Seven Billion People

Greetings from onboard a Westjet flight from Ottawa to Vancouver.  Award for funniest line of the morning goes to the Westjet flight attendant who announced, while in mid-air: “Smoking is strictly prohibited on this flight. Anyone caught smoking will be asked to leave the aircraft immediately.”  Okay, so things seem funnier in the air.

The big news in global health and development today is that the UN is due on Monday to annouce that the human population has reached 7 billion people.  The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will publish its insights on this matter in “State of the World Population, 2011.” Seven billion is nothing to sneeze at.  That’s a lot of people.  In fact, it seems likely that the world will see 15 billion people by the year 2100.

Most likely, the 7 billionth child will be born in India or China.  It’s worth pointing out that, despite those nations’ remarkable economic growth over the past two decades, they still suffer from crippling poverty, due in part to a uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity.  In fact, half of all undernourished children in the world live in South Asia. When we consider population pressures, two thoughts immediately come to mind: starvation and ecological degradation.  The two items are inextricably linked, of course.

With more people comes increased use of environmental assets, increased pollution and increased weight put upon regional ecosystems.  This also means a decreased ability to potentiate food production, given the increased tendency for people to live upon and build upon arable land.  The irony is that with more people, there are more mouths to feed, and thus a greater need for food production.

In a global health context, when we talk about food security, we usually define it as a construct with two dimensions: availability and accessibility.  The former relates to our ability to produce food, while the latter to social, political and geographical barriers that limit proper food distribution.  Most experts will tell you that accessibility is the true limitation to feeding the world.  In most countries, there is sufficient food for everyone, but due to a variety of factors large numbers of hungry people do not have access to sufficient calories.

Perhaps the most famous person putting forward this view is Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. While I agree that accessibility is indeed the dimension of food security we must address first, I think it’s becoming preponderantly more important to consider aspects of food production.  This is because it is inextricably linked to the environment; and given the accelerating negative impact of Climate Change on the most populated parts of the world, I fear that food production will be at a crisis level in a couple of decades, if not sooner. The reason for this is multifold, but I will list but three points:

  1. -One of the great crises in the world is the declining availability of fresh water.  This has a most immediate effect on the growth of agriculture.  Climate Change, pollution and population growth have combined to drastically reduce the world’s groundwater reserves, to render many existing freshwater sources untenable, and to change rain patterns such that previously reliable agricultural zones are becoming less so.
  2. -In the past century, human beings have begun doing something really foolish: building on arable land.  In previous centuries, we have lived on rock and barren land, and have reserved arable land for farming.  But due to some strange economics, it has become more lucrative to sell farmland to a strip mall developer than to continue to grow crops on it.
  3. -Point #2 seems in conflict with the inexorable truth that the world is increasingly urban.  People the world over are fleeing the countryside to live in squalor in cities, again due to the strangeness of our economic systems.  But an important aspect of this observation is that, while some rural land is being abandoned, other rural land is being absorbed by growing cities to become suburbs and exurbs.

A final thought on this matter is to point out the conflict between our concern over a crisis of potential overpopulation and the demands of our growth-driven economics.

On the one hand, seven billion people represents a strain on our resources and on our ability to manage the planet.  On the other hand, we have created a civilization in which wealth is defined by the sum total of economic activities of its citizenry, meaning that more people often means more sustained wealth.  The Western world bemoans its current demograph trap, wherein the fabled

Demographic Transition has created so much personal security and longevity that fertility rates have dropped beneath replacement rates.  There is concern in Canada, Japan and much of Europe that the smaller sizes of upcoming generations are insufficient to pay for the demands of our complex and expensive society.

The obvious solution is two-fold: allow the freer movement of people across borders and seek to recompute how we define wealth.  But both of these require a profound shift in both political will and social vision.  Then again, given that the crisis of Climate Change requires a similar shift, maybe the world is ripe for such a change.