DALIAN, China – Population was on the mind of many attendees of the World Economic Forum’s 7th Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China this week, even if the word was rarely spoken.
The theme of this year’s meeting was “Meeting the Innovation Imperative.” Implicit to the theme, however, was the fact that the imperative for innovation is driven in large part by a bloated global population that reached seven billion in 2011 and is on its way to nine billion by 2050. The effects of this number of people are already being felt in multiple areas, but perhaps most urgently in the environment.
“You can pick any parameter you would like: ocean acidification, deforestation, air pollution, eutrophication, depletion of the ozone layer, climate change,” said Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a think tank for ecological research and advocacy. “Up until the mid-1950s we as humanity had very little impact on a planetary scale. In 1955, we put it into high gear and really got to scale and you now see exponential pressures. Today we are seeing the signs that, for many parameters, we are pushing the system too far.”
The environment is not the only system being pushed too far. Panel after panel and expert after expert outlined the symptoms of overpopulation without addressing ways to deal with it as a core problem. For example, Panels discussed concerns over health care delivery, challenges educating future generations, bridging the population to jobs ratio, and growing urbanization all of which are driven by over population.
“[Growing urbanization] is true in North Africa, it is true in North America, it is true in Europe and in Asia and Oceana,” said Charles Beer, President of the State Council of Geneva, during a discussion on urban competitiveness. “We know that China is in the process of urbanization. Urbanization is the biggest problem for us and the real problem is the rising population and its rising demand.”
Some see overpopulation not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Ellen Kullman, CEO and Chairman of the Board at DuPont, said that overpopulation was driving DuPont’s long-term business strategy.
“We think [long-term business growth] is based off of population growth and the stressors that it causes in the world,” said Kullman during a panel session about growth. “So, you’re going to need to grow a lot more food on the same amount of land. You are going to need much more diverse types of energy for a growing population. You are going to have to protect people and the environment because we are going to have nine billion people all physically located in the same space. That creates opportunities that science can answer and that is a long-term investment for us.”
Regardless of whether overpopulation is a problem or an opportunity, population itself and how to manage it were not formal topics of discussion anywhere at the Forum.
Randall Krantz, a former WEF employee, highlighted the challenge of discussing the topic.
“There is a Global Agenda Council on Population Growth, but it’s not something that gets talked about at plenaries,” said Krantz. “It is acceptable to talk about population growth, but it is still not acceptable to talk about doing something about it. So it is more of an undercurrent.”
Perhaps the main reason that population is not talked about at the Forum and increasingly in the press is because we missed the chance to stem its flow.
“It is often tempting in the discussion around sustainability,” said Rockström, “to say ‘oh population is the ultimate cause so let’s attack that’ when in fact it is too late because we are already committed to nine billion people. The girls [who will give birth to the next two billion people] are already born. You can’t change culture that fast, meaning there is no way to avoid the coming nine billion.”
In other words, when there is no solution for the underlying problem, all that is left is to address its symptoms.