According to the UN, the world’s population will exceed 8 billion in 2025. This figure has alarmed some experts, who have alluded to a ‘demographic timebomb’ for global warming. But is anthropogenic pressure on the environment solely a demographic issue? And isn’t demography first and foremost a development issue?
In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with more than 1,700 independent scientists, including several Nobel Laureates in the Sciences, argued for the stabilization of the world’s population. In 2017, 15,000 experts issued the declaration that “curbing the growth of the world’s population is an absolute necessity” in the fight against global warning.
Is anthropogenic pressure an ecological timebomb?
Such calls for vigilance highlight population growth as a major cause of global ecological damage. Solutions currently implemented to protect the environment such as the creation of protected areas, use of renewable energies, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions rely on certain human activities being curbed or even halted completely. This unchecked growth of the world’s population, which currently stands at almost 7.8 billion, and its implied repercussions in terms of increased production and consumption of everyday goods, food and energy, under a neoliberal growth model, has become somewhat of a bête noire.
As a result, the particularly high population growth in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is a concern in the North, where a neo-Malthusian discourse has emerged, having found a political outlet, as noted by researchers Aladji Madior Diop and Richard Marcoux, in relation to President Sarkozy’s Dakar speech in 2007.
From population growth to economic growth
While it is inevitable that this population growth in the South will become a long-term environmental issue for these countries, according to Economist, Amartya Sen, the damage currently being inflicted on the global environment, however, is less a result of the demographic growth of populations in the South, than of the lifestyles of communities in the North. In fact, climate change is largely caused by economic growth whose main drivers in developed countries are overproduction and overconsumption.
For geographer, Jacques Véron, “population” is far from being the cause of all current environmental problems.” According to Véron, resolving the ecological problem in the short or medium term essentially depends on the adoption of a more modest lifestyle in the North, combined with the implementation of a long-term sustainable development strategy in the South. This would effectively mitigate the issue of overpopulation, in particular by achieving gender equality and reducing poverty.
Poverty and inequality: causes and consequences of population growth
As reported by the United Nations Population Fund, population growth in the Global South is first and foremost a development issue: “Poverty is influenced by—and influences—population dynamics, including population growth, age structure, and rural-urban distribution.”
A high birth rate is a consequence of poverty and other issues such as early school dropouts among young girls, or unequal access to sexual and reproductive health care, education and employment. Yet, it is also a cause, as early or repeated pregnancies and lack of access to basic essentials can in turn inhibit girls’ and women’s access to education and employment. This makes the dynamics of sustainable development even more complex.
Consequently, the issue of population growth in the Global South cannot be resolved without a structural response, incorporating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 5, which relates to gender equality. This approach is advocated by the afore-mentioned Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics: “There can be little doubt that economic and social development, in general, has been associated with major reductions in birth rates and the emergence of smaller families as the norm.” Population growth, when controlled not by prescriptive birth control but by improved access to essential goods and services for girls and women, could even constitute a strong driver of development for many countries.