Population growth: Crunching the numbers

Posted by Mallen Baker [1] on Nov 2, 2011

Accepting that there is a population crisis isn’t enough, says Mallen Baker

The passing of the world population beyond the seven billion mark has led to a number of uneasy articles and columns in the mainstream press acknowledging the landmark. It’s the first time I’ve seen much evidence of disquiet at the logic of the numbers – a background nagging awareness that this is leading us into tricky territory.

Not that I’m getting my hopes up. The human race has collectively demonstrated consistent stupidity in the face of global mega-trends that point to a difficult future step-change type event.

Think of all the economic bubbles we’ve seen come along – each one of them sustained by the desire (did I hear greed?) of people to believe that the good times would get better and better in contrary to what common sense and even the laws of gravity might suggest.

Our foolish bubble in this case is the belief that human development is on a constant upwards curve. Our children will live longer than us. The millennium development goals will eventually be met as we gradually get better at eliminating poverty and solving the environmental problems of the future.

The truth is a tad more challenging. The massive continuing growth in human numbers blows the millennium development goals out of the water. Particularly because some of those human numbers are swarming into environments that are already poised on the threshold where their ability to support life is, at least, inconsistent.

There are two flavours of denial in this. The first – and I’ve allowed myself to indulge in this one myself over the years – is the belief that once societies and economies mature, the birth rate significantly drops. That means that world population will gradually level out at around nine or 10 billion or so. All very sustainable, so long as we can share the wealth that allows the birth rate to drop. As it has in the UK. As it has in Japan.

Unfortunately, that is still another two or three billion people in addition to where we are today. We have no reason to believe that the carrying capacity of the earth will stretch to those numbers. Especially since the condition for that birth rate in levelling off is growing affluence in currently poor societies – which means that the consumption footprint of those billions of people becomes two, three – maybe ten times more than it currently is.

The second flavour of denial is the one that focuses on the economic impact of all those older people – and doesn’t acknowledge there’s an issue about numbers much at all.

Imported youth 

That’s the logic that concerns governments and major businesses most often. They see the decline in mature economies of numbers of young people. They scrabble to attract the homegrown talent they can, and then outsource, relocate or simply import the young talent from the growing economies.

And what’s more, they now focus on the emerging economies as “the engines of growth” that are surging ahead whilst home markets are stagnant. On a micro-level, it all makes perfect sense. But on a macro level, we need to understand that the best case vision for the future is a world that looks very similar to the age profile that we have in countries like Japan. If you can’t make money in that scenario because you’re addicted to rapid expansion and growth, then that’s going to give you interesting problems in the future.

By and large, companies don’t even begin to deal with such questions because they are so macro – and the inevitable consequences are distant enough today to ignore.

But the questions are completely obvious. And rather than survey the bloody wreckage after the event and say to ourselves “gosh – nobody saw that coming” we need to ask a few of them now. Such as …

What’s the point in finding ingenious ways to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% in the next five years when during that same period human numbers are likely to have increased by another half billion?

At what point do we begin to see the issue of overconsumption as being a two sided equation – consumption rates per head, against total human numbers?

Assuming that we are completely incapable of addressing this before nature does some entirely logical, completely predictable, and extremely brutal “correcting” of its own – what additional risks will that bring for global companies of the future? And what does it mean for companies that focus on bottom of the pyramid products for future market growth? What sort of corporate mission makes sense in a world where population has either naturally levelled off (best case scenario) or is being otherwise suppressed?

Given where we’re headed, perhaps that mission already makes sense?

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect, and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.