Tuesday 3 October 2023

The problem isn't the birth rate, it's inequality


It has been calculated that the population of Earth is currently consuming natural resources at a rate which requires 1.7 planets to sustain it; that if everyone lived like the average European we’d need three planets; and that a US lifestyle for all would require the resources of five planets. Now there are many problems with such calculations, because they inevitably depend on a lot of assumptions and estimates. They also hide a multitude of differences within countries as well – not all US citizens live a five-planet lifestyle, and some are probably living a ten planet or more lifestyle.

For the purposes of debate, it’s reasonable to ignore the arithmetical detail of the calculations and concentrate on the key message which is that, given that the natural resources of the Earth are finite, there is an unavoidable relationship between two factors: the size of the population and the lifestyle which that population can sustainably live. To the extent that that circle is currently being squared, the ‘solution’ is in two parts: inequality of access to resources, both between and within countries: some must live in poverty so that others can enjoy a wealthy life; and a willingness to use resources at an excessive rate, thereby denying them to future generations. A situation where many live in poverty isn’t some divinely ordained outcome, it’s a necessary condition for the few to be wealthy. It is inequality of access to resources which largely drives those euphemistically referred to as ‘economic migrants’ to seek to escape poverty by going to where the wealth is or, to use a corollary, the desire of some to hold on to their unfair share of the Earth’s resources is a major driver of population movements.

At a global level, it appears likely that the birth rate will stabilise by the end of the century. It is likely that longer lifespans will mean that the total population continues to grow, albeit slowly, even if the birth rate falls below the replacement level, but that growth will not be universal. Europe’s population, for instance, is projected to start falling by then. Looked at globally, a falling population is probably a good thing overall; whilst a stable, or even falling, population does not in itself address the inequality of access to resources, it does create a better opportunity to adopt a fairer approach. The question, in political terms, is how to respond to a situation where the population of a country is stable or falling but in which the age profile is changing, with the average age increasing. It’s an issue which needs a great deal more discussion than it's currently receiving.

The one thing that we definitely do not need is the sort of response put forward yesterday by Robert Jenrick at the Tory conference, which is to encourage more people to have more children so that there are more younger people to support the continuation of the giant Ponzi scheme which passes for the UK systems for care and pensions. Predicating the whole economic structure on an assumption that if more people live to be older we need to grow the population to support them, and do so indefinitely, may be viable for one country in the short term (although even that viability depends on a willingness to invest in homes, schools, hospitals to support an increasing population, something which his government is noticeably unwilling to do, preferring to blame immigrants for any deficiencies), but is, in global terms and in the long term, utterly irresponsible. The alternative necessarily involves looking at total available resources and how they are shared, both within and between countries. It’s easy to understand why those (like Jenrick and his colleagues) keen to defend and maintain huge disparities in wealth will recoil from such a suggestion. It challenges their whole outlook, to say nothing of their privilege and wealth. But it’s the only way forward in a resource-constrained world, even if it’s going to take some time before enough of us realise that fact.


Gwyn Jones said...

Jeremy Hunt long ago brought out the poet in me, now Robert Jenrick is doing it anew.

Anon said...

Agree with most of what you say here. Not sure about that last sentence though. Maybe I'm just a grumpy old pessimist but I see no reason to think that enough of us wìll ever come to that realisation.