By Donella Meadows
–November 7, 1991–
The World Bank has just raised its projection for the population of the world by another billion. The population will level off toward the end of the next century, says the Bank, not at 11.5 billion as previously thought, but at 12.5 billion.
That item didn’t make the news, although there could hardly be tidings of greater import. Another billion people — another China, or four more USAs — is not a trivial matter. And the fact that the projection has been revised upward tells us something not only about the future, but about the present. It is the result of a decade of economic stagnation in many of the poor countries of the world.
In order to come up with its population projections the World Bank uses two wildly optimistic assumptions. The first is that economic development will proceed smoothly and bring birth rates down. Development does decrease birth rates — the rich countries all have slow or no population growth. But the assumption that development will chug along without interruption broke down in the 1980s. Where economies regressed — in much of Latin America, nearly all of Africa, parts of Asia — birth rates stopped falling. That is why the forecast just went up by a billion people.
If the World Bank’s optimism about economic development continues to be wrong, the population projections will creep up even higher — 13 billion, 14 billion. Somewhere in there they will falsify the Bank’s second wildly optimistic assumption: that the earth can support so many people.
The decade of the 80s also provided evidence to cast that assumption in doubt. Soils, forests, fish stocks, waters, the atmosphere, the oceans are already strained by the present 5.4 billion people. There is no guarantee that we can plop down another whole human world on top of this one — much less two or three.
If poor people remain in desperate straits, populations will go on rising. There are good reasons for that, from their point of view. Children are their hope, children are their only security, and, because they have little control of their own fertility, even more children come to them than they aim for. At some point the accumulated consequences of their unempowerment will surpass the earth’s limits — if indeed those limits are not already surpassed. The consequences will not be visited only upon the poor. In this economically and ecologically interconnected world, overpopulation anywhere affects everyone.
The World Bank never, ever forecasts a population DECLINE, but that’s not because a decline is impossible. It is only because official people are not allowed to speak of such matters in public.
There’s another reason, I think, why population growth is the most undiscussed problem on the planet. No one talks about population, and no one does anything about population, because no one knows what to do about population. Or, more accurately, everyone PRETENDS not to know what to do.
We pretend for many reasons. The nations of the poor South snarl the population problem up in their ethnic hostilities and their old resentments of colonizers and oppressors, so as not to have to admit their own corruptions and inequities. The nations of the rich North snarl the problem up in their tangle of unresolved attitudes about sex, religion and abortion, and therefore fail to share fertility control technologies.
The primary way to deal with the population problem is in fact obvious. It’s that short, simple word that I used in the previous sentence, a word politicians can’t pronounce — share. Poverty is the cause of rapid population growth and many other evils. It must be ended, once and for all.
But how to do THAT? everyone asks.
I don’t know in detail. But I do know how to start. The way to start is to look the poor in the face and call them brothers and sisters. Start with one person; start close to home; there are people everywhere who could use an outstretched hand. Work with them in partnership, not in condescension. They are the ones who will end their poverty. They are eager to do so. But first they need to be included in the human family.
Governments can’t look people in the face and work with them in partnership, only people can do that. But when people start to do it, they will demand that their governments also recognize that the welfare of all people should be a serious concern of all people. Out of that realization will flow plenty of Thing To Do, from debt forgiveness to development programs that actually focus upon the needs of the poor. They will cost much less than development programs that must filter through the hands of the rich. And they will ensure everyone’s survival.
It may be a cosmic joke — or a plan of God — that just at the point in human history when the human race has the technical means, the global communications, and the accumulated wealth to end poverty, we are also confronted with the absolute necessity of doing so. If we don’t, the population forecasts will continue to go up — until nature tells us without ambiguity and without mercy how many is too many.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991