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Moment that mattered: The world’s population reaches seven billion

Father of Nargis, a symbolic 7 billionth baby, looks at his daughter at the Community Health Center in Mall, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Lucknow, India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, India, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. According to the U.N. Population Fund, there will be symbolic "seven billionth" baby Earth's land and resources on Oct. 31. Already the second most populous country with 1.2 billion people, India is expected to overtake China around 2030 when its population soars to an estimated 1.6 billion. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

“A population of seven billion really shouldn’t be a problem. The overall age distribution of the world is similar to that of America in the 1960s: there’s a good balance of young, middle-aged and older people, and if you look at the global growth prospects we’ll probably slow down sharply to reach eight or nine billion by 2050 and ten billion by the end of the century, and then stop.

In theory there should be enough food to manage a 30 to 50 per cent increase, but this doesn’t take into account the political division of the world. Once you draw in those borders you find that some wealthy countries are getting old very fast whereas other countries remain very young and relatively poor, and it’s these political imbalances that create the risk of deprivation, conflict and disorder in the future. The problem in underdeveloped countries is that you have a vicious cycle of lower investment in children, poor education and consequent difficulties in boosting productivity. And families depend more on their children, on informal labour, in order to survive. The factor that shifts countries with high fertility and poverty to low fertility and growth is higher quality governance, which gives people faith in the future.

The United Nations report on population growth is very good on distributional issues. It points out that the seven billion number is a call to action. It understands that we have to pay attention to the ageing populations in Europe and what this means in terms of financing the gap between the older and younger generations. The UN also recognises the huge surge of youth in the Middle East and Africa and points to the issues of educating and employing them. While the revolts have been happening in this region, there’s no direct link between youth and disorder. Everything depends on the nature of government. If the economy is open and growing it creates opportunities for jobs and for people to buy what they need. And if government provides the rule of law and stability to promote investment and it limits corruption, it can take advantage of many young people eager to work. The real challenge of large numbers of young people is the risk that they’ll be frustrated by unemployment, political exclusion and corruption. This combination usually leads to disorder.

The environmental consequences of population growth are always related to the multiplier of income. A small number of rich people often have a worse effect on the environment than a large number of poorer people. So the problem we face is not so much an increase in the number of people in the world, it’s about an increase in the number of people who are moving into the middle class and can consume more environmentally damaging goods.

The important thing is for the international community to recognise that good governance is at the heart of economic development. And this breakthrough has occurred in the last few years – the World Bank is very clearly concerned with measuring and promoting quality of governance, and US and UK agencies for international development are recognising that in order to make development assistance worthwhile it has to be accompanied by improvements in quality of governance.

The next step is for leaders of developing countries to take their responsibilities seriously and recognise that their countries can only move forward when quality of governance improves. But this is not an easy sell to governments whose main goal is staying in power.”

Jack A Goldstone is a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked as a consultant to the US government and published ‘The New Population Bomb’ in 2010.

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