Over the next 40 years, the world is set to add 2.3 billion people
. Millions more will join the middle class, pushing consumption upwards and further straining the world’s natural resources. Variables like climate change and political instability will exacerbate that strain and complicate efforts to bolster peaceful and stable development. Los Angeles Times
correspondent Kenneth Weiss and photographer Rick Loomis examine these numerous and interconnected challenges in a five-part series on population growth and consumption dynamics
Speaking to demographic and health experts (including a number of New Security Beat regulars, like Richard Cincotta, Jon Foley, and Dr. Joan Castro), Weiss provides a thorough, astute, and compelling assessment of population dynamics in a rapidly changing world. The series starts with a basic introduction to population, climate, and consumption dynamics and progresses through to discuss political demography, global food security, and detailed looks at two important case studies, China and the Philippines.
Part One: A Population Primer
Population growth alone poses a number of challenges as cities become more crowded and demand for basic resources like water and food outpaces supply. Climate change and the unpredictable and sometimes extreme weather that is its hallmark “will make all of these challenges more daunting,” writes Weiss. And “population will rise most rapidly in places least able to handle it.” Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, already expected to bear the brunt of climate change with rising sea levels, shorter growing seasons, and increasingly variable weather patterns, will also have to support the bulk of the world’s population growth by mid-century. Populations in Europe, North America, and East Asia are expected to stay stable or decline in numbers.
The magnitude of growth in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, however, is uncertain. What happens from here “hinges on the cumulative decisions of hundreds of millions of young people around the globe,” Weiss writes. And yet, “population growth has all but vanished from public discourse.” Family planning in particular remains hamstrung by “erratic funding and unpredictable crosscurrents.” The result, he writes, is that even “under the best conditions, it’s hard to get contraceptives into the hands of impoverished women who want them.”
Part Two: The Arc of Instability
Drawing on work from demographer Richard Cincotta, George Mason University’s Jack Goldstone, Population Action International, and others, part two of Weiss’ series examines youth bulges and the so-called “arc of instability,” stretching across the disproportionately youthful countries of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
When a large youth population is mixed with other societal conditions, like “religious and ethnic friction, political rivalries, economic disparities, or food shortages,” youth can be “the kindling” for a spark that ignites simmering tensions, writes Weiss. Afghanistan is a case in point, where unemployed young men are often turning to the Taliban not out of extremist fervor, but out of a desperate need to support themselves and their families. “It’s too hard to employ this many people and too easy to recruit them into violence,” Cincotta told Weiss.
And Afghanistan is just the beginning, according to Goldstone. “We are literally going to see one billion young people come into the populations in the arc of instability over the next two decades,” he said. “We can’t fight them. We have to figure a better way to help them.”
Part Three: Feeding a Growing Population
As the world’s population continues to grow, and as more families join the middle class, world food production will have to double by mid-century in order to meet future demand. “What that actually means,” says World Wildlife Fund’s Jason Clay, an agriculture specialist, “is that in the next 40 years we need to produce as much food as we have in the last 8,000.”
Weiss presents the Horn of Africa and Punjab as microcosms of the problems facing global food production in the 21st century. Desertification and urbanization are eating away at potential cropland, while harmful farming techniques leech essential nutrients from soil, rendering it useless for future use. Insufficient infrastructure means that food spoils as it’s shipped from where it’s produced to where it’s needed, while extreme and widespread poverty means that those most in need can’t afford enough to feed their families.
Stuck between growing demand and restricted supply, the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley said the challenge of the century is straightforward: “How will we feed nine billion people without destroying the planet?”
Part Four: Population and Consumption in China
China has “a greater collective appetite – and a greater ecological impact – than any other country,” writes Weiss, making it a prime example of “how rising consumption and even modest rates of population growth magnify each other’s impact on the planet.”
The country’s one-child policy slowed population growth rapidly, cutting fertility almost in half in less than a decade. Over time, a large working-age cohort with few dependents emerged, and helped China reap a demographic dividend. The resulting economic prosperity has come at a cost, however, as rising incomes and increasing consumption, spread across 1.3 billion people, have wreaked havoc on the country’s environment on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world.
Because of that scale, what happens in China will have global repercussions. Climate scientists “say that in order to avoid a potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions must be cut in half by 2050,” Weiss writes. “For that to happen, China’s emissions would have to peak by 2020” – 15 years earlier than official government projections. The government remains opposed to further limits on emissions, arguing that such limits would “cripple” economic growth – an unfair impediment considering that developed countries were able to “pollute their way to prosperity, their argument goes.”
Part Five: Family Planning in the Philippines
Weiss ends the series with an in-depth look at family planning in the Philippines – a country at the forefront of the global debate over access to contraception. Lawmakers in the 80-percent-Catholic country have steadfastly refused to fund family planning services, while support from the international community all but vanished when USAID, “the major donor of contraceptives to the Philippines,” said in 2008 that it would end its contraceptive program.
Today, half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended. Lawmakers are considering a “reproductive health bill…call[ing] for public education about contraceptives and government subsidies to make them available to everyone,” but a powerful opposition, including Church leadership, has stalled the bill for 14 years, Weiss writes.
Public officials, including the former Manila mayor who ended the city’s contraceptive program 12 years ago, portray unbridled population growth as an economic asset, saying that “when you have more people, you have a bigger labor force.” For the millions of Filipinos who live in poverty, however, the lack of affordable family planning services leaves them with little control over family size and puts the Philippines on track to grow from 96.4 million people today to 154.9 million by mid-century. At that rate, the Philippines would be Asia’s third fastest growing country, behind Timor Leste and Afghanistan.
Not everything in the series is dire – there are side columns highlighting population, health, and environment programming in Uganda, Iran’s successful family planning program, and Dr. Joan Castro’s family planning and marine conservation work in the Philippines. But Weiss is not naïve about the challenges ahead. Under any of the United Nation’s population projections, “living conditions are likely to be bleak for much of humanity,” he writes. “Water, food, and arable land will be more scarce, cities more crowded, and hunger more widespread.”
“Even under optimistic assumptions, the toll on people and the planet will be severe.”
But while the population challenges facing the world are many, Weiss, like many before him, makes one argument clear: providing family planning services to the 222 million women who want to control the number of children they have but cannot would go a long way towards minimizing future strain.
Be sure to check out the photo and video features accompanying the “Beyond 7 Billion” series on the feature site.
Note: The sentence beginning with “When a large youth population…” was corrected.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, UN Population Division.
Video Credit: “The Challenge Ahead,” used with permission courtesy of the Los Angeles Times; Photo: “Dharavi,” used with permission courtesy of Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times; Jon Foley video: TEDx.