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Getting World Population Day wrong again

Summary:
That there could be, at some point, too many people is a logically simple proposition. At some point between now and the surface of the planet having someone on every square metre we’d have more than enough of us. The important point being to work out what it is that means we won’t reach that point. Apart from the obvious one that we’d all have starved long before that happens.Global population of eight billion and growing: we can’t go on like thisWell, actually, we can. Given the onward march of agricultural productivity we’ve no particular problem with feeding the extra couple of billion mouths we expect to arrive. And if we were to bring up the average of global agriculture to something even vaguely approaching current best practice we’d be bathing in food, not just eating it. It is

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That there could be, at some point, too many people is a logically simple proposition. At some point between now and the surface of the planet having someone on every square metre we’d have more than enough of us. The important point being to work out what it is that means we won’t reach that point. Apart from the obvious one that we’d all have starved long before that happens.

Global population of eight billion and growing: we can’t go on like this

Well, actually, we can. Given the onward march of agricultural productivity we’ve no particular problem with feeding the extra couple of billion mouths we expect to arrive. And if we were to bring up the average of global agriculture to something even vaguely approaching current best practice we’d be bathing in food, not just eating it. It is important though to note that this is wrong:

Our growing population crisis therefore needs to be tackled there as a priority: by boosting women’s rights, by making contraception easily available and by improving education for all.

Women’s rights should of course be boosted - human rights are human rights and all humans should have them. So too should education be better for all but that’s a result of fertility rates dropping, not a cause of it. Sure, there’s a very strong correlation between female education and lower fertility. But it’s when women aren’t spending their entire adult lives either pregnant or nursing that education makes economic sense. And humans do tend to do things which make economic sense, not do those things which don’t.

So too with contraception. Of course those who wish to limit their fertility should have the ability to do so. And if circumstance means they’ve not the ability to do so we can and perhaps should help. But it’s not the availability of contraception which reduces fertility.

The usual estimation is that about 10% of any fall in the fertility rate comes from that general availability of effective contraception. The other 90% comes from the fall in desired fertility. Which seems logical enough. Fertility rates did first start falling long before the invention of cheap, modern, contraceptives. Plus, obviously enough, people must desire to have fewer children before they’ll employ a technology which produces fewer children.

What is it that reduces desired fertility? The joint effects of the intertwined increasing urbanisation and increasing richness of society. Richer people have fewer children. Urban populations have fewer than rural. As places become richer they become more urban.

So, what do we need to do in Africa to reduce future population growth? Aid Africa in becoming rich. All else is tinkering around the edges.

Think on it just for a moment. No rich society has, absent immigration and its second generation effects*, a fertility rate even approaching replacement levels. Thus if you’d like other places to have fertility rates like ours you should be striving to make them as rich as us.

*Immigrants tend to bring the fertility rates of their source culture with them, this dying out to be replaced by the rates of the host population somewhere between the second and third generation.

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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