There are too many people. Many people are working hard on the big problems the world is struggling with: climate problems, sustainability, biodiversity, migration problems. However, the dominant cause of all these problems is the – too often forgotten – fact that there are far too many people in this world. And we can tinker with all kinds of problems, but above all we must not forget that this structural problem has to be solved. Any other action, such as eating less meat, producing less CO2, is pointless, if mankind thinks this allows for more children to be born. Mankind must set limits to the number of people with whom we inhabit the earth. The choices are roughly these: either we live on the earth with a lot of people, but in that case we all live in poverty or we will live on the earth with fewer people, in which case we will live in some kind of prosperity. We should talk about this kind of choices.
What would be the optimal number of people on earth? At this moment humanity counts almost eight billion people. These can roughly be divided into one billion relatively rich people (in Europe, North America, Japan and some other large countries) and seven billion rather poor people. The per capita consumption of the one billion rich people per person is roughly twenty times that of a person in a poor country. The current climate problems and other major global problems are therefore almost entirely due to the rich people of the world, given the low consumption pattern of the seven billion others. In the year 1960, the world had three billion people. This is a reasonable number of people, who in all probability could live “eternally” on earth in prosperity in relatively pleasant conditions, without exhausting the earth. Although what should immediately be added is that even this, with the current level of consumption in Western countries, would be a considerable challenge. But the situation would be many times more favourable than it is now.
David Attenborough: a life on our planet. It is clear that we are in big trouble right now, as David Attenborough’s latest film shows once again. The earth is dying, millions of animal species are in danger of extinction, large areas of land are becoming uninhabitable, millions of square kilometres of forests have been cut down, ice caps are melting rapidly, causing sea levels to rise, and so on and so forth. But the situation is still basically reversible, provided the right decisions are taken quickly and globally.Attenborough’s recommendations consists of the expectation and hope that through better education and economic development in many countries, fewer and fewer children will be born, and besides he recommands to rigorously increase solar and wind energy and to reduce the use of hydrocarbons, to drastically reduce meat consumption, thus making much more arable land available for vegetarian products.
Unfortunately, these efforts are insufficient. All this is wise, but will it be enough, if it succeeds? As indicated, the rich people of the world consume many times more than the poorer people. The big problem is that those poorer people are doing everything to rapidly increase consumption to catch with the rich. Thanks to numerous development programs, the world’s poorer people have more and more money to spend. Where China until recently was a developing country, it is now a country with the largest number of millionaires and therefore consumption is also increasing by leaps and bounds. The same goes for many other countries in Asia and Africa. While Asians, partly because of their culture but also because of poverty, used to eat little meat, they have now become big meat consumers. On the one hand, China promises to be CO2 neutral by the year 2060, but by now, with the installation of more and more coal-fired power stations, they are the largest CO2 polluter on earth. In short: while the rich countries still have to start diminishing their consumption in many areas, consumption in many other countries is increasing rapidly.
Fewer people in all countries. It is strange and irresponsible not to put much more effort into reducing population growth. Both in rich countries, because of their current excessive consumption, and in poorer countries, because of their upcoming consumption. An argument of developing countries is that rich countries should not interfere with their policies. But that is outdated thinking. In today’s world, we will have to pull out all stops in terms of policy in order to master the many and shared world problems. And collaboration is by far the biggest problem of all. Moreover, without their collaboration as well developing countries would shoot themselves in the foot: the rich countries will not be able to absorb the population surpluses of other countries, resulting in hunger and destruction of nature for those countries that let population growth get out of hand. And rich countries are quite willing to make all kinds of aid available to countries that are serious about tackling this problem. But the rich countries should not come up with plans to increase the number of their inhabitants in connection with the ageing of their populations. If they want to do so at all, they should do so by encouraging the immigration of foreigners and not by encouraging their own population to have more children. The latter is totally irresponsible. But it is also better to have fewer people in rich countries, both from the perspective of the total world population as well as from an environmental point of view.
We will have to make an extra effort. Attenborough’s optimistic story that we can solve the problems within a hundred years is, however sympathetic, extremely unrealistic, given the state of contemporary politics. The world must bring more into play than Attenborough’s, otherwise excellent, suggestions. Population reduction in all countries, both rich and poor, should be number one of all environmental measures. Every mouth that consumes less is beneficial. China’s one-child policy has saved us as many as 400 million Chinese. This policy has been extremely positive for the world and is worthy of the Nobel Prize. If we could keep the world under eight billion people, that would be a huge gain. That is why politics should put this issue at the top of the agenda in every country. Because it is simply more effective and faster than almost any other measure to save the climate or biodiversity.