Last week, Brazilian newspapers reported the aging of our population, following a pattern which has been observed worldwide. The old demographic wide-base pyramid, typical of the 1970s, is reconfiguring into a form of amphora (more adults than children, and a larger, more long-lived parcel of elders). Also projects for 2050 a larger percentage of individuals over 60 years old. According to some interviewed experts, a big risk for the social security, an important change in the patterns (and desires) of consumption, and some severe challenges to sustainability. After reading this matter, I decided to give to this “Understanding Brazil” a broader and philosophical content. I invite you to reflect on some questions, for which I believe the answers are critical to the Sustainability (including maintenance and support) of human populations on the Earth. I do not have the answers; this discussion may be more compatible with the articles from the “E Agora?” series (“Now what?” in a free translation).
This text begins by making reference to a real lived case. In October 2009, I was in Washington D.C. attending the annual Liaison Delegates Meeting of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), on behalf of the Brazilian mining company VALE. These meetings provided delegates with the opportunity to catch up on the latest sustainability trends, to discuss related strategic issues, and to decide on the priorities of the WBCSD for the coming years.
Lectures and speeches during this Congress were based on the main assumption that humanity would reach a total of 9 billion inhabitants by 2050. Thus – they said – efforts could be applied to capture this “market opportunity”, and to assure that all basic needs would be provided to everyone, with the proper equity. During my final intervention in this meeting, I suggested that this premise was false: efforts should be applied in an intelligent way to avoid this overgrowth. Otherwise wars, barbarism, extreme climatic events, starvation, thirst and diseases would play their part in controlling human populations, not allowing our species to reach 9 billion on the face of the Earth by 2050.
The different pace between population growth and availability of resources seems to drive us back to the dilemma proposed in the 1972 report “The Limits to Growth” , produced by members of the think-tank “The Club of Rome”. Or, even earlier, to the concerns originally introduced by Thomas Malthus in his “An Essay on the Principle of Population” of 1798. A current reading by Mary M. Kent and Carl Haub (Global Demographic Divide, 2005), under the so called Neo-Malthusian approach, leads us to suppose that our society has concentrated wealth throughout the unbalance of fertility rates: the poorer people give birth to a higher number of children, the wealthier couples have only one child – or even none. In this way, we seem to be sharing poverty among a progressively growing portion of the population: the poorest one. In fact, Kent and Haub affirm that “most population growth is occurring in places that already experience trouble feeding their people”.
Religious and cultural implications of the single idea of birth control turned my intervention at the WBCSD 2009’ Conference into a debate. Notwithstanding to this, if one assumes that such growth reduction must be considered as an adaptation strategy, how could it be implanted without severe offenses against cultural and-or religious traditions (which could result into resistance, instead of the desired adherence)? Educating women appears as the first answer concerning “what to do”. It is widely noticed that societies where women have less or no access to education often show fertility rates above 4 births per woman, whilst the most educated regions present figures below 2 – some of them lower than 1.3 births. The replacement-level fertility to assure worldwide population stability is of 2.1 children per couple of parents. Now, are World Bank’s data actually showing that women’s educational level in a society is inversely proportional to the fertility rate? Are statistics really confirming this axiom? What can be seen from the data is that fertility rates are decreasing spontaneously throughout the world. Among rich and poor. The difference is that, in rich countries and regions, dangerously below replacement; in poor regions, still far above that rate. Meanwhile, the total population is still growing…
In parallel, we see in some cantons of the globe the manifestation of religious and-or cultural-based constraints on women being educated. On October, 2012, Malala Yousafzai has survived the Pakistan Taliban’s headshot. More than 200 school girls were abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram extremists on April, 2014. In both cases, the pretext was that female education was supposedly against religious and cultural rules and traditions. These two stories brought more and more strength to the women’s education cause worldwide. Nevertheless, is it “Educate Women!” an enough strong slogan that is able to reverse this situation? Are there complementary – or even alternative – messages to be conveyed? Is it possible to mediate such fundamental conflicting differences?
Another issue regarding “how to do” must be addressed: one must plan a growth reduction not jeopardizing the minimally adequate proportion between economically active and retired populations, having in mind the health of national social security accounts. An important path seems to be driving the growth reduction to a soft landing, not to a plane crash. Which reduction rate (and at what pace) could assure to mankind the amount of richness that could provide minimum acceptable welfare, goods and resources to an entire population getting old? Despite – as said – a fertility reduction is being observed all around the world in the last decades, even in the underdeveloped and developing countries, how an inertial higher fertility rate at the poorest areas (still above the replacement-level fertility) could increase the unbalance between the population growth, geographic distribution, and the availability and access to the resources? What level of interference would be acceptable without hurting the free will and the individual rights?
In my opinion, these are the most important and challenging issues that will define whether or not poverty can be intelligently reduced around the world – truly integrating the concept of sustainability to the social and economic theories. Controversial issues, it is true … But we cannot skip them anymore.