Think again before making more babies – The 21st Century Taboo?

If that joy killer title gives you an impression of a family planning lecture ahead, please do not be fooled, because there is something greater that we all really need to discuss about. Over population. Some of you may recall the movie “Kingsman”, where Samuel L Jackson (which was acting Valentine’s role) elaborated that humanity is akin to a virus, global warming is the Earth’s equivalent of a fever, and the only solution is to exterminate the virus before it kills the host. Well, despite all the handsomeness of Taron Egerton and Colin Firth casted from their British spy roles, a déjà vu sent a chill down my spine. What if this is really necessary? Call me pessimist, but welcome to taste the hard truth of human progress, after reading several publications such as Jared Diamond’s accounts of the past civilization “Collapse”, Danny Dorling’s pragmatic insights via “Population 10 Billion” or Stephen Emmott’s ever gloomy and provocative “Ten Billion”, which all seems to come to a common conclusion. Homo sapiens is falling off the cliff, within this century.

Nearly all future population growth will be in the world’s less developed countries. (Source: United Nations Population Division: World Population Prospects: 2010 Revision)

7 billion today. How did we get here exactly?

It took 64,000 years for this planet to reach its first billion, in 1820. At various points during the long period the population fell, such as during the Black Death, and other assorted plagues and pestilence, and civilization wars. Within the short span of 300 years, we have exploded to 7 billion today, and various predictions extrapolate it to 9 or 10 billion by 2050. Developing countries accounted for 97 percent of this growth because of the dual effects of high birth rates and young population. Conversely, in the developed countries, the annual number of births barely exceeds deaths because of low birth rates and much older populations. Thus, it is no surprise to see deaths exceeding births in the developed countries such as Japan and Germany within this decade.


While virtually all future population growth will be in developing countries, the poorest of these countries will see the greatest percentage increase. As defined by the UN, these extreme poverty hit country have low incomes, high economics vulnerability, and poor human development indicators such as low life expectancy at birth, very low per capita income, and low levels of education. These countries are at 2.4 percent per year and are projected to reach at least 2 billion by 2050.

A world map showing global variations in fertility rate per woman. Note that most developed countries are demarcated in blue (0-2 fertility rate per woman) (Source CIA World Factbook 2013 data)

Imagine Malaysia having 70 million population by 2050?

It’s true, imagine that double of our current 30 million population. Our Prime Minister back in 1982 then, Tun Dr Mahathir, urged Malaysia to have 70 million population by 2050. At that time, the population was only 13 million people. The rational then was to have a larger domestic market first, according to him in an interview in 2014. But when the population doubled to 26 million people during his term, he realized that lead to many social and economic problems, and that instead, he suggested Malaysia should aim for a small but highly educated and skilled population like advanced European countries such as Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and so forth.

Why we need to stop growing?

Rather we should be asking, why do we need to grow endlessly like a cancer cell? Because despite how “green” our technology or how low our carbon footprint per capita is, the total increase of carbon emission from an exponential increment of population is an oxymoron idea. Population needs to be in the equation of “Sustainable Development”, which refers to the fundamental definition by Brundtland Commission as, the kind of development that meets the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included concerns about population size, saying “Globally, economics and population growth continued to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.”

Graph showing majority of developing countries population are booming unlike developed country. Countries such as China, India, Brazil and US are not displayed due to visualization boundaries. Note the interesting of negative growth of several countries displayed.(Data from World Bank)
Graph showing majority of developing countries population are booming unlike developed country. Countries such as China, India, Brazil and US are not displayed due to visualization boundaries. Note the interesting of negative growth of several countries displayed.(Data from World Bank)

As the global economy expands, the biophysical realities of a finite planet are becoming abundantly evident in the form of pending resource depletions and in the growing numbers and severity of environmental crisis. The emerging recognition of this unfortunately is still principally confined to the purview of population biologist, ecologists and atmospheric scientists, not economists. For 2007, humanity’s total ecological footprint was estimated at 1.5 planet Earths, that is yet to include the current rapid population growth together. Dozens of other vital global issues fuel up to be the domino effect of much greater concern than merely Green House Gases emission level. This includes overfishing, depletion of fresh water source, rapid biodiversity extinction, declining genetic diversity due to GMO and monocropping, imbalance in water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and phosphorus cycle due to anthropogenic causes and many more.

Are we the Easter Island of today?

The story of Easter Island is a striking example of the dependence of human societies on their environment and of the consequences of irreversibly damaging that environment. It is a fair comparison of where we are today on this only habitable planet so far. Being one of the most remote inhabited places on earth with 150 square miles of area in the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island was a world on its own then. Historical studies have shown that conditions on the island were once very different than they are now. The island was covered with a lush subtropical forest and the soil was deep and fertile.

The carved human figure by the Rapa Nui people, or also known as Moai. There are a total of 887 statues around the island. (source www.enjoyyourholiday.com)
The carved human figure by the Rapa Nui people, or also known as Moai. There are a total of 887 statues around the island. (source www.enjoyyourholiday.com)

Polynesian people apparently reached about A.D 400 and population soared to 20,000 people. Crop production took little effort due to fertile volcanic soil, hence prompting the society to engage in elaborate rituals and monument construction. Over dozens of ceremonial activity centre platforms with between one to fifteen huge monuments were constructed on the island. However, the challenging problem was to transport the massive statues, each some twenty feet in length and weighting several tens of tons, across the island. The solution was to use tree trunks as rollers with reliance on human power to manoeuvre across the island.

By A.D 1400, the forest appears to have disappeared completely-cut down for firewood and to make house, canoes, and rollers for transporting the enormous statues. Without a protective forest cover, soil washed off steep hillsides, springs and streams dried up, agriculture and stock farming were hampered. Lacking wood to build new canoes, the people could no longer go offshore to fish. At this point, chaos and warfare seem to have racked the land and cannibalism was necessary to address the food shortage as the population decreased by 90 percent. Though the archaeological study is still being argued, we certainly can’t imagine ourselves repeating the past mistake don’t we?


History is Knocking Our Doors

History is present. Some may argue that the context of Easter Island is different. Today, we have succeeded in obtaining resources from various part of the world to sustain increasing population and increasingly complex and technologically advanced societies. However, we are also blessedly cursed by this enormous energetic subsidy that the human economy obtained, called fossil fuels. This subsidy allows us to support our so called ‘modern agriculture’, which uses more energy in fossil fuel inputs, than it products in food calories. But have we been any more successful than the islanders in finding a way of life that does not fatally deplete the resources that are available to them and irreversibly damage their life support system. Unless humanity invents and enforces adequate measures for regulating human reproduction, for controlling the quantity of population, and at least preventing the deterioration of quality of the radical stock, they are doomed to decay.

No Population Growth, No Economic Growth! Really?

The common argument is that economy growth is dependable on your population growth, which has been debunked by several studies. Along with globalization, there is no direct correlation between a country’s population and economy growth anymore. Paul D. (2002), in his “Growth without growth” paper, analysed the long term population and per capita income growth trends in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the US over the period 1990-1998 and found no relationship. Minh (2012) used statistical model and data from a sample of 43 developing economies to analyse the impact of several dimensions of the demographic transition on per capita GDP growth. He found that neither the effect of population growth, decline in fertility or the level of urbanization has correlation with economy growth. However on the contrary, when a country is developed, naturally factors that will promote low birth rates, such as improved educational level, improved social welfare and health infrastructure will come along. So how do we address our economic growth without the adverse impact on our only one planet?

GDP and Our Unrealistic Obsession for Infinite Growth

Our economy has a GDP-oriented focus on maximizing production flows that keeps us in the pre-transition mode, giving rise to low product lifetimes, planned obsolescence, and high resource throughput, with consequent environmental damage. It flaws as it does not include distribution of wealth and exhaustion of natural resources into the equation. Why are we so engrossed into the concept of infinite growth? Have we tricked ourselves by our own economic formula? Even founding economists Stuart-Mill and Kaynes both agreed that the economy must plateau at a certain point and become steady-state. But today, everyone, including the economists are saying growth is the only normal. Take a walk around the downtown and you would be blanketed with everyone, the people, the brands, the media, telling you to spend and ‘upgrade’ your lifestyle and to grow with the trend

As suggested by Herman Daly, one of the founders for the field of ecological economics, steady state economy is defined as an economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates maintenance ‘throughput’, that is, by the lowest .This is one where resources from the environment are taken only at the rate that the environment can support. Renewable are used only at the rate at which they can be renewed. We are not chewing up mountains to make copper, we are only recycling that copper we have already got. Is economic growth possible here? Yes, provided that we celebrate the challenge of finding new ways to add value to the limited resources.


The stabilisation or de-growth of the economy inevitably requires stabilisation or de-growth of the human population. The planet’s carrying capacity of our species is defined by the maximum sustainable impact (I) of our society, impact (I) in turn is given by the well known equation I=PAT; population size (P), times its affluence (or consumption) (A), times the environmental damage (T) caused. The reduction of (A) by sufficiency and frugality as well as that of (T) by acting more environmentally conscious and by technological progress cannot proceed indefinitely, so (I) will inevitably continue to grow, as the world we see now as it is. This is why getting the scale of economy right, technically the point at which the marginal costs of growth equal the marginal benefits, is the highest priority of a steady state economy.

Economic growth takes place primarily in the nations that are already rich. The 6 countries of Indonesia, China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria together contain almost half of the world’s population. (Source: World Bank, as illustrated in Limits to Growth)
Economic growth takes place primarily in the nations that are already rich. The 6 countries of Indonesia, China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria together contain almost half of the world’s population. (Source: World Bank, as illustrated in Limits to Growth)

Fair Distribution and Efficient Allocation

Since continuous growth and sustainable scale are incompatible, growth cannot be relied upon to alleviate poverty. If the pie isn’t getting any bigger, we need to cut and distribute the pieces in a fair way. The quicker the majority of population gets basic education and healthcare infrastructure, the more priority they will put on the agenda of sustainability. On the other hand, excessively rich people tend to consume unsustainable quantities of resources. The idea of efficient allocation of scarce resources has only been in the equation of conventional economic thoughts, however means very little in an unsustainable or unjust economic system.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is fast becoming one of the defining facts of economic development in the 21st century. It will shape investment, technology deployment, and human development around the world. However, to think through the bigger picture, global human carrying capacity and cumulative economic welfare potential must be recognized as equivalent or identical concepts even though they have evolved from different disciplines. If we are aspired to be ethical on the term “sustainability”, then we must limit the load we place on the earth at any one time, subjected to a per capita consumption level sufficient for a good life, not more than that.

There is indeed a lot of deep rethinking of our current economic model in defining the qualification “sufficient for a good life”. We should be talking about sufficiency (for all species), not growth. It’s hard to imagine a bottom up approach in limiting offspring as a solution unless people do it for “moral obligations”. However, several studies have proven that individual offspring options are moulded unintentionally by the socio economic and policy factors affecting them, such as Japan’s media influence and China’s one child policy. So the question to ask, as a developing nation is, have our policy makers tabled this discussion on population planning? Amid of socio politic and religion taboos, there is nothing more timely than now.