Is the population bomb ticking again? The world has crossed the milestone of seven billion people, and there is renewed debate on the impact of a growing number of humans on the planet's finite resources. Neo-Malthusian arguments, centred mostly on environmental concerns, are pitted against the optimistic view that economic development will safely stabilise birth rates. The population question is complex and there is no panacea for the travails of hundreds of millions of deprived citizens who need food, shelter, safe water, and energy. It is distressing that more than 800 million people live in slums and a similar number, mostly women, are not literate. In the popular imagination, growing populations can only have a negative outcome, depleting scarce resources faster — more so in an era of economic uncertainty. The dilemma therefore is whether to enlarge the pie or reduce the number of hands competing for a share. Empirical evidence supports the humane answer, which is simply to have more development. Crucially, this demands sharing the fruits of economic growth with the less privileged through access to education, health care, and welfare, besides re-distribution of wealth. Particularly significant is the role played by education and empowerment of women.

Developing countries with higher population growth rates are often viewed as the source of an emerging environmental crisis. That perspective is narrow and flawed, given the patterns of resource consumption. As India's Nobel laureate Amartya Sen observed in a 1994 essay titled “Population: Delusion and Reality” (New York Review of Books), “one additional American typically has a larger negative impact on the ozone layer, global warmth, and other elements of the earth's environment than dozens of Indians and Zimbabweans put together.” That was true even before the world had six billion people, and the pattern remains unchanged, although a small minority of profligate emerging economy consumers now have a comparable ecological footprint. What reinforces fears of overpopulation the most is the visibly desperate living condition of large numbers of the poor. It is this that governments must address on top priority. They also need to prepare for a difficult future in which greater life expectancy coupled with falling birth rates would produce an ‘inverted pyramid' — an enlarging geriatric population and shrinking numbers of young men and women. Equally important is preserving the natural environment, which has thus far enabled increasing levels of food production. Only a rising quality of life can lead to voluntary stabilisation of the world's population, which is projected by the United Nations to touch 9.3 billion by 2050.

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