11 billion people is what population growth will grow to be in 100 years time, and then it will stop. In a BBC documentary last month professor Hans Rosling explained how population growth will not go on forever, climbing to insane numbers until the earth cannot bear the weight of all its people, but will most likely maximise at about 11 billion.
This is of course a very specific number and I’m always slightly sceptical of statisticians who claim to predict the future. I am equally sceptical however of people who think that growth can be unlimited. This particular statistician explained how currently the global child population is at its highest ever of 2 billion children globally, we are living in the time of peak child. Simultaneously there is a demographic contradiction through a shift during the 20th century where the average number of babies born has dropped from five per woman to 2.5, even in the global South. In countries as Bangladesh the average family now only supports two children and fertility is still trending downwards, forcing UN population experts to predict that the amount of children will level out. Ultimately this miracle trend is caused by the holy trinity of female education, access to contraceptives and abortion, as well as increased child survival.
Population growth is thus not just an isolated issue of people versus resources. Whilst it may seem counterintuitive, increased child survival actually stifles population growth. When parents realize that their children will most probably survive into their youth, families can choose to have fewer offspring and invest in them. Through the succeeding of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the ambition is for us to be the generation that ends diseases of poverty. Malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea are still the largest killers of children under the age of five in Africa and Asia, and they are also diseases with simple, inexpensive preventions and solutions. Whereas at the turn of the millennium, campaigns to support Malaria programmes warned citizens that a child died every 30 seconds, now it is ‘only’ one every minute.
However, often instead of recognizing the huge progress that has been made on these issues and seizing momentum to get the job done, charity funding countries have lured themselves into a false sense that the battle has been fought and the war against child diseases/ diseases of poverty is over. Or they suffer from a post-Band-Aid feeling that it is not the global North’s responsibility to always be shelling out money on the spur of a guilt trip. In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, the tendency is more and more to think in separate terms of them and us, whether it is migrants versus nationals, or over here versus over-there. And this, as always but now more than ever, are issues that keep the poorest poor come down to consumer choices of everyone from the slightly wealthy to the multi-billionaire.
A very clear example of this is in the fight against HIV/AIDS, where organizations in the global North can protect their highly effective drugs through patents, entailing that anti-retroviral drug treatments cost over 5000 dollars a year per person and most in the global South cannot afford it. So while only 8 million out of 34.2 million people living with HIV in 2012 were being treated with antiretroviral therapy, the only time we hear about the disease in the press is when Graham Norton is banned from wearing the AIDS ribbon by the BBC (even though no self-respecting BBC representative would dare forget their rather politically laden poppy). Simultaneously there are groups of diseases left completely untargeted by the MDGs and ignored by popular opinion. Diseases as worms, river blindness and elephantiasis are grouped together with others to form ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases’ (NTDs). NTDs cause immense human suffering, chronic disability, often even death and create a vicious cycle in which the worsening of socioeconomic conditions perpetuate the living conditions which cause the spread of infections.
The MDGs were the first time a global partnership was formed with the idea to combat extreme poverty and it is the Post-2015 agenda which is burdened with continuing this challenge. Set to commence in 2015, what this agenda actually will look like is still very unclear. Pretty crucial decisions have not been made and the debate on Health within the agenda is still as broad as whether to aim for the quite ambiguous notion of Universal Health or specific targets. The one thing which is clear for many is that these goals will need a strong sustainability theme. Similarly to professor Rosling finishing his lecture with the conclusion that the planet can deal with 11 billion, only if all is shared more equally and sustainably. Population growth will become a question of people versus resources if people with the choice to have the most choose to want it all. With the past year of scientists again and again declaring that global warming is indeed a fact, and the realization that progress on health is just as easily reversed as caused, sustainability is a necessary ingredient in the utopian project which is the Post-2015 agenda.
This may seem a rather haphazard blogpost, as we began with discussing population growth, then turned to diseases of poverty, threw in a little bit of capitalism and ended with global warming and sustainability. The most interesting thing about this journey is to see how all these complex, structural issues link up to one another. By battling disease, educating, informing and empowering the world’s population through global projects as the Post-2015 agenda, population growth can be stable and sustaible. The topic of population growth is something that has always made me quite nervous, exactly because of its magnitude and its seeming uncontrollability. But by digging deeper and realizing that actually we already have a lot of the solutions and answers ready – we just need to find ways of putting them into practice – I personally feel quite positive about the next centenary filled with more people.