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Does religion affect population growth?

What is the connection between religion and population growth? The answer might surprise you: absolutely nothing. Well, according to Hans Rosling.

In his April 2012 TED-Talk, Rosling graphs the relationship between religion, income and children between zero and fifteen years olds. He shows that there is no connection between religion and babies, and that there is a much closer connection between:

1 – mortality rates and babies born ie the more likely a baby is to die, the more babies a mother will have.

2 – women’s education, employment opportunities and getting married older and the number of babies a mother will have.

It’s well worth watching:


Using a new medium of boxes – 1 per billion people – Rosling demonstrates why it is inevitable that humanity will reach 10 billion and hence all planning for food, water, housing etc, must be taking into account an additional 3 billion people.

This is an interesting point, though he made the same point pretty clear in his last talk. I’m curious about a few cultural and religions trends that don’t seem to be captured in this animated graph.

For example, in my 2010 visit to India it seems to me that the Indian women had so many babies not due to economic or mortality rates, but as due to their culture. More babies = higher status, at least for the women of lower incomes that I met. Culture isn’t religion but the large red dot that represented India showed a huge reduction in babies. That is, my local observation conflicts with this data. That being said UNICEF confirms that the fertility rate in 2010 in India was 2.6 [1], so I suppose it must be. I guess it depends how the US (who is the provider of the data) has collected it… I’ve asked a friend in India for their opinion and will post that when I hear from him.

Another point that has me a little wary is the connection between different religious laws/controls and birthrates. For example, if Catholicism continues a ban on birth control, surely that will have an affect on birth rates? This distinction is obviously absorbed by the joining together of all the denominations of Christianity under one banner.

Forgetting the detail for now let’s consider the big population question that seems to remain: will we stop at 10 billion?

Rosling makes it clear this will happen only if we:

1 – rid the world of absolute poverty in a way that empowers people/nations to stay out of it

2 – address the various forms of violence that are preventing child survival rates

3 – provide access to child planning

4 – continue to die off when we are 65+ at the same rates as the past, i.e. not using medicine to continue to make us live longer, or preserve our brains in robotic bodies…

Will this happen? Well if you look at the world today you’d probably say no and predict the population increasing far beyond 10 billion. However if something happens to change this eg (following the order of above) we:

1 – reverse neo-liberalist policy that make the “3rd world” provide us cheap raw materials and labour

2 – we find non-violent ways to resolve political, tribal and personal conflicts

3 – the pope embraces condoms (kidding, well sort-of kidding… global family planning does require the spread of condoms)

4 – we realize death ain’t that scary and using medicine to make us live forever ain’t a good aim

So to conclude, while Rosling’s talk is all good in theory and proves the minimum population we can stabilize at is 10 billion, I do wonder about how valid the statistics and analysis are in practice… love to hear your thoughts.




Getting real: promising population stats & pending challenges

Hans Rosling gives an illuminating TedTalks presentation on one of my greatest ecological concerns: over-population.


Let each box = 1 billion people.

In 1960 it was relatively accurate to divide the world into the “First World” and “Third World”, the “rich” and the “poor”, the “developed world” and “developing world” or the Centre and Periphery.

In 1960 we were 3 billion people. The blue was the 1 billion at the top of the pyramid, dreaming of buying a car and a dishwasher. The green were the 2 billion at the bottom of the pyramid, saving for a pair of shoes and trying to feed their families.

In 50 years much has changed. 3 billion has turned into 7 billion. 4 more boxes have been added to the table.

Brazil, Russia, India, China, (the BRIC nations), are rising up. While the 1 billion blue affluent people now take planes to remote destinations for holidays, another green box of 1 billion people are buying cars, and 3 green boxes equating to 3 billion people are buying bicycles. We still have the 2 billion at the bottom looking for food, and saving for a pair of Havaianas. So an extra 4 billion in the middle mean a wider “gap” but that is filled in with a massive middle-class majority. Maybe we’d think of them as “Second World” or “semi-periphery” nations, or nations within nations seeing as the spread of income within nations also varies greatly.

So comes our familiar (and what I consider to be quite a horrifying) graph:

Now unless we want the whole world to look like the suburbs of Mumbai (no offense to my Indian friends who live there, but it really is a horribly over-populated loud dirty chaotic city), we can’t grow at this exponential rate forever…

Rosling gives a realistic picture:

Only 2 more boxes, 2 billion more people, bringing us up to a grand total of 9 billion. And I guess ideally, eventually, all those boxes are stacked on top of one another at the far right, enjoying their holidays all around the world.

Ho hum, and how is this, pray tell, going to come about?

Many, including Rosling, predict that the formula for a stabilizing population is to decrease poverty. A little family education for women and contraception availability (along with motivating men to wear it and Catholics to allow it) also helps. Apparently this is what the statistics say, loud and clear, so let’s go with it.

With poverty as it stands in 2010, with 2 billion at the bottom, by 2050 this 2 billion will be 4 – hence the 4 boxes on top of one another.

In order to stabilize population at 9 billion, these 4 billion people NEED to be out of absolute poverty – they need to be able to afford food and shoes, and be dreaming of bicycles and cars. If not by 2070 they’ll turn into 8 billion, bringing us up to 17 billion.

Following this line of thinking I see two questions that are imperative for anyone who doesn’t want to share the planet with another 16,999,999,999 people. These are:

  1. How are we going to ensure those 4 billion are in shoes and getting on bicycles by 2050?
  2. What can be done so that the 5 billion humans driving cars and flying planes don’t pollute the planet & exploit the non-renewables so much that all 9 billion don’t end up back at square one, scavenging off the left-overs from today’s greed?

Hm, tough questions, did I hear someone mention mining the moon and moving to Mars?

Population Vs. luxury… QUALITY OR QUANTITY?

“On the technical side there is no limit to population,” said a scholar after talking about solving world hunger. “We just need more efficient systems, and for the rich to eat less.” This may be true, BUT the greater question (in my opinion) is: Do we want more people living “simply” in a crowded place, or less people living lives of luxury?

“The population of the poor isn’t the problem,” so the idealists (like I used to be) say… “We actually need less white people.”

Given the ecological footprint of the one billion in rich industrialised countries compared to the six billion in non-industrial countries, this statement speaks some truth. But I’m not so sure that decreasing the population of white people will solve our ecological predicament.

I realise the basic solution is suggested to be the connection between income, education and birthrates. The more money people have, the more educated people get, the less children women want… and this will (somehow magically) stop the population at around 10 billion… but will it?

Just because a majority of white people have chosen to have less children as they get richer, largely because we have fallen for consumerist ideals and the economic slave system that supports this, does not mean that people in other cultures are going to respond to wealth in the same way. I’m not an anthropologist but it seems rather presumptuous to think we can understand people of other cultures, and predict how these people will react to education and money.

In the last two hundred years we have allowed one billion people to be become almost seven billion, and almost six of those billion have not been educated or had money. What will they do when they are educated or have money? In China as they get more money, they build more, buy more cars and have more children, not less of them.

“Human rights are meaningless without ecological rights,” said another one of the speakers. This seems to be getting closer to the real issue. Surely there are limits??? EVENTUALLY, when the planet has 5 billion, or 50 billion, there’s going to have to be some sort of population controls implemented – so why not be proactive and do it NOW, before there are even more ridiculous numbers of us?

How? I don’t know… I guess through some kind of recognition of collective responsibility and gaining momentum in a collective desire to make the world the place we want it to be. Should that involve some legalities that compromise individualistic human rights? In my opinion, yes. I think the future of life-on-earth as a whole is more important than us as individual humans having a right to choose the number of children we are going to have.

What do you think?

What’s more important: quality of life, or quantity of lives?