Merryn's Blog

Population growth? It's nothing to worry about

Sir David Attenborough is worried about the world's growing population. The best way to fix it is to make everyone better off, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

An interview with Sir David Attenborough in the Telegraph. He is very worried about the world's growing population. He is convinced that "we are heading for disaster unless we do something". If we don't cut back on population growth ,"the natural world will indeed, has already started to fight back.What are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about. about too many people for too little land. That's what it's about we are blinding ourselves."

This is standard stuff. Most people are terrified of population growth and NGOs around the world dedicate thousands of man hours every year to the extrapolation of past growth figures way out into a disastrous future. But should we really be pinning all the ills of the world on population?

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My guess is not (look up, if you will, all the research showing that modern famine is generally a political rather than a land-related problem). And will the population really keep growing at this speed? For the answer to this we turn to Matt Ridley, writing in the Times.

He notes that the rate at which the population is rising has fallen from 2% a year to 1% a year since the 1960s, and "even the total number of people added to the population has been dropping for nearly 30 years." If this continues we will be at zero in about 2070.

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Attenborough worries about telling people they can't have babies ("to have a European telling Africans that they shan't have children is not the way to go about things"). But it may well be entirely unnecessary.

In fact, a far better way to stop people having children is to make them better off (so they stop competing with nature for land), and to stop their existing children dying. Once people think their children will survive, "they start investing in them rather than in having more kids." That's why the birth rate in Brazil is down from 5.7 in the 1960s to 1.8 now, and why that in Kenya, it is down from eight to 4.5.

There has been much talk about this being the century for African growth. If it is and see this week's magazine for the story of Nigeria's amazing transformation population growth isn't going to be anywhere near as nasty a problem as Attenborough thinks. Instead, says Ridley, the population will "almost certainly" begin to actually shrink this century.

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