Five Myths About Population, Aging and Environmental Sustainability

When population growth ends, prospects for the next generation are greatly improved. Photo: Alex Gruber
When population growth ends, prospects for the next generation are greatly improved. Photo: Alex Gruber

By Jane O'Sullivan, Francesco Ricciardi, Susann Roth

For sustainable development, universal wellbeing should be the goal, rather than endless growth. Minimizing further growth in human populations is only part of the solution, but an essential part. 

Climate change has been described as one of the greatest challenges of our time. But for many Asian countries, it is only the latest in a long list of environmental challenges. Biodiversity loss, depleting aquifers, eroding soils, polluted fisheries and urban smog, to name a few.

In all its forms, environmental damage has reached a level that threatens human civilization. Climate change is the most obvious threat, and demands the most far-reaching responses, since it directly implicates the energy supplies on which industrialization and globalization have been based. But food security – our most vulnerable basic need – is threatened from many other angles in addition to climate change. The loss of pollinator insects could cause immense hardships, as could the exhaustion of groundwater needed for irrigation, or depletion of phosphorus fertilizer supplies.

In some cases, environmental damage is symptomatic of poverty. In others, it is a consequence of development. But a common denominator is population growth, multiplying activities that were once sustainable to a scale that no longer is. So far, humanity has been largely successful in mitigating the consequences of population increase on human lives, but other species have paid the penalty.

  Busting the myths about population, aging and environmental sustainability

There is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding population growth and environmental damage. Here are five myths that needed to be busted in order for us to find solutions.

Myth 1: Technological innovation will solve environmental problems. As Eric Sevareid famously said, "The chief cause of problems is solutions." In many instances, they were solutions to population pressure. Fossil fuels initially replaced the dwindling wood supplies in Europe, but soon generated energy demand on a scale that has transformed the Earth’s atmosphere. Domestication of cattle and sheep turned vast areas of non-arable land into highly nutritious foods, but their methane production and land clearing for grazing now exacerbate climate change. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers alleviated otherwise inevitable famines, but now pollute aquatic ecosystems. Long-distance trade in foods allowed local specialization, further increasing productivity and enabling large cities to absorb surplus labor. But with it came plastic waste, ozone-depleting refrigerant gases, pesticides and the loss of crop biodiversity.

Myth 2: Population growth can’t be lessened directly without human rights abuses. Through the 1960s to 1980s, there was global concern about the threats that population pressure posed to poverty reduction and food security. Many countries implemented voluntary family planning programs in an effort to lower birth rates. Shaped by local cultures, these programs provided access to contraception, promoted spacing and limiting births, and addressed barriers to women’s autonomy. They were highly successful, especially in East and Southeast Asia, giving women control over their bodies and their lives, improving family health and finances, and enabling greater investment in each child. National economies were boosted, returning many times the investment made. 

Myth 3: Population growth is good for the economy. This narrative is popular with those who benefit from abundant cheap labor and rising land prices, but both trends impoverish the majority. Rapidly-growing countries have failed to reduce the numbers in poverty, with the exception of oil-rich states. All developing countries that reduced fertility sufficiently have seen strong growth in incomes, but only after fertility fell well below three children per woman. “Development is the best contraception” was once the mantra, but history now shows that contraception was the best stimulus to development.

Joseph Chamie, former head of the United Nations Population Division, refers to population growth advocacy as a Ponzi scheme. Chamie says, "'Economic growth requires population growth' is the basic message that Ponzi demography want the public to swallow. No mention is made of the additional profits they reap and the extra costs the public bears."

Myth 4: Population aging is a big problem that demands more population growth. Chamie explains, "Like all Ponzi schemes, Ponzi demography is unsustainable. Among its primary tactics, it exploits the fear of population decline and ageing. Without a young and growing population we are warned of becoming a nation facing financial ruin and a loss of national power."

Yet in the real world, population aging has not caused the economic downturns anticipated, and some countries with declining populations are increasing household incomes strongly. Aging has not caused less employment, but less unemployment. Elderly citizens increase only up to a point, and contribute to society in many ways. Their needs can be properly managed with better health systems and pension programs, offset by reduced spending on infrastructure as the population stabilizes.

Myth 5: We can grow forever. When we consider the headwinds of environmental deterioration, there are many advantages to population decline and aging. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would not be undone by rising energy needs. Increasing agricultural productivity can mean more land available for wildlife and carbon storage. Water resources would become more resilient to drought. Less concrete and steel would be needed, as our focus shifts from quantity to quality of the built environment. Greater contact with nature promotes health and mental wellbeing.

For sustainable development, we should aim for universal wellbeing, not endless growth. Minimizing further growth in human populations is only part of the solution, but an essential part. 

This blog relates to the ADB Innovation Speakers Series seminar on 24 September 2019, “Aging and Declining Populations: Good for Us, Good for the Planet”.