The Korea Herald


Crowded Earth: how many is too many?


Published : Oct. 27, 2011 - 11:30

    • Link copied

Already straining to host seven billion souls, Earth is set to teem with billions more, and only a revolution in the use of resources can avert an environmental crunch, experts say.

As early as 1798, Thomas Malthus gloomily forecast that our ability to reproduce would quickly outstrip our ability to produce food, leading to mass starvation and a culling of the species.

But an industrial revolution and its impact on agriculture proved Malthus and later doomsayers wrong, even as our numbers doubled and redoubled with accelerating frequency.

"Despite alarmist predictions, historical increases in population have not been economically catastrophic," notes David Bloom, a professor in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard.

Today, though, it seems reasonable to ask if Malthus wasn't simply a couple of centuries ahead of the curve.

On October 31, the world's population is officially scheduled to hit seven billion -- a rise of two billion in less than a quarter century.

Over six decades, the global fertility rate has roughly halved, and amounts to a statistical 2.5 children per woman today.

But this varies greatly from country to country. And whether the planet's population eventually stabilises at nine, 10 or 15 billion depends on what happens in developing countries, mostly in Africa, with the fastest growth.

Diminishing resources

As our species has expanded, so has its devouring of the planet's bounty, from fresh water and soil richness to forests and fisheries.

At its current pace, humankind will need, by 2030, a second planet to satisfy its appetites and absorb its waste, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) calculated last month.

And through the coal, oil and gas that drive prosperity, we are also emitting greenhouse gases that alter the climate, potentially maiming the ecosystems which feed us.

"From soaring food prices to the crippling effects of climate change, our economies are now confronting the reality of years of spending beyond our means," GFN's president, Mathis Wackernagel, said.

French diplomat Brice Lalonde, one of two coordinators for next June's UN Conference on Sustainable Development, dubbed "Rio+20," said Earth's population rise poses a fundamental challenge to how we use resources.

"In 2030 there will be at least another billion people on the planet," Lalonde said.

"The question is, how do we boost food security and provide essential services to the billion poorest people but without using more water, land or energy?"

This is why, he said, Rio+20 will focus on practical things such as increasing cleaner sources in the world energy mix, smarter use of fresh water, building cities that are environmentally friendlier and raising farm yields without dousing the soil with chemicals.

But such options dwell far more on the impact of population growth than on the problem itself.

Braking fertility rates would help the human tally stabilise at eight billion and haul poor countries out of poverty, ease the strain on natural resources and reduce climate vulnerability, say advocates.

For some experts, voluntary birth control is the key.

Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, cites Somalia as a case study of what happens when women have no access to contraception.

Racked by civil war and poverty, its population is projected to grow from about 10 million today to 22.6 million by 2050. It has the eighth-highest birth rate in the world and an average of seven children per family.

Even before the country fell into a full-fledged crisis, a third of its children were severely underweight, according to UNICEF. Ninety-nine percent of married Somali women have no access to family planning.

Many economists, though, argue that the answer lies more in reducing poverty and boosting education, especially of women.

A 2010 study in Colombia found family planning explained less than 10 percent of the country's fertility fall. The real driver was improved standards of living.

Don't mention the 'P' word

Even so, at summits that seek to shape Earth's future, tackling population growth head-on is almost taboo.

"When I attended the UN environment conference in Stockholm (in 1972), the No. 1 item on the agenda was out-of-control population growth," recalled Paul Watson, head of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a radical green group.

"When I attended the 1992 conference (in Rio), it wasn't even on the agenda. No one talked about it any more."

Demography was similarly absent from the UN's 2002 Johannesburg Summit, when Earth's population had climbed to six billion.

Why does "how many is too much" remain absent from the top tables?

One perceived reason is the opposition by religious conservatives to contraception or abortion. Politicians, too, may see no mileage in addressing an issue that will only cause them headaches and yield benefits several decades away.

But for some critics, population measures are synonymous with the mistakes of coercive sterilisation in India in the 1970s or China's "one child" policy, which has led to a gender imbalance in favour of boys.



맬서스 '인구론' 반박 '기술혁신이 승리할것'

19세기 영국의 경제학자 토머스 맬서스는 '인구론'에서 인구의 기하급수적인 증가를 식량 생산이 따라가지 못해 인류가 큰 재앙을 겪게 될 것이라는 우울한 전망을 내놓았다.

하지만 세계 인구가 70억명에 달하는 순간을 코앞에 둔 시점에서 많은 경제학자가 기술 혁신과 더불어 보이지 않는 손이 한정된 자원을 보다 효과적으로 사용하도록 시장가격을 조정하기 때문에 이 같은 전망은 빗나갈 것이라고 예상하고 있다.

미국 시카고대 국제경제·금융학과의 로버트 앨리버 교수는 26일(이하 현지시간) "지난 200년을 거치는 동안 맬서스의 주장이 틀린 것으로 밝혀졌는데 어째서 향후 100년 사이 그의 예상이 옳을 것이라고 생각해야 하느냐"고 지적했다.

씨티그룹 수석 이코노미스트 윌렘 뷔터도 "세계가 붕괴할 것이라는 맬서스식 시나리오는 항상 있어왔다. 그것은 자원고갈과 기술혁신간의 경쟁인데 지금까지는 혁신이 승리했다"며 낙관적 전망을 내놨다.

그러나 중국과 인도 등 인구가 10억명이 넘는 신흥국의 급속한 경제성장은 이러한 방정식에 큰 변화를 가져올 것이라는 예상도 동시에 나오고 있다.

영국 서섹스대학의 발전연구소의 로렌스 하다드 소장은 "중국과 인도, 브라질은 너무 크고 빠르게 성장하고 있어서 이대로라면 세계 경제의 재편이 불가피할 것"이 라고 내다봤다.

미국 소재 환경기구인 지구정책연구소 레스터 브라운 대표는 "세계 인구는 기본적 지원체계의 범위를 넘어서고 있다"며 "이것이 바로 세계의 산림이 줄어들고, 어장이 무너지고, 초원이 사막으로 변하고, 토양이 침식되고, 18개국에서 지하수면이 낮아지고 있는 이유"라고 지적했다.

그는 특히 세계는 지금 모든 자원을 너무 과도하게 사용하고 있다면서 언젠가는 소비를 줄여야 한다고 강조했다.

전문가들은 맬서스의 예상이 현실화하는 것을 막기 위해서는 지속가능한 발전을 위해 세계의 행동방식을 바꿔야 한다고 주문하고 있다.

특히 그동안 무절제하게 탄소를 소비하며 부를 축적해온 서방 국가들이 주된 책임을 져야 하며 중국과 인도와 같은 국가들도 저탄소 경제와 친환경적 기술에 보다 관심을 가져야 한다고 지적하고 있다.

유엔인구기금(UNFPA)도 이날 '2011년 세계인구 현황' 보고서를 통해 세계 인구가 오는 2050년에 93억명으로 증가하는 데 이어 2100년에는 100억명을 넘어설 것이 라고 전망했다.

특히 인구대국을 중심으로 출산율에 작은 변화가 생긴다면 세계인구는 2050년 106억명, 2100년 150억명으로 보다 많아질 수도 있다고 밝혔다.

UNFPA는 이 같은 인구증가는 기아와 물부족, 환경문제를 초래할 수 있다고 경고 하면서 세계가 이에 대처하기 위해 행동에 나서야 한다고 촉구했다.