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1The question of world demographic growth, once a subject of lively debate, no longer seems as much in the spotlight. Of course, the growth rate is no longer above 2% a year as it was in 1965–1970, but according to the medium variant of United Nations projections, the world population will have grown by more than four billion by the end of this century.

2In his best-selling 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul R. Ehrlich blamed population growth for all the planet’s ills. In 1972, Barbara Ward and René Dubos recalled that we have “only one Earth” to meet our needs and so had better take good care of it, while the Meadows Report of the same year emphasized “limits to growth”, economic and demographic alike. The 1987 Brundtland Report stressed “our common future” and helped popularize the concept of sustainable development. In 2014, the stated intention of a book edited by Ian Goldin was to find out whether the planet was “full”. Massimo Livi Bacci, meanwhile, is interested in what he calls our “shrinking” planet.

3He begins by observing that our planet is 1,000 times smaller than it was 10,000 years ago when agriculture first appeared. At that time, every human being could have had at their disposal an average of 13 square kilometres of land – one-fourth the size of Manhattan Island – whereas now we each must settle for the equivalent of a soccer field to feed and house ourselves, move about, etc. Moreover, we are moving 1,000 times faster than Magellan’s expedition of 1519 – that first trip around the world took a little over 1,000 days – and an inhabitant of one of the world’s wealthiest countries consumes 100 times more energy than in the first days of farming. Last, economic development is particularly uneven: per capita income in the world’s richest country is 400 times that in the world’s poorest. Can we give credence to the “end of demography” idea on the sole pretext that world demographic growth is slowing?

4However that may be, the thousand-year-old balance between survival and reproductive instincts has been broken. Biology no longer dictates demographic behaviours. Innovations have given rise to greater choice – in reproduction, for example, where contraception has made it possible to choose the number and spacing of children. So how could that balance have been maintained? In fact, the low fertility now found in some European and East Asian countries works in favour of a second demographic transition, one that is generating not only demographic ageing but also a structural imbalance between birth and death.

5The current demographic pressure on the planet cannot be dissociated from lifestyle. In a chapter on land, water, and air, Livi Bacci specifies some of the environmental issues involved in population growth. Forty-six per cent (46%) of the earth’s available surface is currently used to feed the planet, whereas in 1700, 8% was sufficient. Combined urbanization, economic activities, and transportation infrastructure have now taken up and “anthropized” 54% of the total available land.

6In a chapter on adaptation and self-regulation, Livi Bacci discusses population dynamics in terms of the concept of a demographic system. Could some “invisible hand” guarantee a return to the earlier, now broken balance? In the past, demographic crises were followed by recuperation phases, but in contemporary demographic systems, natural factors have less impact and individuals’ freedom of choice more impact. What does the sustainability principle mean demographically? Neither invariance in world population distribution nor a gradual homogenization of demographic behaviours, as Livi Bacci sees it. There can be no sustainable development, he explains, without accelerated technological investment and transfer – or slower demographic growth.

7Demographic disparities and economic inequalities are population mobility factors. The pair of options Livi Bacci puts forward for meeting the challenge of sustainable development in light of international migration is radical: either poor countries become richer or poor people will continue to travel to rich countries. While states have a right to control migration, they do not have a right to close their borders to asylum seekers. The rise of xenophobia and racism, like the arrival of migrants from cultures extremely different from the host countries’, make migration a highly sensitive question. Given the global migration system, facilitated by easier and cheaper transportation and the global availability of information, migration looms increasingly large in individuals’ socioeconomic strategies, says the author. And though the migration system is global, it varies as new destination countries come to the fore, among them South Africa. The world has a world trade authority; why should we not have a similar authority for international migration, one whose job, among other things, would be to ensure migrant rights? In this connection, it is worth recalling how at the 1927 World Population Conference in Geneva the French parliamentarian Albert Thomas, first head of the International Labour Organization, tried to convince the international community to establish a supranational authority to regulate population and orient migration flows. That the world’s population cannot be truly “mobile” is an unsustainable and unacceptable paradox for the author of Our Shrinking Planet.

8How has human longevity been changing and with what effects on societies? The maximum lifespan (the age at which the oldest person in the world each year dies) is growing. If this indicator continues to progress, the record life span of 122 years set by the Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment could be tied by the end of the century. Is there a limit to rising life expectancy? Can we even imagine what it would be like for people regularly to reach or exceed a life expectancy of 100 years? Thanks to past and continuing medical advances against the diseases of old age, older persons’ survival rate has risen. But the returns may be decreasing. How will lifespans evolve? What advances can we expect from biology? And what about quality of life at extremely old ages? Will the model be one of “compression” (individuals suffering from disabilities, especially at the very end of their lives) or “expansion” (medical advances enabling vulnerable people to survive but in poor health)? And to what degree is a considerable rise in life expectancy sustainable? To answer these questions, we need to take into account a range of different dimensions and keep in mind the real interdependency between variables not usually handled by a single discipline (demographic, biological, economic, political, and other variables). Biologically, we must cope with emerging diseases – SARS and Ebola, for example. Other diseases are related to lifestyle features such as smoking. Access to free, universal health care is an issue, especially given that technological advances in medicine considerably increase healthcare costs. With a life expectancy of 80 years, to say nothing of 100, the share of people over 60 grows extremely high – over 30% and nearly 50%, respectively – how will this affect distribution of economic activities and social roles? If we need maximum flexibility, as the author contends, how is that really possible? How can four or even five generations coexist “sustainably” in societies whose populations are being renewed so slowly?

9At the end of the book, Livi Bacci takes the route of criticizing the role played by “bureaucratic” international institutions such as the United Nations, with its 169 sustainable development targets representing 302 indicators. For him, this kind of organization turns world governance into “science fiction”. Meanwhile, family planning and international migration have been neglected. In the epilogue, he presents seven points that should worry societies and international institutions: low or very low fertility rates in some countries; persistently high rates in others; skewed sex ratios at birth in some Asian countries; the “Malthusian trap” that slows down or prevents development and fuels intercountry inequalities; the environmental consequences of the development required to escape that trap; “anthropization” of the world and disorderly distribution of human settlement across the planet; and ungoverned, unregulated international migration that does not allow for safeguarding migrant rights.

10In this relatively short but densely documented work, Massimo Livi Bacci calls upon us not to underestimate the importance of the “demographic factor” in debating such issues as development and the environment, but he is not for all that a doom-monger. His position – recognizing the complexity of relations without being discouraged from taking action – is harder to defend than it appears. Development must be both sustainable and shared. And as the author convincingly demonstrates, if we are to have such development, we need to take demographic dynamics seriously.

Uploaded on on 16/05/2019
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