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The Right Policy Diagnosis Email Newsletter Business Opportunity - Helen Bairstow Europe's Population Time Bomb - Part 1 The Easiest way to do a Client Newsletter. What is the 'Choice' debate about?
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Europe's Population Time Bomb - Part 1

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Lester Wills

We have heard so often about how in some parts of the world, there is a population explosion, and in other parts, there is a dearth of babies and populations are starting to shrink as a result. I found an article in the Independent, a major London newspaper, that had an unexpected suggestion. It reported that a leading medical journal recently called for British couples to stop having so many children to 'reduce global warming'!

This was the rather drastic solution to the problem of climate change proposed in an editorial in the prestigious British Medical Journal. Sounds crazy, but one of the authors was a distinguished academic, Dr John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Consequently, unless he has completely lost his marbles, which is unlikely, especially as he is writing in the BMJ, it makes sense to try and understand what he is saying.

His argument was straightforward. The increasing population of the world is putting extreme pressure on the planet's resources and increasing the output of greenhouse gases. As he points out, every single month there are nearly seven million extra mouths to feed. And because a child born today in the UK will be responsible for 150 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a child born in Ethiopia the obvious place to start cutting back is the UK rather than Ethiopia. Whilst understanding his rational, I am not entirely sure I agree with it. Especially as mush of Europe has a different problem, namely declining birthrates and ageing populations. Not only that, as I point out in another series (The World is Going Grey), population trends across the traditionally more fertile developing world are extremely uneven.

As the Independent article pointed out, when Thomas Malthus first published his gloomy Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, he argued that human populations grow exponentially whereas food reproduction expands in a linear fashion, so disaster always looms, in the shape of disease, war or famine, to balance the population out.

However, he wasn't blaming his own social group, rather he targeted the poor who he accused of breeding mindlessly. Until it fell out of fashion a decade or more ago, "population control" always targeted people in the Third World as the ones who we needed to stop breeding. Yet as the Independent reporter notes, Holland is the most densely populated major country in the world but there is rarely (if ever) any suggestion that there are too many Dutch people and that they should stop breeding like rabbits.

Of course, as readers of my work will know, things are very different today compared to the time of Thomas Malthus. The global population may still be growing, but birthrates are falling all across the globe. In the 1970s the average woman around the world had six children; today that figure is just 2.7. Such figures always remind me of the famous quote by Milton Freidman when he said averages are dangerous. As he noted, you can drown walking across a stream that is on average only four feet deep. So, given that the average birth rate is 2.7, it should be no surprise that in some places it is down around the 1 figure (the last details I saw showed that in Bologna, it was actually below 1. Not sure what they are doing in that part of Italy, but making babies does not appear to be part of it).

The implications of this will take a generation to work through, because the children born in the boom years have yet to have their own children, so there is a great deal of increase built in. This is what demographers call population momentum. Even so, UN has revised downwards its prediction that the world population would reach 11.5 billion by 2050. The human race will now peak, according to one of the world's top experts, Dr David Coleman, Professor of Demography at Oxford University, at 9.5 billion people. Then, around 2070, it will begin to decline.

Consequently, as I noted in my ATC Digest series on "The World is Going Grey", we have reached a demographic crossroads which will have dramatic consequences for much of the world, including those of us living in the affluent west.

More next time.

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