It wasn’t front and center at the climate change summit in Glasgow but it was whispered about in the corridors and over meals.
It is flammable to politicians. It is heresy for some religions. But it begs for attention: the increase in global population.
The world struggles to decarbonize, thereby saving it from climate-related disasters like sea level rise, but there is no recognition of the critical role that the population plays.
People do things that contribute to climate change, including burning coal and raising cattle. A lot of people equals lots of pollution, which in turn equals a large climate impact, evident and incontrovertible.
In 1950, the population of the world was just above 2.5 billion. It is now 7.9 billion. It is expected to rise by 2 billion by mid-century.
There is a ticking time bomb and it is us.
There was one big, failed attempt to restrict population growth: China’s one-child policy. Besides being draconian, it didn’t work well and was abandoned.
There is a long history of population alarm. It dates back to the 18th Century and Thomas Malthus, an English economist and demographer who created what is now known as Malthusian theory. This states that food production won’t be able to keep up with the growth in human population, resulting in famine and war; and the only way forward is to restrict population growth.
The idea of population outgrowing resources reawakened in 1972, with a controversial report titled “Limits to Growth,” from the Club of Rome, a global think tank.
This report triggered a dispute over the oil supply, which led to the subsequent energy crisis. The antigrowth, population-limiting side found itself in a bitter fight with those who believed technology would save the day. It worked. It brought more energy to market. Oil resources were discovered all over the world, including in the previously unexplored Southern Hemisphere.
Since the debate about limits to growth, the world population has risen inexorably. Now, if growth is the problem then the problem needs to urgently be addressed. I believe 2022 will be the year for that examination.
It is clear that no country would want to follow the failed Chinese one child policy. And, of course, only authoritarian governments would be able to contemplate it. Free people in democratic countries don’t handle dictates well: Take, for example, the difficulty of enforcing mask-wearing in the time of the Covid pandemic.
If we are going to talk of a leveling off world population, we have to look away from dictates to other, subtler pressures.
There is a solution. The challenge is to get there quickly enough.
The solution is prosperity. People who move into the middle classes tend to have fewer kids. So much so, that the traditional populations are in decline in the United States, Japan, and in much of Europe — even in nominally Roman Catholic France. The data is skewed by immigration in all those countries — except Japan, where it is particularly stark. It shows that population stability can occur without the use of social engineering.
The not-so-secret weapon in the United States may be the high cost of college.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.