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The world is too small for us

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Crowded, isn’t it?

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Improving environment starts with tackling overpopulation

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Do not replenish the earth

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Limits to Growth

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The more men, the more jam

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Couples wanting children are doubly responsible for the future

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Overpopulation = overconsumption

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Stop the exhaustion and pollution of the earth

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Too little prosperity for too many people

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We love people, but not their number

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We cannot let humanity happen

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Wednesday, 01 June 2011 21:59

Sustainability and population growth as a global problem

Wim Couwenberg in Civis Mundi, April 2008
 
1.       Introduction
If we want to put an end to the huge unequality of living chances in the world, in accordance with principles of justice which support the human rights ideology as envisaged by the Millennium Objectives of the UN, is there then enough ecological basis for such a rearrangement of living chances?
If we consider the proportional distribution of welfare and sources of energy both desirable and necessary, in accordance with principles of justice, and if we do not want to exceed the earth’s capacity, then a substantial reduction of the ecological footprint of the average inhabitant of the wealthy West is inevitable. And the same holds for the rapid growing world population.
 
It is quite obvious that our ecological footprint exceeds our proportional right on space, air, water and natural resources many times. The ecological footprint of the average American is nine times as big as the footprint of the average inhabitant of a Third World country. If the rest of the world would live as selfishy as the wealthy West, we would need up to three earth globes to make this possible. Global sustainability, as concluded in an earlier special issue on sustainable development1, requires a different type of society, a different type of thinking and a different distribution of natural resources.
 
In this issue we will come back on this subject in the light of its increasing urgency in connection with the growing concern of climate change. This time it is our aim to take the rapid growth of the world population into consideration as well; this background problem fails to receive any sufficient attention up till now. It is our aim to break the ultimate taboo on the question of increasing population pressure in this context. This explains why I will give it special attention in this editorial and discuss the relevance of population growth as the backdrop of the sustainability question.
 
2.       Drawbacks of a growing world population
The following numbers will show the growing pace of the world population since 1800: only after ten thousands of years its size reached the first billion; the second billion needed slightly more than hundred years, the third thirtythree years, the fourth just forteen and the fifth only thirteen years; the sixth billion was reached before the end of the twentieth century, on Oktober 12, 1999 to be precise. Notwithstanding the huge losses of human lives during the wars in the twentieth century the world population has increased that very century from 1.6 to 6 billion. The limits of the sustainable regeneration power of the earth have been surpassed for the first time. Untill then humanity could live from the returns of the earth’s natural capital. Thereafter we are dipping into the capital itself. The speeding population growth is mirrored by the increase of so-called megacities (more than ten million inhabitants). In 1900 there were only 12, in 1950 the number has grown to 58, in 1975 even to 211 and in 2006 to no less than 408. Among them Mexico City (more than 20 million inhabitants), New York, Istanbul, Caïro, Mumbai and Tokyo.
 
The unprecedentedly rapid growth of the world population – with an increase of 160 percent between 1950 and 2005 from 2.5 billion to approximately 6.5 billion people and an expected total of more than 9 billion in 2050 – will give rise to a number of negative effects as we all know: of course a deterioration of the environment and the quality of life and a depletion of our global natural resources – to date we have 20 percent overexploitation of the earth’s capacity each year. But also an excessive urbanisation going together with rural depopulation thus resulting in megacities where more than half of the inhabitants live in slums. Furthermore mass unemployment and poverty, traffic jams, migrant streams from South to North and so forth. It has to be remarked that the increasing urbanisation of the world population has been mistakenly considered a minor problem in the 2007 annual report of the UNFPA, the UN population fund. Since that year more than half of the world population lives in cities. In 2030 their number will increase to about 60 percent. By that time round five billion people will live in cities. According to the report cities offer better opportunities of economic growth and better chances to escape from poverty and social isolation.
 
The fact that mass poverty and unemployment in wide areas of the world call for continuous economic growth and development is at the same time a crucial aspect of the sustainability question. The pursuit of continuous economic development as a result of the western-liberal belief in progress has thus received a new dimension: sustainability. This means in short that the earth’s ecological capacity may not be destroyed. The hypothesis is that continuous economic growth goes together very well with conservation and improvement of the environment, and is moreover a mere financial necessity. The main goal is to join economic growth and environmental preservation, according to the conclusion of a liberal view on sustainability. Without economic development conservation policy will lack support, knowledge as well as capital. The outcome is a comfortable win-win-situation. However, this outcome has been challenged or even bluntly denied in the afore mentioned special issue on sustainability. Within the traditional frame of thinking and way of living in our modern society and culture sustainability is an illusion, according to these critics. The presumably right wing French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who has called the ecological question a trendy thing a few years ago, has meanwhile seen the light and has announced a big ecological French revolution.
 
3.       Right on sustainability
Nevertheless, the right on sustainability has been added to the category of collective human rights, as the third generation of the global ideology of human rights. However, it is hard to operationalise it in legal terms. The legal subject is ill-defined, and it is not clear against whom or what it can be applied. Its implementation depends mainly on political factors. Therefore this and other collective human rights should be seen as policy goals that have been internationally recognised. For its realisation people have set their hopes on technological innovation. Of course, we are in need of this, but innovation is not a panacea. Sustainability has recently become the subject of a new scientific discipline (sustainable management) regarding the management of of change towards a sustainable society.
 
For the time being, sustainability in practice is legging far behind its previous political goals. None of the big environmental goals as stated in 1987 in the well-known report Our Common Future of the Brundtland Commission has come any nearer. This should worry us seriously as world population has meanwhile grown with 34%, world trade has expanded and CO2 emission has increased with a third, whereas the amount of reliable drinking water available for each member of the world population has decreased. 2
 
4.       Towards a different lifestyle
If we want to effectuate sustainability straight on, then we must be willing to sacrifice two holy cows: firstly our addiction to production and consumption as the basics of economic development and world capitalism, which has been questioned already during the cultural revolt of the sixties, and secondly the unrestrained population growth in large parts of the world. also called the ‘population bomb’ or ‘population explosion’ by worried authors. 3
 
Tackling the first holy cow will encounter strong political sentiments. According to Max Weber’s well-known theory4, an ascetic lifestyle based on contemporary presbyterian ethics has induced the rise of capitalism. However, in its full-grown form this economic system has provoked a licentious lifestyle endangering the living conditions on our planet to such degree, that not only ecologically sound ways of production but also a more sustainable way of life and consumption have become present day’s priorities. The importance of a ecological point of view will be perfectly clarified by Jan Juffermans in his contribution to this issue. But it also will help to watch our calories. Overweight or obesity as a consequence of consumers’ addiction has been identified and highlighted more and more as a threat of public health, also in the Netherlands. One out of eight children has too much overweight. In the United States it is even worse. There seems to be a patriotic obligation to consume and spend money as much as necessary to keep the economy going and to prevent recession. This explains President Bush’s new measures of tax reduction supported by the Central Bank with a substantial reduction of the interest rate, the biggest one in a quarter of a century. This is ordinary Keynesian stimulation of demand, according to Alfred Kleinknecht, Dutch professor of innovational economics in Delft. It is a resurrection of Keynes’ left wing theory by a right wing president, is his astonished interpretation. To me it seems a desperate measure of a right wing president who has great difficulty in improving his historical record.
 
The main question is how to achieve a radical reorientation in liberal economy and democracy where economical and politcal behaviour are to such a high degree determined by competition and where a continuous growth of wealth is taken for granted. This question would be a new testcase for the liberal-capitalist project of modern times. Its future depends on the question’s answer. For the time being, opinions concerning the kind of answer differ greatly. Modes of sustainable enterprising and consuming seem to become more and more popular. Even so, they still remain non-compulsory. A recent worldwide investigation on sustainable business enterprising showed that over 30% of the managers were just paying lip service for reasons of public relations and company image. Therefore it is argued that corporate social responsibility should become mandatory by the obligation of integrated annual reports including a fixed set of environmental indicators, and by making the Chairman of the Board of Directors finally responsible for the environment portfolio.
 
5.       Population growth: from a left wing problem to a left wing taboo
Tackling the second holy cow meets strong political sentiments as well. This is a common experience of the Dutch Foundation of Overpopulation Awareness (The Ten Million Club), bravely trying to bring demographic problems to the attention of the public for many years, without getting the attention these problems deserve. Nature protection and environment organisations also tend to circumvent them. Whoever brings them up, takes the risk of being put away in the right wing corner of racism and opposition against international migration. Since the eighties raising these problems has become a left wing taboo, especially if they concern the population pressure in one’s own country. It has been considered a criminal act in the eighties and people in the Netherlands have been prosecuted for doing so.
 
From a historical point of view this is very remarkable. It is a new example of ‘hodiecentrism’, a complete submersion in the present connected with a short political memory. In the early fifties the Research Department of the Dutch Labour Party has appointed a commission to define the nature and norms of population policy. In the seventies the appointment of a national committee on population issues was considered necessary. It freely proposed a number of measures in order to lessen population pressure, among them a proposal to diminish immigration pressure. In her Royal annual speech of 1979 the Queen declared on behalf of the government: ‘Our country is plenty of people, even partly overcrowded.’
 
6.       Demographic division of North and South
This division, being the starting point of our special issue, manifests itself in demographic development. A rapid population growth in large parts of the South goes hand in hand with a rapid decrease of birth rates in the North. Notwithstanding strongly increased death rates as a consequence of the AIDS epidemic, Africa has the fastest growing population of the South. Since 1960 it has grown from 225 to 751 millions. Population growth in Africa is a much stronger threat to increasing welfare than the AIDS epidemic. As for the North, birth rates have fallen most dramatically in Europe (1.4 child per woman on average; slightly higher in the Netherlands: between 1.8 and 1.9); in the US the decrease is less: 2.1 child per woman because of a stronger influence of religion. The downward trend is reinforced by the growing number of highly educated woman who remain voluntarily childless for career reasons. They are supported by organisations such as the World Child Free Association trying to break the taboo of a voluntary childless life. Recent data of Statistics Netherlands show that the number of voluntarily childfree woman is growing, especially that of highly educated woman. 25% of them, born in the fifties, have remained childfree, against only ten percent of lower educated woman.
 
This downward trend as a consequence of the sexual revolution during the sixties and the second feminist wave has been valued in very different ways. The Isrealic islamologist Raphael Israeli speaks of demographic suicide in Europe; he warns us against a new islamic invasion because of a rapidly growing Muslim population which doubles with each generation. 5 The Canadian journalist and columnist Mark Steyn agrees with him. He has published his doomsday scenario under the telling title It’s the Demography, stupid! 6 The Belgian jurist and commentator Pieter Huys considers the downward trend as a horrific demographical collaps, mainly caused by the legislation of abortion. The German sociologist Franz-Xaver Kaufmann is expecting rough times after 2020, due to the fact that not only population growth but also population decrease proceed exponentially. By then, it will be impossible to maintain present day’s social security system. 7 Power politics can also turn population decrease into a serious problem. In Russia it is seen as a demographic catastrophe, which can become detrimental for the power position of the country on the world stage. It is expected that the Russian population will decrease from 145 million people to 110 million by 2050. Irving Kristol, well-known exponent of American neoconservatism, sees the trend as a textbook example of western decadency. This negative valuation can be explained from a traditional Christian point of view. However, from an ecological and demographical perspective this development should be firmly embraced, according to Paul Gerbrands of the Dutch Foundation of Overpopulation Awareness (The Ten Million Club). He values a childfree life as a welcome contribution to the reduction of the world’s overpopulation.
 
7.       Background and problems of migration streams from South to North
The demographic unbalance between North and South and the associated huge prosperity gap perfectly explain the consequential migration streams from South to North. Therefore, it is recommended to focus development aid more and more on the reduction of population growth. Migration streams have become a divisive issue in western policy. Population ageing in western countries faces us with new welfare problems, such as keeping up social security, pensions, medical care and so on, and also with the question how to cater for imminent structural shortages on the labour market. As a reaction, different stakeholders argue for a generous ‘circular migration’, hand in hand with the development of transnational citizenship, among them the European Commission. Without a free way especially for highly educated employees from outside Europe it will be impossible for the Union to achieve the Lisbon goal of becoming the world’s most competitive economy, according to the Commission. This explains the introduction of an European work permit (blue card) in order to attract knowledge migrants who will be allowed to work everywhere in the EU.
 
Within the ideology of human rights and the theory of a free market worldwide migration freedom has even been proposed as a guideline for international legislation and jurisdiction, furthermore as a necessary condition for a truly globalised labour market, where everyone on earth is enabled to live a decent human life, in harmony with one’s own possibillities and beliefs. The previously mentioned circular migration is one of its first practical manifestations. Circular migration implies that migrants will have a permanent opportunity to enter and leave the host country. They must be able to circulate freely between the country of origin and the host country. The target is to maximise the system’s winning points by diminishing brain drain and furthering brain gain and brain circulation. As a consequence, neither the immediate interests of the host country, nor those of the country of origin may prevail. The concept has been increasingly welcomed in academic circles, but still has to face a great many political obstacles. 8
 
However, labour migration as a means to cope with the effects of greying is controversial. The Dutch Council for Governmental Policy and the Dutch Central Planning Bureau consider it at the best as a temporary tool to relieve ad hoc problems.9 Both institutions make an exception for migrants with a high economical potential, badly needed for hard-to-fill vacancies. However, labour migration in any form remains a controversial point. Through brain drain it will inevitably lead to a wider gap between the rich and poor countries, to a detioration of our living environment and to an escalation of population pressure, according to other critics. On its turn, population pressure will lead to expatriation of the highly educated in one’s own country. In the last years, emigration has already surpassed immigration, according to Dutch statistical data. In 2007 a record number of Duch people have emigrated: 126.000. It is expected that the current number of emigrants will remain the same. The Netherlands have the largest emigration surplus of all countries in the European Union, mainly due to an increasing population and environment pressure. Notwithstanding Africa having the fastest growing population (see 5), its density is much lower than in the Netherlands.
 
8.       Population policy in a positive and negative direction
In connection with Europe’s greying the following cautious question has been put forward: should we not move on to an active population policy in a positive direction in order to stimulate birth rate? This question has already become a serious issue in Germany. In 2004 the distinguished German economist Hans-Werner Sinn published a book under the telling title Ist Deutschland noch zu retten? (Can Germany still be saved?) The work has encountered great interest. In the same year he delivered the Tinbergen Lecture in Amsterdam with the vibrant title Europe’s Demographic Deficit: A Plea for Child Pension System. He argues that Europe, especially Germany, is without future because of low birth rates. As a consequence, the basis of the birth pyramid will become smaller and smaller. This process has to be reversed by greatly enhanced child allowances and fines for childless families. The afore mentioned demograph Kaufmann argues in the same way, by proposing tax reduction for parents raising children on one hand and higher taxes for childless couples on the other. Between 1990 and 2002 child allowance in Germany has increased with a factor six. However, with hardly any effect on birth rate. It still hangs around 1.3 birth per woman.
 
In the Netherlands the economist Bernard van Praag has stick his neck out on this question. He favours a policy which tries to keep the population stationary with targeted measures in any case, i. e. at the present level of about sixteen million people. This means 2.1 child per woman on average. The turnaround of the demograph Dirk van der Kaa on this issue is remarkable. As a member of a national commission on population issues in 1977 he was in favour of a reduction of migration pressure in order to diminish population growth. Because of the ageing problem he revoked this former point of view in favour of a selective migration as an alternative to birth stimulation to cope with this problem.
 
Paul Gerbrands, spokesman of the Dutch Foundation of Overpopulation Awareness (The Ten Million Club) rejects both. According to him, population ageing should be embraced. The demograph Gijs Beets of the Dutch Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute holds the same opinion. Population ageing can be conceived as a proper remedy against todays overpopulation. For that reason he is against population policy. Gerbrands is in favour of a population policy, however in a negative direction: continuous reduction of population pressure by fiscal incentives, abolition or restriction of birth-stimulation measures such as child allowance, promotion of average one-child families as in China, a very restrictive admission policy and replacement of an expanding economy by a shrinking one. The left wing thinker Arie van der Zwan would like to restrict child allowance to two children, only if their parents are unprosperous. Could it be possible to define an optimal population size? This is an intruiging question. Which criteria will be of use to delineate this optimum?
 
The Dutch Minister of Family Affairs, André Rouvoet, sticked out his neck lately with an appeal to reconsider the desired birth rate per woman, given the high costs of ageing. However, his proposal can only lead to a higher population pressure in a country which is considered complete anyway. A stable replacement fertility would require a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman. To date, the average is 1.7. First reactions from the parliament were outrightly negative. The afore mentioned demograph Beets points out that a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman will lead to a yearly increase with 30 till 40 thousand children.
 
9.       Depoliticisation of the population question
Which position should we take, given the complex and delicate problems of sustainability? It is remarkable that the population question has been scrupulously kept out of the picture to date, as already stated. This is also the case with the mentioned liberal view of sustainability. Liberal politicians would like to show that environmental problems are no longer typically left wing. With this special issue we have the intention to relate population problems to a reappraisal of the topic of sustainability, and to highlight the fact that population problems are no longer typically right wing matter. The reappraisal in the context of sustainability is adressed as a common responsibility beyond political borders, and as a consequence depoliticised. We rely on an open discussion with contributions from different angles, with different points of view.
 

 
  1. Civis Mundi 3, 2002.
  2. UNEP, Global Environmental Outlook, 4th Enviroment Report GEO, 2007.
  3. Paul R. Ehrlich, Population Bomb, 1968; Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1991.
  4. Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1920.
  5. Raphael Israëli, The Third Islamic Invasion, 2007.
  6. Mark. Steyn, ‘It’s the Demography, stupid!’, Opinio 12, 22 March 2007.
  7. Franz-Xaver Kaufmann, Schrumpfende Gesellschaft. Vom Bevölkerungsrückgang und seinen Folgen, 2005.
  8. Franz-Xaver Kaufmann, op. cit.
  9. Central Planning Bureau, Immigration and the Dutch Economy, June 2003.

World population