Concern about overpopulation is a red herring; consumption’s the problem

Posted on Mar 28, 2014
Concern about overpopulation is a red herring; consumption’s the problem

Population stability or decline is not an environmental panacea if it is accompanied by continued growth in consumption

This article first appeared in The Guardian, on March 28, 2014, and has been translated into Turkish.

More than half the world’s population now lives in countries where the fertility rate – the average number of babies born per woman – is below the replacement level (around 2.1).

This seems good news for anyone concerned about the environment. A finite planet obviously cannot sustain limitless population growth, and many environmentalists make the case that even the current population, 7.2 billion, exceeds the planet’s ecological carrying capacity. If birth rates continue to fall, we might realise the UN’s “low” projection of a population peak of around 8.3 billion mid-century, declining back to today’s population by 2100.

For economists, however, and for the public officials they inform, the aging and decline of the population presents not a boon but a threat. When the fertility rate falls below replacement level, the older generation outnumbers the newer. That means fewer workers supporting more retirees, falling income-tax revenues and reduced economic growth. Accordingly, many countries including Singapore, France, Austria, Chile and South Korea, are offering people financial incentives to have children.

So here, as in many other arenas, we seem to face a contradiction between economic and ecological health. But a closer look at population and economic growth reveals there is more to the story, with problems extending right to the basic structure of our financial system.
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