397 - We are the Problem | Scoins.net | DJS

397 - We are the Problem

Someone, possibly preparing for COP27, has noticed that the planetary population is on target for 8 billion people.¹  I have been complaining for quite some time that we ourselves are the problem with regard to climate change. I also have been saying for some time that I don't see us finding the leadership that will cause us to change our behaviour. Or behaviours, since having (too) many children is part of the problem.

David Attenborough was asked for a considered opinion about a solution to global problems and he surprised me with his answer, the education of women. But I have slowly concluded that he was right. Largely uneducated societies expand beyond the available resources—or the perception of same, which has the identical effect—which leads us into war and migration, separately or together. There are many people that have not learned anything about contraception, just as there are many male-dominated societies in which what a male wants is what occurs. I am not saying that a male wants babies, only that he wants sex. An Indian, for example, sets value upon male babies over female ones and this adds to the burden of children as Indian families will tend to continue generating children until there are enough (two, say) boys. But, when education occurs, and especially of the female half of the population, the birthrate drops. The connection is not obvious, but the correlation is high. Every child a wanted child.  ² 

An interesting pair of articles [1,2] provide some illustration of this. The current population graph, right, suggests that it will not be long before India's population exceeds China's. China is expected to hit peak population (1.4 billion, plus a large available counting error). As that happens, so the age distribution will shift steadily upwards and, as [1] puts it, China must try to get rich before it gets old. This suggests that China will seeks to access resources in advance of having to, in some sense, adjust its attitudes to accommodate the change. India has a different set of issues, most of which stem from having a young and expanding population and, increasingly, a population which is uneducated and unemployed. Single statistics such as having 35,000 jobs on offer in the railways and eight million applicants shines a peculiar light upon such an issue. Nor is this description evenly distributed across India; the situation is noticeably less on the east coast (header map). Large numbers of youth with inadequate activity generates significant unrest and might be seen to have been a factor behind the Arab Spring uprisings. South Korea and Singapore are cited by [1] as doing well with an ageing population; I found nothing to support that.  ³  

So we should look at not the global population, but quite where it is growing. Probably we should be funding education in general, as overseas aid, but I've said this too for quite some length of time. As the first world scrambles to make a transition to a low energy economy so resources such as lithium for batteries become a growing issue, already observed in these pages. This might, if corruption could be avoided, allow some African countries, where the lithium is, to jump a variety of the problems the first world has encountered. In the same way that, by going straight to mobile phones, much of Africa never had dedicated telephone landlines.

Of course, and as we are seeing already in Britain, one attractive solution to not having enough people the right age is to import them from a place that has too many. This is not straightforward; the rich countries want to steal the educated but they do not want the attached uneducated, nor do they want to cause a shift in the nature of their population (more immigrants). So in a sense they want to have their cake and to eat it.  There must be better approaches, but these would be (one assumes) predicated upon sensible calculations as to how the population needs to be adjusted (not ever-increasing), how we employ immigrants (citizenship or privileged/prized visitor status and the allied rights) - and just what we do about the education of our population, migrants included.

But we make no effort to have any conversation about what we do with an ageing population. That too is a silly phrase; we're all ageing anyway, but what is meant is that the distribution of age shifts so that a (far) greater proportion fall into the unproductive older retired segment of the population,  also relatively rich, privileged and entrenched.

China is well known for having applied a one-child policy. This, I'm told by Chinese, never applied out in the countryside, where many children were needed to work the farm (Chinese call these people peasants). So the error in population counted across 1.3 billion was admitted to me as being possibly another 0.3 billion. So that the error in the count was the same size as the total population of the USA, a country of similar area. Notwithstanding all that, what has happened is that within Chinese borders the current parent-age generation sees little advantage and a lot of cost attached to having children and so sees no need to make more people. That makes for a forecast of a drop in Chinese population and its growth rate as shown to the right.

The forecasters and modellers have three fundamental scenarios; we all get richer and/or living standards improve, so family size shrinks and growth will slow, as has happened in Europe; poverty, inequality and urbanisation will increase and so will population growth, unequally; we run out of resources and cannot sustain our population.

Where there is any scheme to reduce fertility (repeat; this is the number of births per female) it cannot have much immediacy of effect. The bulge in global population is such that population will grow, simply because there are so many young people at the moment (unevenly distributed). Lower fertility needs to be maintained for a generation or longer to have any effect. What action now would do is reduce the vastness of a problem in the latter half of this century; it is far from pointless. Reducing that future peak of nearly eleven billion to under nine might mean survival without dystopia.

If sustainable development is something you buy into, then population growth works against this, dragging away resources from attempts to improve education. Simultaneously, each sustainable goal achieved pushes towards having lower fertility. Lower fertility means having more people (women, mostly) in employment or productive; this then suggests quite strongly that what we need (worldwide) is health care and education, along with opportunities for fair work. Perhaps we need to find productive use for the elderly rather than expect them to be a drain upon resources? Keeping the richer and older cared for is an industry opportunity in itself.

The magic fertility number is 2.1, the number required to maintain the population at its current value. The number of countries at this value and lower is steadily increasing, but that is cancelled out by the growth where this is not so. In high-income countries we can and should expect the migrants to be the cause of growth, both in migrating and then in having children after arrival.   ⁵ 

Curiously, we are surprisingly short of data. We might argue that the covid pandemic showed that it is quite important to have a good count of what is going on, so that we might direct resources intelligently at any given problem. Bad data leads to bad decisions, though bad decisions occur for other reasons too, mostly self-interest. Do read [7].

You might then recognise that the Human Develpment Index, HDI, which is a composite of indicators based on life expectancy, education and per capita income, has a strong inverse correlation with the fertility rate. Contrast this with the graph of total fertility index (TFR) with HDI, which suggests that there is a (sufficiently comfortable?) point at which we switch to having more babies. [9] Still below replacement rate, but more babies; this is not sustained, as further research showed.

As of 2016, the countries with the highest fertility rate are Burundi, Mali, Somalia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, and Afghanistan; while most high-income countries have sub-replacement fertility rates.[4]

So we have a conundrum.  These high fertility countries are very poor, and it may seem counter-intuitive for families there to have so many children. This is recognised as (part of) the fertility-income paradoxand similarly, you'd think that greater means would enable the production of more offspring as suggested by [..]  Malthus. [..] The inverse relationship between income and fertility has been termed a demographic-economic "paradox".  "Development is the best contraceptive."  ⁶ 

This conundrum, then, suggests that we have fewer children as some sort of response to belief that the future is good and is stable. Thus increased income lowers fertility as a whole while it may have the opposite effect on an individual family ("We'll have a child when we can afford to do that").  People will respond to economic and social opportunities that make it advantageous to limit fertility, considering the economic and psychosocial costs such as the cost of birth control or abortions. [9]. But that is not entirely conclusive, as a United Nations report in 2002 came to the conclusion that sharp declines in fertility rates in India, Nigeria, and Mexico occurred despite low levels of economic development.[15]

I think eight billion people on the planet is too many, by two to four billion, but I cannot justify that with figures.  I have been of the opinion that we ought to curtail our growth to replacement or less since the time I was a student, 1971-4.

The population of the UK is a fine (prime) example of something seriously wrong. We had a significant baby boom in the first two decades of the century. Which I do not understand.  ⁷ We're going to peak at 77 million in the middle of this century. We have been persuaded to see migrants as the enemy, somehow, allowing 'take back control' to lead to Brexit, which might well have been a reaction to years of austerity (not imposed by the EU at all). But the referendum followed the surge in births. We have allowed populism and not-think to replace consideration of any sort. Of course, I continue to blame the media in general for much of this damage but it is us that permit the influence upon ourselves. More not-think, then. (Or, as I mis-typed, nit-think.) 

Which brings us back to where I started. We are the problem.

The list of sustainable goals given below amount to a strategic list of objectives. We have to show that our economies are improved by meeting these and we have to, individually and collectively, buy into that concept. If we can reduce poverty and improve education then we should lower the total population—not quickly, but sooner than if we do relatively nothing. If we buy the concept we must also move significantly towards reducing our global warming effects. Objective 13 (climate change) is seen as competing with the earlier objectives by many governments. Yet the whole package, sustainability, requires us to do (probably) all of these things. I can all too easily visualise the bigwigs at COP27, on as I write, looking at a list like this and selecting those that might suit their political ends. We don't have the time for these people and we don't have ways of eliminating them; they are part of the problem. We live in a world, currently where it is much too easy to spread misinformation and disinformation (lies in various forms) to further one's own ends, with the result that the masses are not informed or incorrectly informed, with the intended consequence that we trust no-one and end up dithering rather than acting. We fiddle while the planet burns.

We are the problem.


DJS 20221116

At a purely British level we could do several things to move us toward sustainability. In terms of infra-structure we need to move away from fossil fuel, which almost certainly means more electricity from renewable sources and we must move toward tidal sources, besides the wind and the sun. But to surrender the car after decades of persuasion that this is our future is an unlikely result; we could, by improving the internet access right across the nation, cause travel to be a lot less necessary and therefore we could move to maintain our roads, not expand them. We need a load more housing but, more importantly (in my view, looking at the numbers) we have to raise our housing standards significantly. All of this suggests a lot of state spending and we should expect taxes to rise to be more in line with our EU neighbours. I'd love to see PR happen and I'd love to see the EU rejoined but they are not prerequisites for sustainable futures. Just by making our own regulations be followed and taking responsibility for our actions we could move Britain to being a fairer, more equal society. We could easily, I think, have a lot less poverty but those with advantage won't willingly fork out (or vote) for that situation to change. We could restore the NHS to its proper state (properly funded, clear objectives, not a political football) without having to privatise it. Short term, we need a load of migrants (which is resource theft from other countries) to people those shortfalls but at the very same time we need commitments to balance those positions. I'd like to see us sending people in volume to those places needing support (rather than throwing money at the problem, which will simply evaporate, much like recent gov't covid-related contracts). We could clean up our rivers (Objective 6 limited to the UK) just by making OfWat act properly (or able to). In the same way we could clean up many state actions by tightening our regulations and empowering our regulators, but not least by empowering the populace as a whole so that they see non-performance as part of their own remit for action.

I don't want a job because I don't want to take work form someone who needs it. Yet I'd very happily go looking for transgressions to report on in detail, provided that this was new work. I don't particualry fancy any more teaching, except in circumstances where the kids actually want to know. But then I also feel we're not teaching mcuh that is useful and I think our objectives here are similalrly muddled.

I wonder, having written this, whether our politicians simply look at the future peaking and think that this problem will sort itself out in time, their fairly obvious conclusion that it therefore doesn't need to be discussed, bearing in mind that it is exactly what so many would deem to be unwelcome interference. Far better then to point to the modelling and to make observations about that drop and why – not least, why it is a good thing for the mantra of economic growth. That does nothing about the huge discomfort we're all going to have while there are far too many people for us to support. At a global level, we have to mitigate this problem. No doubt we say we're dealing with sustainability and climate change, while hoping that in dealing with those header problems, the underlying one of having too many people is also reduced. But peaking population is an average condition and ignoring this issue also ignores migration, which, given the imbalance of age distribution, is going to continue to grow as a problem. The rich 'west' has to deal with this; whether they are humane and constructive is another issue we don't quite discuss openly. We have great difficulty getting beyond the 'this is my space' point and a good reason for that is that, once you let anyone extra in, there is no good argument to stop letting people in. Far better then, to think outside the box and go fix the problems that cause these people to want to migrate. If we're arguing about land, then we must do things that turn that other land, where the migrants have come from, into something productive. ideally, productive enough for them to want to return or, better still, to not leave. But not so productive that they choose to expand the population.


1.  According to the United Nations' 2022 World Population Prospects report, the global population is projected to reach 8.5 billion people by the year 2030, 9.7 billion people by 2050, and 10.4 billion people by 2080, where it will remain until 2100. [4]  And, the evening news and following day I discover I'm not the only person to have written a piece starting from that observation of eight billion people. Too many duck the issue of there simply being too many of us. The BBC news report I watched last night predicted a peak over ten billion but under eleven, roughly 2080-99.

2.  Wanted, but not as criminals.

Referring to the correlation between education and birthrate, try this, https://blogs.worldbank.org/health/female-education-and-childbearing-closer-look-data [11].

3.  Singapore has the lowest fertility rate (1.20 births per woman) and sees the ageing population as a real problem. South Korea has 150 more deaths than births per day, some 80 migration inwards and so a slow loss of about 70 per day. [4] sometimes has a population pyramid visible.

4.  To have you cake and eat it too. Have, in this sense is to hold it, So the phrase is supposed to indicate two incompatible goals; once the cake is eaten, it is no longer 'held'. you can't eat you cake and still have it. Opportunity cost, then. But then there are many instances where the fight to have something is in order to consume it. So the phrase needs to be clear, where the holding is in order for consumption or in order that consumption does not occur. So you can't eat and have it, but you can have it and eat it; the logical order produces different meanings. One could argue that the eating process implies holding whatever the cake represents at the time, but the counter-argument here is that the possession of cake is over a period. Wikipedia entry points to the similar confusion over "I could/couldn't care less".  there are better phrases, such as not being to sit on two chairs (or on two horses or ships) at the same time, to swim and stay dry. I like 'choose or let choose".

5.  Countries with fertility below replacement rate amount to about 48% of the global population [8]. In Europe the highest fertility is France, at 2.0. All of North America, Russia, Iran, China, India and Brazil have sub-replacement fertility – across the nation as a whole (see Indian comment above). The wikipedia entry reflects what I've written about education of women: longer education delays marriage; economic fluctuation affect the birth rate (not being poor or rich, but relative economic collapse; urbanisation, in that rural societies have more babies than urban ones – city babies are seen as expensive, certainly relatively so; reduction of child labour, not just in agriculture; contraception (its acceptance, legality) is a factor in places where it has not been available, but is seen as preventing unwanted pregnancies, not in substantially reducing population.

6.  In a 1974 United Nations population conference in Bucharest, Karan Singh, a former minister of population in India, illustrated this trend by stating "Development is the best contraceptive." [9]

7The ONS says the UK will peak at 77 million in 2050; the UN says 75 million. I expect the ONS to be more nearly right. For those bothered about migration, we have, per day, 1853 births, 1679 deaths and 454 migrations, giving a net gain of 628 per day. 

By comparison, China has births and deaths almost equal, with -853 migration and so -208 net change (loss) per day. 

India has -1334 migrations (i.e., they're leaving) but the births is 63k and deaths 35k, so the net change is 26,500 per day.   

8.  Fertility measures are not all the same. For the purposes of the discussion above, I've referred to TFR, total fertility rate, mostly because I'm thinking at a national or international level. Illustration of the difficulty with this at [12] and [13]. Most of the time I refer only to fertility, meaning the mean number of births per woman. The figure of 2.1 births per woman (you might expect it to be precisely two) is considered to be the replacement rate as there are losses between birth and reproductive age. If you view a cohort of, say, a five-year age-group within a wider population and follow them through life, the several cohorts will behave often differently. This data then gives a better idea how the population as a whole will change. Further division by ethnicity (for example) may indicate how the distribution of population will change.

[1]  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/14/why-india-overtaking-china-as-most-populous-country-is-more-than-symbolic

[2]  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/14/india-faces-deepening-demographic-divide-as-it-prepares-to-overtake-china-as-the-worlds-most-populous-country

[3]  https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/china-population [3-6] give believable population data per country.

[4]  https://worldpopulationreview.com/

[5]  https://worldpopulationreview.com/continents/world-population

[6] https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd/sites/www.un.org.development.desa.pd/files/undesa_pd_2022_wpp_key-messages.pdf

[7]  https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2022/    Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 Listed below.  https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2022/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2022.pdf  

[8]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-replacement_fertility

[9]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_and_fertility  Sensible content well supported with data sources.

[10]  https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth largely agrees with other sources; may be echoing the UN figures.

[11]  https://blogs.worldbank.org/health/female-education-and-childbearing-closer-look-data

[12]  https://obr.uk/box/period-cohort-measures-of-fertility-and-mortality/

[13] http://www.mugberiagangadharmahavidyalaya.org/images/ques_answer/1586335135BasicMeasuresofFertility.pdf

Sustainable development goals [7]

1.  End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2.  End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3.  Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

4.  Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5.  Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6.  Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7.  Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8.  Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full & productive employment and decent work for all

9.  Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

10.  Reduce inequality within and among countries

11.  Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12.  Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13.  Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14.  Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, sea and marine resources for sustainable development

15.  Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

16.  Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17.  Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development

These two charts are from [10]. I liked the other charts there and you might look at them.


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