By 2100 this planet’s population will reach 11.2 billion, the United Nations predicts. Diana Coole, professor of political and social theory at Birkbeck, University of London, argues this is a serious problem. In her latest book Should We Control World Population? Coole argues that humanity can reduce Earth’s population in accordance with human rights — and that it should do so.
Water demand is projected to increase 55 percent by 2050 (relative to 2000), and food 60 percent. This will put further strain on meeting people’s needs, when over half of the Earth’s land surface is already under considerable pressure. Species are becoming extinct 100 to 1,000 times above the natural rate (New Scientist), humans have raised the planet’s temperature 1 degree higher than pre-industrial levels, and there is a 95 percent chance that Earth will warm by an overall 2 degrees by the end of the century, according to one study.
For these reasons Coole has decided to have only one child. She told WikiTribune there should be no legal imperative for couples to have fewer children. But reducing world population is a public debate which needs to be had, even if it’s taboo because “the shadow of Nazism looms very large.”
Coole said one of her students told her she and her partner had initially planned five children. But the woman told her professor: “After doing your course, we’ve decided we’re only going to have two children.” And while that’s progress for Coole, she’s “horrified” that U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn American funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which is pro-choice when it comes to abortion.
Coole said “we’re often pushing at an open door”, with the UN Population Fund, quoting a figure of 214 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy, but many of whom don’t have access to family planning methods.
WikiTribune spoke to Coole on how human population could be reduced, how she regards claims that technology will solve population crisis problems, and future prospects for human quality of life.
WikiTribune: By 2100 the human population may exceed 11 billion. What are the problems of Earth’s population rising to this?
Coole: Adding around another four billion is going to have a huge impact, particular since most of the rise is going to be in Africa… they obviously have to be building infrastructure, schools, health systems, transport systems, agricultural capacity, and so on. And if you’re trying to do that with a population that’s constantly increasing… you’re having to run just to stand still…if we see the kind of displacement from jobs associated with robots and AI that people are talking about, we could have huge global population without jobs. And how we’re going to support them?
You say humanity can reduce our numbers in a way that’s compatible with human rights. How should we go about reducing world population?
Coole: Many women bear many more children than they would choose to do, and it’s estimated often that something like 40 percent of worldwide conceptions are accidental. So I think as a beginning if we could make sure that every child born is a planned and wanted child, and that every woman has the knowledge and the services available to ensure that every birth is actually chosen and wanted… I don’t think you can absolutely enforce a two child policy, but I certainly think that you could encourage people to not have more than two children.
What do you say to those that say that technology will solve the problems associated with population rise?
Coole: I think it’s very easy to pull out technology as a magic bullet. We’re asking an awful lot of technologies which haven’t even been invented … Say we do have the technology to support over 11 billion people — I think it still comes back to the question what kind of lives are those people going to live? I live in London where around 100,000 people have been moving to the city every year. And it’s projected, like most world cities, to increase massively. And it just seems to me that things like traffic congestion, pollution, trying to access social services, schools and so on: it begins to feel more and more like musical chairs, where there’s never enough to go around. City planning is focusing more and more on reducing people’s living spaces, building high rises. It doesn’t seem to me that that’s congenial to people having good mental and physical health outcomes.
Since the book was released in the UK, what have been the biggest criticisms?
Coole: I think there’s been a whole generation that simply associates reducing world population with population control — with eugenics, with racism, with colonialism … people assume that if you want fewer people, you’re going to use coercive methods [and] abuse human rights. And in that context I think the Indian example did more damage to the cause than anything … [But] in Iran, the mullahs were on the side of reducing numbers during the 1980’s and they made it compulsory that anyone getting married should learn about the advantages of having small families. They disseminated contraception from the villages … So it absolutely doesn’t seem to me that this has to be coercive.
‘Without political will of governments and transnational organizations … I’m deeply pessimistic about the world reducing its population’ – Cole
How will we feed the world in 2100? And if everyone only ate the necessary amount of calories would we be able to support many more people?
Coole: A lot of people suggest that we could easily feed 11 billion people if we all became vegans, for example. Personally I think the chances of that happening are very remote. If we just look at countries like China, as populations become wealthier and more developed, they tend to have diets much richer in meat and higher calories, and [are] increasingly unsustainable … We could have a world which went back to massive famines… The idea that somehow politically we’re going to, say, wean Americans off their high calorie diets, and get them eating like Indians over the next few decades — it just seems to me that that’s not really going to happen.
Can we reduce world population and have a growing economy, when as you say it would lead to at least a temporarily globally aging population?
Coole: We can’t sing we want more and more economic growth and therefore we need more and more people to spur that growth. It’s simply not sustainable, and I’m a bit skeptical about this ideal that we have to keep having economic growth … I mean why do we need to be even wealthier in developed societies? Why do we need to keep producing more and more and consuming more and more commodities?
How hopeful are you that humanity will do something of significant effect to reduce world population before 2050, or 2100?
Coole: If we reduce infant mortality, people won’t produce extra children in case some die. So, I think there’s a huge role for governments to recognize the ills of population growth, and to have a win-win situation to incentivize people to have fewer children. But I think without political will of governments and transnational organizations, I would say, I’m deeply pessimistic about the world reducing its population.