The population bomb that never was

‘Population bomb’ narratives mobilised many policies and behaviours that shaped the lives of generations of Indian women.

April 09, 2023 10:30 am | Updated 03:35 pm IST

Representative photo: A gathering of people in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, March 17, 2020.

Representative photo: A gathering of people in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, March 17, 2020. | Photo Credit: Shashank Hudkar/Unsplash

On March 27, 2023, Beniamino Callegari, associate professor at Kristiania University College, Oslo, and a member of the Earth4All modelling team, and Per Espen Stoknes, Earth4All project lead and director of the Centre for Sustainability at the BI Norwegian Business School, published their predictions about the world’s human population in the form of a report, in a report by the Earth4All Initiative.

This comes five decades after reports in which some economists blamed, among other things, the planet’s expanding human population for its many problems. The two researchers have revisited them and revised the original population predictions. The effort is notable for the ways in which women’s reproductive rights and population control have emerged in contemporary political discourse, as well as the useful contradictions it strikes with more recent reports pertaining to development policy.

What does the new report find?

In the new Earth4All Initiative report, the researchers set aside population-modelling approaches adopted by the U.N., the Wittgenstein Centre (“sponsored by the European Union”), The Lancet, and integrated assessment models. Instead, they modeled birth rates “explicitly and causally … as a function of GDP per person,” which shows “a negative correlation between income and fertility rate”. In this context, the per-capita GDP is a “proxy” for female education and socio-economic mobility, among other factors.

Based on such modelling, the researchers advance two scenarios. In the first, called “Too Little, Too Late”, Dr. Callegari and Dr. Stoknes predict that if economic development continues as it has in the last five decades, the world’s population would peak at 8.6 billion in 2050, roughly 25 years from now, and decline to 7 billion by 2100.

In the second scenario, called “The Giant Leap”, the researchers conclude that the population will peak at 8.5 billion by 2040 – a decade sooner than 2050 – but then rapidly decline to around 6 billion by 2100. This, they say, will be due to our investments in poverty alleviation, gender equity, education and health, ameliorating inequality, and food and energy security. To quote from the report:

“The policies supporting the Giant Leap scenario [… represent] a pathway towards fully returning human pressures on the planetary systems to the safe zone in civilisation’s long-term view, hopefully before irreversible planetary declines are triggered. However, a recovery is most plausible only for some of the planetary boundaries, such as nutrient overloading, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, and air pollution. Even in the Giant Leap scenario, although mitigation happens across the board, many of earth’s … life-supporting systems cannot be fully returned to a safe operating space by … even 2100.”

The report clarifies that these population predictions are more optimistic than the kind of historic fear mongering and regressive development policies engendered by the ‘population bomb’ metaphor. It also states that population alone was never the problem for sustainability, nor will it be for the climate crisis.

What do the findings mean?

Essentially, the findings propose that the better and more equitable policies we make today, the lower the earth’s human population will be later this century. However, the researchers have been cautious to warn that a declining population alone won’t address the issues surrounding the climate crisis.

The Earth4All report is entitled ‘People and Planet, 21st Century Sustainable Population Scenarios and Possible Living Standards Within Planetary Boundaries’. Aside from its predictions, it is notable because it revisits the premise of the 1968 book (The Population Bomb by Anne and Paul Ehrlich) and the 1972 report, and later book (The Limits to Growth), in which the authors made population a focus of global development policy.

But Dr. Callegari and Dr. Stoknes have been clear that humankind’s impact on the environment is not driven by population numbers but instead by the luxurious consumption of the richest people. The duo also wrote that the equitable distribution of resources (as currently available) globally can alleviate extreme poverty, even exceeding the United Nations’ minimum levels.

How does it compare to other reports?

As it happens, the Earth4All report also contradicted the U.N. ‘World Populations Prospects 2022’ report, which predicted that the global population would steadily rise to 10.4 billion in 2080 and then stabilise around that number in 2100.

The U.N. report also said that India would surpass China as the most populous country in 2023 (which it will). This, alongside our own National Family Health Survey, which most recently estimated India’s total fertility rate to be 2.1 (lower in urban centres). These scenarios present India with a unique challenge: on the one hand, it will have a very large ‘young population’ (18-35-year-olds) that is also un- or under-employed, but on the other, it is dealing with rapidly declining fertility and a skewed women-to-men demographic ratio.

Population predictions and the kind of politics, scholarship, and policies they engender are wearing thin. Population size, especially in post-colonial nations, has become a locus for international aid agencies as well as for local elite narratives of “small families, happy families” leading to “modern nations”.

These narratives essentially blame the poor for the conditions of their everyday lives and further disenfranchise them from the polity. The local and global focus on population and fertility control through various (sometimes draconian) measures has been a reality for women in India for generations, including the nasbandi ka waqt, various State-level rules preventing people from holding public office if they have ‘too many’ children, and the recent, but now withdrawn, population control Bills.

The ‘population bomb’ narratives mobilised many policies and behaviours that shaped the reproductive lives of generations of Indian women – but that bomb never was. Instead, the spectre of the bomb haunts Indian women’s collective memories of reproductive justice (or lack thereof).

What do the contradictions mean?

The contradictions between the U.N. report and the Earth4All 2023 report are helpful because they allow us to imagine and address the conditions proposed by different studies. They also inform scholarship, activism, and policies that safeguard women’s health and well-being in all possible scenarios.

The differing global projections, in the light of India’s local reality, should finally enable us to draft policies that are future-facing, help tap into our ‘demographic dividend’, and plan for a cultural change wherein women are able to make decisions about their reproductive lives in safe, healthy, and nourishing environments.

In fact, three reports in the last two years – the U.N. report, India’s latest National Family Health Survey, and the Earth4All report  – can be productive and generative grounds for Indian policymakers as we consider some vital questions about our collective futures.

For example: India is currently in its ‘demographic dividend’ phase. After the current cohort of people aged 18-35 years turns 60, how does our country plan for an older population without a ‘support’ base of younger people?

For another: Can India’s foreign policy accommodate borderless movements – both for our citizens into other countries (for work or leisure) given our ‘high’ population and for people from other countries to enter India in reciprocal relationships?

Yet another: What do the new predictions mean for women and their access to reproductive justices, including (but not limited) to their decision-making around having or not having children?

Dr. Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a senior lecturer at the interdisciplinary Centre for Science in Society, Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.

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