In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Seven Billion May Be the Population Peak

Posted by seumasach on November 1, 2011


31st October, 2011

On October 31 the world’s population topped seven billion. Of course, this is just a projection. It is impossible to pinpoint where and when the seven billionth baby was born, but UN experts decided to bestow the symbolic honor on Kaliningrad, Russia. This landmark begs serious questions. Is our planet capable of meeting the needs of seven billion people? What kind of economy do we need to feed them all? Perhaps it is no problem at all? Some experts believe that seven billion will prove to be a high watermark and that the human population will start shrinking rapidly.

Overloaded planet

How many people can the Earth sustain? This question has been the subject of debate for over a hundred years. Seven billion – is that number big or small?

Igor Beloborodov, director of the Institute of Demographic Studies, believes this number is a drop in the ocean. You could give each of the seven billion people one square km of land in Australia, and there would still be about 600 million square km left over.
The entire world population could also fit in the U.S. state of Arizona, albeit less comfortably, with 42 square meters per capita. Beloborodov is convinced that the world’s population can still grow many times over without any risk. According to the calculations of Prof. Viorel Badescu of the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, the planet can accommodate 1.3 quadrillion people – that’s 15 zeroes!

True, Badescu’s calculations are based on the so-called thermodynamic limit at which the planet would no longer be able to dissipate the heat emitted by the human population, resulting in disaster. He didn’t take account of the heat emitted by technical equipment. Who knows how technology will change in the future? Likewise, he has not considered the availability of resources for the population.
That being said, scientists believe that the global population limit far exceeds the current seven billion. According to Boris Kagarlitsky, director the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements (IGSO), “Biological calculations show that the planet can accommodate about 12 billion.”

“I don’t see any problem here,” says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute of Globalization. “During Malthus’ time, experts lamented that the planet could not feed even four billion, but they were wrong.”

Food and water

The availability of food and water for the world’s booming population is an urgent issue. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than a billion people go hungry now, and food production must grow by 70% to feed a population that could reach nine billion by 2050.
Water scarcity is a no less acute problem. According to Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, director of the Russian Academy of Science Water Resources Institute, 1.1 billion people suffer from constant water scarcity. Another 700,000 to 900,000 suffer periodic water shortages.
However, scientists emphasize that availability of food and water depends less on natural conditions than on the technology used to produce food and process water.

“Europe has limited water supply, but unlike other countries with the same amount of water per capita, it has learned to use this water efficiently. Europe practically does not waste any water. It is an example of how to maintain a very strong economy with little water,” Danilov-Danilyan observes.

Arkady Zlochevsky, president of the Russian Grain Union, also believes that there is no threat of a physical shortage of food. There is great potential to increase grain production, which is being held back solely by a lack of purchasing power. The problem is not lack of food but the inability of poor countries to pay for it.

A strong economy is the most important resource, and the correlation between population growth and economic development is clear.

The white man’s burden?

For most of human history, еру population grew at a very slow pace, reaching one billion only in 1804. Hunger afflicted people on every continent of the world. In the 18th century, England’s Thomas Malthus posited that population growth always exceeds food production, and therefore famine is the inevitable result of unrestrained population growth.

As the epicenter of the industrial revolution, Britain proved that hunger was not inevitable. Industrialization in agriculture in the latter half of the 19th century allowed people in Europe and America to eat to their fill. The rapid growth of the world’s population started in the 19th century – there were already two billion people in the world by 1935. However, the world’s population mainly increased outside of Europe, in colonial Asia and Africa. With the introduction of Western medical and industrial technology, the death rate in Asia and Africa declined sharply while the birth rate remained high.

Meanwhile, rising prosperity and life spans in the Old World were accompanied by declining birth rates. In industrial society childbirth lost its economic rationale, – children became extra mouths to feed rather than extra hands to work.

Having initiated a demographic explosion in their former colonies, the West has assumed responsibility for their fate by providing them with free assistance and accepting them as immigrants. Is this fair?

The globalization trap

European civilization has created an economic model that allows for comfortable living. Others have failed to achieve this. However, Europe would not have been capable of such success without the labor and raw material resources of its colonies, that is, methods that are far from economical.

Colonies are a thing of the past, but even now the so-called “golden billion” consumes the lion’s share of the world’s resources. The United States alone uses 25 per cent of the oil produced in the world. Russian scholar and publicist Sergei Kara-Murza maintains that if half of the population started to consume resources on such a scale, the world would run out of them before long.

Paradoxically, most of the human race does not need their own resources – the economies of many countries would be unable to use their own natural wealth. Russia, Nigeria or Saudi Arabia do not sell their oil at gunpoint.

Some economists believe that poverty and hunger are the result of extremely tough global competition rather than the unfair distribution of resources. “Competition was an incentive in the 1960s-1970s whereas now this is a choke collar. You don’t have to be an idiot or a loafer; if you do something just a bit worse than your rival multinational, your product will not be bought and you will have no money,” Delyagin said.

In his opinion, the division of practically all global markets between multinationals does not allow backward economies to work effectively, even for themselves.

However, some developing nations have managed to derive benefits from the expansion of multinationals. For example, South East Asia and China became production sites for these multinationals.

Don’t fear marching Chinese

The West found an inexhaustible source of cheap labor in China and started to transfer production there. Now it is faced with a problem that it does not know how to resolve.

First, the West is dependent on the Chinese – the global economy would collapse without Chinese production and the Chinese market. Second, in a matter of three decades (if we regard the 1978 plenum of the Communist Party of China Central Committee as a point of departure for reform) China has become an aggressive player poised to claim global supremacy.

China has already become the world’s second economy. On the eve of the crisis, the Chinese yuan was expected to become a regional if not global currency. Now China is trying on the role of Europe’s savior, declaring its willingness to take part in the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). According to Yelena Matrosova, director of the BDO Centre of Macro Economic Research in Russia,  “They are leaning towards dominance not only on the markets but also in policy-making bodies.”

Moreover, China has an instrument unparalleled in Europe or the United States – a population exceeding one billion, which is expanding beyond its borders. Futurologists fear a giant wave of Chinese immigrants crashing on countries all over the world.

The Celestial Empire knows well what benefits Chinese immigrants can bring – ethnic Chinese that settled in South East Asia have become the first foreign investors in the Chinese economy. Now the Chinese diaspora controls roughly 50% to 80% of the private capital in the region.

Despite all this, many economists doubt that the Chinese dragon is as strong as it seems. China depends too much on external factors, such as imports of Western technology and demand on U.S. and European markets.

Troika Dialogue Managing Director Yevgeny Gavrilenkov believes that the Chinese economy is suffering from excessive investment supported by the state. The Chinese government cannot afford to increase the capacity of its domestic market with growing revenues because this will make China’s exports more expensive, thereby depriving it of its main competitive advantage. Its attempt to encourage domestic demand with loans has created the risk of a debt crisis.

A turning point?

China’s demographic weapon is also becoming less frightening. Experts believe that its state birth control programs will result in demographic change.
Kagarlitsky explains: “Starting in 2020 China will see its population start to decline. The situation in India is more complicated, but the 2040s and 2050s will see a turning point – either toward stabilization or decline.”

He thinks that the trend of population decline will prevail by the end of this century, and that seven billion is the high watermark of global population.

Beloborodov agrees: “I’m sure this billion was the last one. The birth rate is falling on all continents. Iran’s birth rate is on par with Europe; Turkey is approaching this level, while North African countries – Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – are very close to it.”

In fact, Beloborodov fears that excessive birth control may constitute the biggest threat to the survival of the human race.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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