Six billion reasons for hope

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
October 5, 1999

NEXT TUESDAY, WE, THE CITIZENS OF THE WORLD, will be six billion strong, up from five billion a dozen years ago and from four billion in 1974. Thanks in large part to this population boon — and in even larger part to the Third World citizenry’s good sense in moving to the world’s burgeoning cities — people are better fed, better clothed, better housed, in better health and in almost every way better off than at any previous time in history.

Despite this one-time, 50% advance in population in a mere quarter-century, the best is yet to come. Although the end to robust population growth may be drawing nigh — global population will peak below eight billion, if the United Nations’ “low” projection proves accurate — past momentum should still give us two or three more fertile decades. This would be a blessing for the West’s beleaguered farmers, who have seen farm commodity prices collapse as their granaries overflow, and for the world’s shopkeepers, manufacturers and other producers, who will now have almost two billion more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe and house.

More importantly, the world continues to urbanize. Within five years, we will reach a milestone more fateful to the global economy and more profound for human relations than the six billion population mark: For the first time, the majority of the world’s population will be living in cities.

People are drawn to cities for economic opportunities, for social mobility and — despite crime, pollution and the other very real problems that plague urban areas — for a vastly superior quality of life. As wretched as Third World cities can be, especially for the poor, they nevertheless represent progress for those who decide the countryside offers less.

Poverty “tends to be at its worst in rural areas,” explained the World Bank in a 1990 study, something “not always understood because the urban poor are more visible and vocal.” In cities, people have more political rights, cleaner water, better sanitation and immeasurably superior access to health care. In Brazil’s sparsely populated Northeast, for example, the mortality rate is higher, and the infant mortality rate three times higher, than in the densely populated South.

Away from stifling rural customs, women especially benefit from newfound freedoms. In the city they may seek work for themselves, and an education for their daughters, without suffering a stigma. According to the World Fertility Survey, 500 million women without access to family planning said they did not want their last child, that they wanted their children spaced out more, or that they did not want another child. Because women more often practise birth control in cities, city women tend to have smaller families and more control over their lives.

In modern times, no nation has maintained high per-capita increases in income without having urbanized. Cities consume far less resources to get work done, and generate far more wealth in the process. Although we tend to divide the world into developed and underdeveloped, North and South, and First and Third, a more revealing divide is between high- and low-density. In the rich West, more than three-quarters of us live in cities — twice the proportion of the developing world as a whole, and three times the proportion of the poorest countries. In the Western countries, 30% of citizens live in large urban centres of 750,000 or more. In the developing world, that proportion is halved, and in the very poorest countries it is reduced by two-thirds.

As the Third World urbanizes — for example, Asia and Latin America — its lot has improved spectacularly. Where urban growth has been stunted or artificially inflated by wars and other calamities — as is the case for Africa, particularly many countries of black Africa — it is human despair that thrives. Of the 100 largest cities in the world, Africa has but eight, and black Africa but four.

Although most people fear the long-term consequences of population growth, when population growth in fact is a driving force for democracy and prosperity, the true long-term threat comes from declining population. In the UN’s low-population-growth scenario, after world population peaks at 7.75 billion in 2040, populations would soon plummet by 25% with each successive generation as Third World fertility rates drop. Such a loss in world markets would be unprecedented, and would likely lead to serious dislocations and demands for protectionism that could trigger or exacerbate a worldwide depression.

Whether the world’s population peters out at eight billion, or builds up to 10 billion or 12 billion, the health, and the carrying capacity, of the global environment need not suffer. At the population density of highly desirable places such as Manhattan, 12 billion would fit into an area the size of Cameroon. If our global resources are used intelligently in resource-efficient cities, this Earth gives us far more of everything than we’d ever need or want.

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