“There ought to be an 18th goal zero population growth”

More conflicts, environmental degradation and starvation.This is the risk if the world’s population continues to increase as the United Nations predicts in this year’s forecast, according to Frank Götmark, professor of ecology at the University of Gothenburg. “The United Nations’ sustainable development goals cannot be met unless we add one more goal: zero population growth,” he says.

Today there are about 7.5 billion people on Earth. According to UN population projections, there will be about 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by the year 2100. The question is whether the Earth’s resources will be sufficient for so many people?

According to Professor Frank Götmark, the answer is no. Population growth must be stopped if we are to save the natural environment and ecosystems and prevent human suffering from conflicts and starvation, he maintains. “Growth and high consumption have attracted attention as threats to the environment,” he says. “Population growth leads to the same problems, yet there is still a great deal of silence surrounding that issue.”

As an example, he mentions the UN global sustainability goals in which the issue of population growth is passed over.
“I’m not critical of the global objectives in themselves. It would be fantastic if they’re met. The problem is that they’re not going to be met as long as we don’t have one more goal: a goal number 18, which should be called zero population growth.”

Frank Götmark recently received major research funding from the Global Challenges Foundation, which promotes minimising the greatest global threats to humanity. Along with Philip Cafaro, professor of environmental ethics in the United States, he will explore the issues of global and national population growth. The project compiles research, studies countries with successful family planning programmes and examines whether aging populations in rich countries are a disadvantage or advantage. Also being studied are scenarios for immigration to rich countries in the West, population growth there and its effects on the environment and climate.
“These forecasts are not carved in stone. Rather, they are a factor that can be influenced. We’ll look at how they can be affected on the basis of ethical arguments.”

Frank Götmark has previously conducted research on issues such as forest conservation and conservation management. His interest in global population growth was sparked two years ago when he read the book Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos, by human ecologist Garrett Hardin.
“It was an eye-opener. I realized that the issue of overpopulation was being severely neglected. All researchers are curious, and when you come across something that is both controversial and important, that is particularly stimulating, of course.”

Why hasn’t the UN adopted reduced population growth as a global goal?
“Yes, that’s a good question. It’s complex. At the UN’s world conferences in 1974, 1984 and 1994, the issue was highly topical, but the conferences came to an end and opinion shifted. There were questions about whether family planning was effective, and the spirit of the times has been characterised by development optimists who are more interested in new technology than our ecosystems. What is required is probably an interest in nature to understand humanity’s ravages of ecosystems on Earth. If you are more urban, you don’t see the effects in the same way.”

Why is the subject controversial?
“It is taboo to accuse someone of consuming a lot and not thinking about the environment. It’s a question of social norms. In the same way, having lots of children is regarded as a right. I want to turn this around and ask what our obligations are. Maybe we should institute United Nations’ universal obligations.”

Conflicts, wars, famine and environmental degradation – how does this correlate with population growth?
“Population growth leads to ever-increasing fierce competition for fresh water, food and resources, which in turn leds to severe conflicts and civil wars, often linked to religion or ethnicity. Look at Rwanda. The civil war there was preceded by intensifying competition for fertile land.”

Frank Götmark also cites Syria as a possible example of how population growth coupled with the climate may have contributed to the war. In Syria the population increased from nine million in 1980 to nearly 22 million in 2011. Between 2006 and 2011, severe drought and water shortages prevailed, crop yields fell, food prices soared and millions of people were affected by shortages of food and resources. The rebellion against dictator Bashar al-Assad has been discussed in light of this.

Declining population has long been singled out as a threat to a country’s economy. What’s your view on this?
“That doesn’t seem right. Japan has not experienced the negative economic impact that people feared. On the contrary, declining population confers advantages: lower unemployment and more young people can get jobs. As the proportion of elderly in the population diminishes in the future, we can eventually achieve population stabilisation and better allocation of existing resources.”

How can we deal with population growth in concrete terms?
“Education about the effects and family planning. If that’s not enough, the next step is economic means, such as ‘inverse’ child benefits, with decreasing support the more children you have – in an equitable way based on income.”

Frank describes family planning in Iran as a positive example. It was launched in 1988, just after the Iran-Iraq War. The country had a problem with large population increases; food production was insufficient and the severe environmental degradation was occuring. To remedy this, the authorities decided to reduce population growth. They invested in an information campaign, with 15,000 mobile clinics where couples received free advice and contraceptives. They also focused on increasing access to higher education for women. In about 15 years, the birth rate went down from 6 children per woman to 1.9 children per woman.

But what happens if not enough measures are taken and the global population continues to increase through 2100, as the UN predicts?
“Well, what happens then will be deeply tragic. The global population will increasingly be regulated by the availability of food. In the face of climate change with increased drought, it will be difficult to produce enough food and fresh water.”

The Sustainable Development Goals

Global goalsOn 25 September 2015, UN member countries adopted Agenda 2030, a universal agenda that encompasses the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global goals and Agenda 2030 are the most ambitious agreement for sustainable development that world leaders have ever adopted. The SDGs consist of 17 goals, and in this issue we have chosen to focus on three of them and our research and education connected with them.

Frank Götmark

Frank Götmark

Age: 62.

Place of residence: Pixbo.

Family: Wife, two children.

Occupation: Professor of ecology.

Research fields: Ecology and nature conservation, including human ecology.

Current: Has received a two-year research grant from the Global Challenges Foundation to study issues related to global population growth.