With 8 Billion People, The World’s Inequality Problems Fester
The globe can handle the people, but it can’t handle mass migration politically
There are now eight billion people on this planet, according to the latest estimates. The last billion have been added in just 12 years. It has been traditional for each billion increase to be greeted with hand-ringing over impending Malthusian collapse and mass starvation as the resources are overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
But it is clear from sub-texts of the latest data that there is a much bigger problem than sheer number, even if one assumes that climate change will have a major negative impact on food production. The underlying fact is that the world population has grown tenfold since it hit the first billion mark around 1800. There have been famines but relatively localized ones due to wars, natural disaster or (as in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China) the reordering of society for ideological reasons. Obesity may now be a bigger problem than lack of food, with high rates not merely in a few developed countries and the highest of all in a few less rich such as Egypt and Mexico.
It is also obvious that on a global scale the world could already do with less food, by wasting less and for a widespread change to less meat-intensive diets. Those alone could broadly offset any losses from climate change – in itself not clear as some land will become more productive with warmer temperatures and more rain while others will suffer from rising sea levels and the more frequent storms and floods which are forecast.
Nor is it the total number of people which will be the major problem. The huge rise in the world population over the past two centuries has been primarily due to far fewer deaths among children as a result of advances in science and in public health even in the poorest countries. Increases in adult death ages have been only a secondary cause of overpopulation increase. Humanity has been adjusting to this remarkable improvement by lowering fertility rates. The global average now is 2.3 compared with 5.0 in 1950 and the decline has been continuing even if at a lower rate than in the 1970-2000 period.
Based on these trends demographers generally seem to see a peak global population of somewhere between 9.3 and 11.00 billion between 2050 and 2100. On its own, that would seem manageable given ongoing increases in agricultural productivity and diversification of food sources.
The problems lie elsewhere – in the extreme variations between regions of the world. In particular, these show the very low fertility rates for most of east Asia, and southern and eastern Europe where the range is between 0.8 and 1.3, and almost all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa where the norm is between 4.00 and 5.00. The former is faced with how to deal with an ever-older and declining population and without immigration which may be impossible for political and cultural reasons.
Nigeria alone has 220 million people and at the current rate will double in 20 years. The pressure for migration from such countries where labor forces are growing at least as fast as job opportunities will continue to rise. Between them and a rich but aging southern Europe is the not very wide Mediterranean sea and a group of middle-income North African countries which find it hard to stop arrivals and are happy enough if they can make their way to a Europe which needs their labor but is limited in absorptive capacity.
The US has some migration pressure on its southern border which is also important politically but the US absorptive capacity has long been exceptional and the potential numbers from Latin neighbors to the south are small compared with the potential from Africa northwards.
China is in a better but opposite position – like it or not it has no significant source of immigration available. Korea and Japan may just be small enough to find immigration sources which make an economic difference but for them, like the Chinese, ethnocentricity is a powerful barrier to acceptance of brown, let alone black skins from South Asia or Africa.
The failure of most of Africa to follow most of Asia and Latin America with a rapid downward trajectory of fertility has several interrelated causes but clearly start with bad governance and include religious and cultural practices. Women in particular have had to face lack of education as well as the rearing of many children, not to mention the unwillingness of male-dominated structures to focus on family planning as a key component of improved health and food security.
But if this global divide is not to lead to conflict the answer lies in better balance between fertility rates globally. History is littered with examples of rich regions being over-run by demographic explosions among those on the periphery hitherto regarded as “barbarians.”
Nor is this just a global problem. One country at least has an internal divide which might eventually tear it apart. Very populous northern and eastern states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh not only have per capita incomes only about 25 percent of those of the southern states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala but fertility rates which are at least 50 percent higher than those in the south where they have slipped below 2.0. Much the same could be said of education.
So gaps are growing because of demographics as well as contributing to more disparity. They also happen to be a minority in another way – Dravidian languages. India’s failure to better spread its overall impressively sharp decline in fertility – from 3.6 to 2.0 in just 30 years -- is reflected in the fact that income per head in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (combined population 300 million) is now half that in Bangladesh which itself has overtaken West Bengal.
None of these demographic issues, national or regional, are beyond addressing by governments and societies, whether local, regional, or global. But they first need to be recognized for what they are and how fundamental to global order.