It was a bit of a shock to hear population-environment connections being discussed on television, including the Most Trusted Name in News (aka Jon Stewart’s Daily Show
), as well as CNN’s Amanpour
, late last month.
The results were mixed, with British journalist Fred Pearce
throwing out sunnily optimistic and TV-savvy bons mots
while earnest representatives from family planning organizations struggled to rain on his parade without undercutting their own considerable success.
Sunny Days Are Here Again on the Daily Show
Pearce, the author of The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, cracked up Jon Stewart with his cheery news that the population problem has been solved because “women today have half as many children as they used to have.” That may sound good on TV, but unfortunately it applies to about any point along the demographic transition.
UN population figures show that children and young people (aged 0-24) in less developed regions outnumber previous generations, making up approximately 49 percent of the total population. In the world’s least developed nations, children 15 and under comprise 40 percent of the total population. These young age structures portend years of substantial population growth to come–known as “population momentum”–even if today’s youth have fewer kids than their parents.
While family planning is certifiably “a real success story,” as Pearce told Stewart, the argument that the population problem has been solved is far too simplistic to account for the vast differences across countries. While the total fertility rate averages out to 2.6 children per woman across the world, it’s 3.1 in less developed countries; 4.6 in the least developed countries, and 5.3 in sub-Saharan Africa.
Pearce said that aging was good news for the planet. Because “older people are wiser, more experienced,” he said, “we’ll probably have a greener society…than the teenage century, the 20th century.” But the nexus between aging, consumption, and climate is way too complex to boil down to Pearce’s soundbite.
In any case, Pearce says it’s all OK because population will stabilize at eight billion and come down starting in 2040. But he fails to mention that stabilization assumes steep fertility decline in less developed regions.
The UN’s World Population Prospects, 2008 Revision assumes that the world’s least developed countries will decline from 4.39 children per woman to 2.41 children per woman. This precipitous drop will require a considerable effort from the development community and policymakers, as well as a clear focus on reproductive health services.
When It Rains It Pours on Amanpour
Christian Amanpour’s take on the same argument was far more nuanced. An episode of her interview program on CNN (transcript) started with a taped piece from the Indian state of Bihar, where the average woman has four children.
In the piece, Pathfinder’s Rema Nanda says, “When you look at the rapid growth in population and combine it with the levels of poverty, you’re going to see environmental degradation, you’re going to see increasing poverty, because their economic opportunity is not growing as rapidly as the population is, and you’re going to see an increase in women’s mortality.”
A panel of three experts, including Pearce, tackled total fertility rates, unmet need for contraception, religious objections, and aging countries. After Amanpour challenged Pearce’s sunny assessment, he admitted that there are “serious issues” in “two holdout areas”: rural Africa and parts of the Middle East.
In response to gentle critiques from UNFPA’s Purnima Mane and Pathfinder’s Gwyn Hainsworth, Pearce praised them: “I’m certainly not saying that the problem is solved or that everybody who wants access to contraception has access. There’s lots of work that Pathfinder and other groups absolutely need to do to ensure that this revolution is carried through across the rest of the world.”
This debate is not so much about whether we are “defusing the population bomb,” as Pearce claims, as it is about improving people’s understanding of the magnitude and complexity of the world’s population dynamics.
Television is best at telling individual stories, which encourages empathy. But squeezing a global demographic picture on the flat screen irons out the rich diversity of human behavior driving these larger trends.
The two taped sections, which contrast India’s high fertility with Russia’s declining population, illustrate these differences. Unfortunately, the bits fall into the trap of comparing “empty” vs. “crowded” countries, whereas the problem is not the absolute number of people, but their relative vulnerability to population pressures.
Near the end, UNFPA’s Mane makes a heroic attempt to articulate the need to understand complexity, while struggling to escape from Amanpour’s disastrous “human tsunami” metaphor:
I think we have to recognize that the world is diverse and in different parts of the world, we have different situations. For–and there are parts of the world where people are living longer and having less children and have–they have a crisis of health and social security for the senior citizens. In other parts of the world, you have lots of young people. You know, the population has grown in terms of young people and not enough education for them, as well as not enough babies being born. So it is a very diverse world…and, you know, characterizing it as a human tsunami is not where I would like to go.By Meaghan Parker and Sean Peoples.