Well, it’s official. The world’s population has hit eight billion (Prospect 2022). Sources project this will increase to between 9.4 billion and 10.7 billion before it plateaus later this century and then begins to decline. What does this mean for Canadians? And what does this mean for humanity? The big questions are: How will we feed 10 billion people? How will 10 billion people impact climate change? And how should we manage migration as parts of the world become uninhabitable due to climate change?
Thomas Malthus first warned us about overpopulation in 1798, before Darwin and long before we had good knowledge of population ecology. Malthus pointed out that while populations grew exponentially, food supplies only increased linearly, such that human populations would overrun food supplies (which they have more or less done throughout history). Eventually, Paul and Anne Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) put a modern twist on Malthus’ work. The theses of both Malthus and the Ehrlichs remain controversial.
Note that there are currently more than 800 million people near starvation globally, and this is unlikely to improve much. Although the world has the capacity to feed more than the 10 billion inhabitants projected to inhabit it in the next century, food waste and inequitable distribution lead to a high level of suffering.
The distribution of humans is not consistent worldwide. Asia has significantly more people per square kilometer than North America. Population age distribution is also significantly different both between countries and over time. And these are the issues we need to remain focused on.
Demographic pyramids are interesting. The age dependency ratio is the ratio between dependents (people under 15 and those over 64) and working aged people (between 15 and 64 years of age). Generally, a large working population compared with the number of dependents creates economic and social stability. Over time the world population has become older. In Canada this ratio has declined from 71% in 1962 to a low of just under 44% in 2008.
One way that countries, including Canada, are managing the decrease in their dependency ratio is through immigration. Recently the federal government announced a goal of half a million immigrants this coming year. With this solution comes a variety of opinions about the cost, benefit, and impact of immigration on economic growth, global warming, and global equity.
Economists, business people, and politicians purport that continual economic growth is both necessary and good. But this viewpoint needs to be examined with a focus on quality of life (both in the countries people are emigrating from and those they are immigrating to) and on future issues. It needs to be explored from the context of total human suffering, distribution of wealth, and sustainability.
There are many arguments against immigration. People argue that immigrants from poorer countries rapidly adopt the lifestyles of the countries they migrate to, including increasing their carbon footprint. It appears that immigration assists less impoverished individuals. Most migration does not happen from the poorest countries to the wealthiest. People living in extreme poverty and less skilled individuals are less likely to migrate, or they immigrate to places that are similar to the places they emigrate from. But is this a good reason to exclude these “less poor” individuals from the increase in standard of living Canada offers?
From an equity standpoint, perhaps one of the biggest arguments against immigration is that migration strips poorer nations of the human capital they require to create economic growth. It is also theorized that the promise of migration encourages people from impoverished countries to acquire an education. Many of these individuals return home after they have acquired knowledge from their temporary home.
While we often have a self-congratulatory reaction to permitting people to relocate to Canada as part of the solution to the global refugee crisis, we must also look at the immigrants coming to Canada. Are they in fact poor refugees? Or are they professionals and people with other economic skills and money? Are we moving poor people from impoverished, overcrowded nations? Or are we stripping those nations of future leaders? Of healthcare professionals? Of teachers and creators?
One of the most compelling arguments for migration is that climate change is making parts of the world uninhabitable. Our human-made political boundaries are forcing people to remain in places that are on fire or under water. Are we content to allow people to burn to death? To starve to death? To drown? What are the alternatives for our newest group of refugees, and perhaps, soon to be our largest group — climate refugees?
We have all heard the doom and gloom of climate change. We know that parts of the world where people currently live will soon be covered by water, or be too hot or too dry for habitation. However, this same climate change promises to create farmable land that is currently under ice. It promises to open up regions of the world for habitation. This map demonstrates that Canada (and Russia) are posed to be net winners in the climate change game. How do we best make use of the gains to help the world?
Throughout history, humans have migrated. Our artificially created borders keep people in places they don’t wish to be (think Afghanistan or Iran, for women). They force people to live in places that are difficult (think of the Middle-East). And they create wars over those boundaries (think of Ukraine/Russia).
There are no easy solutions to population increase. However, it appears that we are nearing peak population and that there may be ways to manage it. Surely we must focus our efforts on defining solutions.