TED Conversations

Hans Rosling

Director, Gapminder Foundation


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Why do so many think that population growth is an important issue for the environment? Don't they know the facts of demographics?

We face many environmental challenges, but the foremost is the risk for a severe climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

I meet so many that think population growth is a major problem in regard to climate change. But the number of children born per year in the world has stopped growing since 1990. The total number of children below 15 years of age in the world are now relatively stable around 2 billion. The populations with an increasing amount of children born are fully compensated by other populations with a decreasing number of children born. A final increase of 2 billion people is expected until the world population peaks at about 9 billion in 2050. But the increase with 2 billion is comprised by already existing persons growing up to become adults, and old people like me (+60 years). So when I hear people saying that population growth has to be stopped before reaching 9 billion, I get really scared, because the only way to achieve that is by killing.

So the addition of another 2 billion in number constitutes a final increase of less than 30%, and it is inevitable. Beyond 2050 the world population may start to decrease if women across the world will have, on average, less than 2 children. But that decrease will be slow.

So the fact is that we have to plan for a common life on Earth with 7-9 billion fellow human beings, and the environmental challenge must be met by a more effective use of energy and a much more green production of energy.

The only thing that can change this is if the last 1-2 poorest billion do not get access to school, electricity, basic health services and family planning. Only if the horror of poverty remains will we become more than 9 billion.

So my question is: Are these facts known? If not, why?

It is important because placing emphasis on population diverts attention from what has to be done to limit the climate crisis.


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    Feb 20 2011: I agree that population is stabilising, and is not a major problem.
    I disagree with many contributors who think we are running out of resources.
    We have plenty of resources, all the energy and matter we could conceivably need, we just have less than optimal systems in place around those resources.

    Part of problem relates to the technologies we use, which are typically expanding exponentially, and could expand a lot faster is they were not constrained by the need to recoup investment in the previous generation of products.

    The other part of the problem relates to the the social systems we use, most of which are based around money as a system of valuation.
    Using money as a system of valuation has a serious negative effect on a significant minority of all societies, because money is a measure of exchange value, and exchange is based on scarcity. Most people value abundance, but there is no monetary value in general abundance (abundant goods are free). Thus monetary systems have an inbuilt incentive to create scarcity, which results in a significant fraction of any society experiencing scarcity, when we actually possess the resources and technology to produce general abundance of many goods and services.

    In terms of energy, sunlight delivers an equivalent of 6 inches of oil over the entire planet every year. Plenty of energy. Yet because it is decentralised, and abundant, there is no economic incentive to develop technologies to harness it (too much profit being made from existing technologies - oil and coal). For a more detailed discussion of the concept see http://tedhowardnz.wordpress.com/money/

    Having recently (10 months ago) changed my diet to vegan (after 55 years of carnivorous diet), it seems clear to me that we could sustain a population of 9 billion at a conservative density of 2 people per acre (very easy for vegans) using only 12% of the land area.

    It is actually quite easy to sustain 3 people off a half acre section in temperate climates.

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