By any calculation there are too many people in the world, far too many in fact (7.9 billion at the time of writing), probably double what the planet can comfortably support; over the last sixty years the population has increased dramatically (in 1950 it was just 2.5 billion), particularly in China and India, where over a billion have been added in both countries.
There are too many people huddled in polluted, noisy urban centers, many in developing nations often living in poor or degrading housing; too many people living on the fringes of society and there are too many people for the finite resources, the land, water, food, etc. The problem of food insecurity, however, has more to do with poverty, which is the result of social injustice and a dysfunctional socio-economic system, than with the number of mouths to feed or lack of foodstuff.
Overpopulation is often (mistakenly) cited as a cause of the environmental emergency, but the large numbers are not the source or driver of the crisis. Historically caused by industrialized nations, climate change and the ecological disaster is being fueled by the rabid consumption and irresponsible lifestyles (including animal-based diets) of the comfortable and the very rich in western countries. China, which leads the world on renewable investment, is responsible for the highest number of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (although not per capita), and is routinely shamed as a result, but much of the manufacturing, which churns out the poisons, is in response to demand from Europe, the US and elsewhere.
The issue is not simply about overpopulation, but as the UN puts it, “An unprecedented and sustained change in the age structure of the global population [is taking place], driven by increasing levels of life expectancy and decreasing levels of fertility.” The subject is complex and presents a range of economic and health/social care challenges, plus fundamental questions about values and approach overall to life and our understanding of and relationship with death. Living longer is something many people long for, a desire which results partly from fear of death. This is particularly prevalent in The West, in Africa, South America and the Middle East. In fact, the only countries where a more balanced, and perhaps more enlightened view of death is found appear to be India, Nepal and especially Tibet, as well as some tribal groups.
As a result of advances in medicine and lifestyle changes people are living longer, and the percentage of elderly people is growing rapidly. “Globally there were 727 million ….aged 65 years or over [mostly women, as they live longer] in 2020.” This number is expected to double by 2050 to 1.5 billion, or between 16%-22% of the total, with 80% living in poor or middle income countries (India and China e.g.); in Japan 30% of the population is already over 60.
Not only is the population changing, but a shift from rural living (where there is commonly a lack of work opportunities) to cities, which has been underway for some decades is intensifying (over 50% of people globally now live in a city), particularly among young people (under 30). This movement is having a devastating impact on rural communities and on families; villages/small towns are dying and multi-generation households are being eroded. The absence of younger generations means that most elderly people in the US, Europe, Japan, either live alone, or with a similarly aged partner, often with little or no family support. Divorce, cohabitation, declines in fertility (in some countries), increased levels of education and changes in employment/industry are all contributing to the changing demographic, and to the impact on families/households and small communities.
The fracturing of traditional family structures, in which grandparents/ageing parents would look to their children/grandchildren and extended family to care for them is also taking place in developing countries, albeit at a slower pace. Here no welfare system or state pension scheme exists as in most developed nations, and a form of economic security has historically been provided to ageing parents by their children. This lack of government support is one reason for the predominance of large families in African and South-Asian countries, in addition to the fact that due to poor health care and limited access, child mortality is high. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the median age is just 19 (it’s 44 in Europe, 39 in US and China and 48 in Japan), has the highest rates of child mortality in the world: 1 in 9 children dies before age five, which is more than 16 times the average for developed regions. This is one of the (many) consequences of poverty, which is primarily the result of colonialism/neo-colonialism and sustained exploitation by western powers.
Not only are populations ageing (with the exception of Africa) throughout the world, but birthrates are falling, in some cases dramatically, meaning that in many areas communities will increasingly become grey and elderly: in China last year there were 11 births per 1000 people, compared with 22/1000 in 1980; Europe 2020, 10 births/1000 people, in 1980 it was 15 The US is also seeing a declining trend in births: in 2021 the rate was 12 per 1000 people, down from 15 in 1980 and 24 in 1950. Birth rates are also falling across Africa, albeit slowly and from an historically high bar of around 45/1000 in 1980 to 32/1000 in 2021. This is a positive point in an otherwise chaotically crowded landscape, and means that once the global population peaks in 2070 (when it is projected to reach a colossal nine billion), it will gradually begin falling.
The choice is clear
The societal implications of large concentrations of old people are many, the issues for governments varied and pressing. Most important is health and social care, both of which are widely either underfunded (the UK e.g.), prohibitively expensive (US), non-existent or inadequate (rural Sub-Saharan Africa and rural South East Asia).
Such essential public services, and health/social care is and should always be regarded as a public service, and not a ‘mouthwatering profit’ business, and needs to be properly funded; the glowing model of public investment is Scandinavia. In 2017 Denmark, Norway, Sweden, spent on average $5400 per person on healthcare, by comparison the UK, which prides itself on its National Health Service (NHS), spent a mere $3760 per person. The difference is stark; so too, one suspects, are the waiting times for treatment, as well as access to GPs and specialists, if not necessarily the quality of care, when eventually seen.
Scandinavian countries are able to spend at this level, because the population and governments recognize the importance of the collective — of society, and is willing to pay taxes at a rate that enables public services, including health care to be properly funded. In Denmark (2019) e.g., the tax to GDP ratio was 46.3percent, in the US, where health care is unaffordable to millions of Americans, it was 24 per cent (similar to the Caribbean and Latin America), almost half; Sub-Saharan African countries, with low GDP, average 16 per cent.
Creating a public health/social care system and adequately funding it rests upon the nature of the society people want to live in, the type of world we want to create. Do we want to build truly democratic societies based on social justice and freedom, equality and participation; societies in which health/social care is recognized to be of greater importance that military spending; societies where responsibility for others and the natural world are central, or do we continue as we are, living in broadly undemocratic, unjust unhealthy societies in which a few benefit and exert control over the majority?
When spelt out in such stark, almost crude terms, it is obvious, is to not? What government in their right mind would prioritize buying weapons over building hospitals or care homes, and what society would allow such madness to take place?
As the demand for support among elderly populations grows and health/social care systems come under increasing pressure, such choices, which sit beyond the inhibiting limitations of ideologies, will become more and more stark; but when common sense and compassion are guiding actions and infusing decisions, it will be found that there is no choice at all.