough to survive. For much of human history, until there was proper medicine and access to clean water, this was how people lived, they never got past this first stage.

[00:09:59] The second stage involves improved living conditions, including better access to healthcare and sanitation, therefore child mortality decreases, and more children survive, leading the population to increase dramatically.

[00:10:16] The third stage is that families realise that they don’t have to continue to have lots of children, because most are surviving, so there are fewer births, fewer children are born, and population growth starts to slow.

[00:10:31] And the fourth stage is full stabilisation, it’s what most developed countries are currently in now.

[00:10:39] We’ve seen this happen in every single developed country - there are no exceptions. 

[00:10:44] Birth rates are high, and they decrease as living conditions in a country increase.

[00:10:51] This is one of the reasons that both sides of the “what to do about population growth” debate agree that one of the highest impact things that can be done to reduce the speed of population growth is help poorer countries improve their healthcare and education systems. 

[00:11:12] While not everyone agrees on the best way to do that, all of the data suggests that by doing things like increasing literacy rates, especially female literacy rates, improving healthcare, and educating people about contraception will lead to a reduction in the number of children, and therefore a slowing in population growth.

[00:11:37] And as the number of children per woman drops worldwide, the theory goes that it will stabilise somewhere around 2 children per woman, which is what’s called the “replacement rate”. 

[00:11:50] For a population to remain at a similar size, and if you assume that as many people immigrate to a country as emigrate from it, each woman needs to have two children on average for the population to remain the same size.

[00:12:08] So, if this is the case, if there aren’t more children being born globally, why is the population still increasing?

[00:12:16] Well, quite simply it is because people are living for longer.

[00:12:22] We used to think of our society as a sort of pyramid structure, with lots of children at the bottom, and fewer and fewer people as you got up to the top of the pyramid.

[00:12:34] In most developed countries, society doesn’t look like a pyramid any more, and looks more like a tower. Indeed, in some countries it is starting to look like an inverted pyramid, an upside down pyramid, as there are more older people than younger people.

[00:12:53] So, coming back to where the rest of the population growth is coming from, it is mainly going to come from children who are already born, who will continue to live a much longer life than their parents and grandparents. 

[00:13:09] If you think about our old pyramid structure, instead of the number of bricks reducing as you go up, it will remain more or less the same. That is where the population growth is coming from, not there being many more children being born.

[00:13:26] Globally, there are the same amount of children being born, more or less, but they are just being born in different countries. 

[00:13:34] In developing countries the birth rate is still relatively high, but this is offset by people in the developed world having fewer children.

[00:13:45] So, yes the world population is still growing slowly, but no it seems unlikely that it’s going to continue to grow forever.

[00:13:54] Ok then, you might be thinking, does this mean that we simply don’t have to worry about population growth?

[00:14:01] Were Malthus, Ehrlich, and anyone talking about the dangers of population growth simply...wrong?

[00:14:09] Well, they weren’t 100% wrong, and of course, an increased population means greater strain, greater pressure on the world’s resources.

[00:14:20] But what does this actually mean to me and to you?

[00:14:23] What can we actually do about it, if indeed there is anything that should be done?

[00:14:30] There are only two ways of reducing population size - by reducing how long people live, and stopping babies from being born in the first place.

[00:14:41] In terms of the former, of reducing how long people live, thankfully nobody seems to be suggesting anything like that. We all seem to agree that we should do everything we can to allow people to live for as long as possible.

[00:14:56] And in terms of stopping babies from being born, at least in the majority of the developed world now nobody seems to be proposing anything quite so radical as a limit on the number of children a couple can have, like the one-child-policy that was in place in China, and there seems to be an agreement that it isn’t right to stop women from having the amount of children that they want to.

[00:15:23] Indeed, there is a limited amount that any government can do, that a government can impose on its citizens, to slow population growth.

[00:15:32] But not all pressure has to come from above, and sometimes pressure comes from below, from the individuals in society.

[00:15:42] There is a growing segment of people in the West advocating for people to reduce the number of children they have.

[00:15:51] Here is activist Alexandra Paul, who made her name as an actress in Baywatch, describing how she sees the current world situation:

[00:16:01] Alexandra Paul: [00:16:01] And all of this made sense when it was important for us to procreate for our survival, but now for our survival, we have to not procreate and we have to change and rewire our biology and our culture to recognize the benefits of a one-child family. Because right now, mostly what we see as the negatives. 

[00:16:23] Alastair Budge: [00:16:23] There are frequent articles about people who have taken the decision not to have children because of a fear of overpopulation, and of the child’s environmental impact. There’s even a movement in the UK called BirthStrike, essentially couples going on strike against having children because of the environmental footprint that a person has.

[00:16:49] Of course, a child, like an adult, has an environmental footprint

[00:16:54] It’s estimated at just under 60 tonnes of CO2 per year for someone in the developed world. 

[00:17:03] To put that in perspective, a child’s annual carbon footprint is the equivalent of around 37 transatlantic flights or 73 people switching to a meat-free diet.

[00:17:17] While this is not to question what was no doubt a difficult personal decision that these couples have taken, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the calculations aren’t quite correct.

[00:17:30] A child born in 2021 will, over the course of its lifetime, most likely produce significantly fewer carbon emissions than a child born 50 years ago, as there simply won’t be fossil fuels for them to burn, petrol cars won’t exist, and in fact the carbon footprint of future generations is predicted to be significantly lower than ours.

[00:17:56] Clearly, having one child will result in a greater environmental impact than having zero children, but the point is that the impact will actually be a lot smaller than many people think.

[00:18:10] And when it comes to the question of population growth, and of the planet having enough space both for people to live in and enough food for everyone to eat, most scientists are in agreement that there is certainly enough space and food for everyone, it is just a question of distribution, of getting food to the people who need it.

[00:18:34] You have probably heard statistics such as about 30-40% of all of the food in the United States is wasted, or that around a billion and a half tonnes of food is wasted every year globally.

[00:18:48] The world currently produces more than enough food to satisfy everyone’s caloric needs, to feed everyone on the planet, it just turns out that the current economic system is not very efficient at distributing it to the people who need it, or you could even say that it’s too efficient for its own good.

[00:19:09] And in terms of whether there is enough space for everyone to live, that’s an easy question to answer. 

[00:19:15] Most definitely.

[00:19:17] In fact, you could fit 11.5 billion people into Italy if they all lived as New Yorkers did, if the population density was as high as it currently is in New York City.

[00:19:31] Of course, this doesn’t factor in all of the land that is required to produce food, goods and so on, and I’m not suggesting that we all move into one Italian mega-city, but the point is that the world isn’t going to run out of space for people to exist, it is that our society may have to adapt to different living styles.

[00:19:53] So, to wrap things up, when it comes to population, is there really a problem of there being too many people in the world?

[00:20:03] It certainly seems that there isn’t a problem with the number of people, and most developed countries are certainly doing everything they can to encourage people to have more children.

[00:20:15] From giving out grants, economic incentives to parents through subsidising childcare and providing free schooling, countries all over the world are busy encouraging their populations to continue to multiply.

[00:20:30] If there were some great problem inherent with population growth then these policies would make little sense. 

[00:20:39] And indeed, if a government wanted to discourage its citizens from having children, then making having children even more expensive than it currently is would be a very quick and effective way of doing so.

[00:20:53] So, the world is changing, there are more people than ever before living on Earth. 

[00:21:00] Indeed, one in fifteen people who have ever set foot on Earth are alive today.

[00:21:07] Certainly, there are all sorts of demographic and societal changes that await us, from how to care for an ageing population to how to make sure that food is distributed to the places where it is needed most.

[00:21:22] But is population growth itself anything to be worried about? 

[00:21:26] Do you believe that there is some Malthusian catastrophe waiting to happen, a population bomb is ticking, ready to explode?

[00:21:36] Or do you believe that we should carry on as normal, and the global economy will find a way of adapting?

[00:21:44] I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle. 

[00:21:48] No matter what you think, and what side of the population question you believe is right, it is undeniable that the world is going to be a very different place at the end of this century. 

[00:22:00] But whether that’s a world that you or I would look forward to living in is a different question altogether.

[00:22:09] OK then, that is it for today's episode on global population growth.

[00:22:15] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it may have made you think about things in a slightly different way.

[00:22:23] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. I think this is a topic that we can all have an opinion on, and I’m sure that it’s a subject that invites particularly strong opinions.

[00:22:37] So, let’s get the discussion started.

[00:22:40] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds, and of course, to me.

[00:22:51] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:56] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]