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Give a warm welcome to the 7 billionth human

The 7-billionth human, who will be born in the next few days, may get a warm welcome from its family, but there are plenty around who see its arrival as a disaster.

Pessimistic environmentalists who see no alternative to capitalism and profit-driven growth, argue that more people equals more consumption equals more climate change and eco-destruction. They share 19th century views popularised by the Rev Thomas Malthus.

The truth is more complex. Areas of the world where consumption is highest, for example, are those where the birth rate is medium (the USA and United Kingdom) to low (Germany, Italy, France). If lower consumption were the goal, a forced one-child policy in the United States would do it.

Population growth – where the number of births outstrips the number of deaths – is dependent on each woman replacing herself with a daughter. In China, a chain of events has been put in train by the violent elimination of hundreds of thousands of girls that could, over the longer term, lead to a population collapse. In parts of India it is the same. China is already classified as a low-population growth country, India as “intermediate”.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has set out three future scenarios for growth – low, medium and high. Taking the medium variant as the most likely, they show that by 2100, only the population of high-fertility countries would still be increasing.

The populations of both the low-fertility countries – which include China, Russia, Brazil and the United States – and the intermediate-fertility countries – which include India and the United Kingdom – would be declining at a rate of approximately 0.3% per year. In high-fertility countries, the rate of increase would be 0.5% per year. These are mainly countries in Africa and some parts of Asia.

A small improvement in living standards and social conditions, giving women greater control of their own reproduction, would transform the situation and bring stabilisation quickly. As UNFPA explains: "Small differences in fertility levels sustained over long periods have a major impact on the future population."

The social problems of an ageing population are already being felt across Europe and most acutely in Italy and Germany, where there are simply not enough young people working to generate tax revenue to pay for pensions for the older generation – or even to look after them.

“Young people hold the key to the future, with the potential to transform the global political landscape and to propel economies through their creativity and capacities for innovation,” said UNFPA executive director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin. “We should be investing in the health and education of our youth. This would yield enormous returns in economic growth and development for generations to come.”

Of course, the exact opposite is happening. Capitalism in crisis is creating a disaster for the new generation.

There are 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24. More than 75 million of those aged between 15-24 are unemployed, whilst around 250 million aged under 13 are working, often full-time, when they should be in education. A million young people are out of work in Britain, the highest total ever.

“With planning and the right investments in people now – to empower them to make choices that are not only good for themselves, but also for our global commons – our world of 7 billion can have thriving sustainable cities, productive labour forces that fuel economies, and youth populations that contribute to the well-being of their societies," says the UNFPA.

The desire of young people for just such a transformation is driving the global uprising. They see that they cannot look to the existing system to deliver a future. It can only be achieved by eliminating the crisis-ridden capitalist system, replacing it with a society based on respect for life, consumption for need not profit, and protection of the planet's ecology.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
27 October 2011

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