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Here's a column in The Times, imagining what the world might
look like if the UN's low-fertilty scenario comes true.
The peak is in sight. Even as the population passes seven billion,
the growth rate of the world population has halved since the 1960s.
The United Nations Population Division issues high, medium and low
forecasts. Inevitably the high one (fifteen billion people by 2100)
gets more attention than the low one (six billion and falling). But
given that the forecasts have generally proved too high for the
past few decades, let us imagine for a moment what might happen if
that proves true again.
Africa is currently the continent with the highest birth rates,
but it also has the fastest economic growth. The past decade has
seen Asian-tiger-style growth all across Africa. HIV is in retreat,
malaria in decline. When child mortality fell and economic growth
boomed like this in Europe, Latin America and Asia, the result was
a rapid fall in the birth rate. For fertility to fall,
contraception provides the means, but economic growth and public
health provide the motive. So the current slow decline in Africa's
birth rate may turn into a plummet.
If that happens, the low UN estimate could prove more accurate
with the world population peaking a little above eight billion and
falling to a billion less than today by the end of the century.
Imagine too that agricultural productivity continues to rise.
Abundant gas drives down fertiliser prices. Demand from China
ensures that new varieties of seeds, better storage and cheap
fertiliser reach more African farmers. Perhaps even EU tariff
barriers against African produce are lifted and America's crazy
policy of diverting food into motor fuel is reversed.
Let us dream, too, that Europe's dogmatic objection to genetic
modification is quietly dropped, releasing a plethora of crops that
are drought-resistant, salt-tolerant, better at utilising nitrogen
fertiliser and better protected against pests. Let us suppose that
the efficiency with which chickens, pigs and cows convert plants
into meat continues to rocket upwards, thanks to selective
breeding, without worsening cruelty.
If even half of these things happen, feeding six or even nine
billion in 2100 would take far less land than feeding seven billion
requires today. A greater proportion will live in cities, freeing
still more land. And with more people able to afford fossil fuels,
fewer will depend on forests for cooking fuel (or bushmeat),
freeing still more land from human pressure. If they wear synthetic
fleeces instead of wool and live in steel and concrete buildings
instead of wooden ones, the footprint of their lives will shrink.
Even their carbon footprint will fall as gas replaces coal and
Imagine, too, that water use grows steadily more efficient with
the spread of drip irrigation (where water is delivered straight to
plant roots from a tube, with only 10 per cent wastage), and that
fish farming provides a greater part of our protein, taking
pressure off wild fish stocks.
It is quite possible that your great grandchildren will not only
be fewer in number, but will live in a world with huge nature
reserves, vast forests and rich seas.
Of course, none of this may happen. The most fundamentalist groups
within Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Mormonism are furiously
encouraging their followers to have big families; they may yet
reverse the fall in global birth rates. The greens may win the
argument for renewable energy and demand vast acreages for their
expensive toys - Renewistan, as the inventor Saul Griffith calls
it. The Luddites may prevent innovation from raising food yields
and drive us back to land-hungry organic farming. My crazy optimism
about the management of the oceans may well prove misplaced.
And even if these dreams come true, we will not have reached
Utopia. The rapidly ageing population will be a huge burden. Not
just Germans and Japanese, but Brazilians, Indians and perhaps even
Nigerians will find that too few young workers are supporting too
many elderly dependants with unaffordable pensions and expensive
None the less, let us briefly dwell on what could go right, if
only to encourage us to achieve it: by the end of the century, a
smaller population, with higher living standards and a better