Overpopulation and Consumption

High birth rates and population growth result in higher levels of consumption of resources (all other things being equal), which can have a negative effect on social, and especially sustainable development.

This is one of the main topics within the Global Development option for A-level sociology.

Population Growth – Key Facts

  • Most world population growth has occurred in the last 100 years. In 1925 there were 2 billion people on the planet, today there are over 7.8 billion.
  • Most of this growth has taken place in the developing world: Between 1960 and 2005 Asia’s population doubled and Africa’s trebled.
  • Growth hot spots are today mainly in Africa. 
  • Meanwhile, Some Western populations are actually in decline. China’s population growth rate also seems to be slowing.

The United Nations data site is a good source for keeping up to date.

The Malthusian view of Population Growth

In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that populations increase at a faster rate than the ability of those populations to produce food to feed themselves. He argued that this would lead to a natural process of famine, malnutrition and conflict over scarce resources that would increase death rates and so bring the population back into line with available resources.

In Malthus’ own words….

‘The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.’

—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter VII, p61[1]

The Malthusian view essentially sees the problem of overpopulation as a purely natural process, and one that sorts itself out through a natural process of rebalancing. Behind Malthus’ theory lies the assumption that there are certain natural limits to population growth – and once these limits have been reached, natural checks occur.

Neo-Malthusianism – Paul Erlich –The Population Bomb, 1968

After World War II, mechanized agriculture and the Green Revolution greatly increased crop yields, expanding the world’s food supply while lowering food prices. In response, the growth rate of the world’s population accelerated rapidly. In response to this, in 1968, Paul Erlich wrote the Population Bomb, drawing on Malthus’ ideas and predicting an imminent Malthusian catastrophe.

Erlich’s ideas, however, only focussed on the developing world, because birth rates and thus population growth had effectively stabilised in the developed world: By the early 21st century, many technologically developed countries had passed through the demographic transition, a complex social development encompassing a drop in total fertility rates in response to lower infant mortality, increased urbanization, and a wider availability of effective birth control.

In the developing world, however, Erlich argued that unless birth rates were brought under control, mankind was in danger of breeding itself into oblivion. High birth rates in the developing world would lead to overpopulation which in turn leads to six major problems: Famine, malnutrition, poverty, war, desertification and deforestation.

How Many People can Planet Earth Support?

This more recent BBC documentary from 2012 narrated by David Attenborough seems to be coming from something of a Malthusian view:

Criticisms of Malthusianism and Neo-Malthusianism

They fail to take account of the ‘demographic transition’

The demographic transition is where countries shift from high birth rates and high death rates to lower birth rates and lower death rates. During the shift there is a period of high birth rates and low death rates when the population increases, but this is temporary, although it might well last for several decades.

European countries went through this about 150 years ago and developing countries are currently going through a similar ‘demographic transition’ but over a shorter timescale.

Paul Eberstadt is a proponent of this view and argues that population growth is not due to people having more and more babies it is because the death rates in developing countries have decreased and especially the infant mortality rates have gone down. In particular, western aid has led to better maternal health care, more babies being born in hospitals and the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, measles and malaria. What this means is that ‘overpopulation’ should not really be regarded as a problem, it is really a sign of things getting better in the developing world.

Looked at in more general terms there is a broad correlation between increasing WEALTH and decreasing birth rates which Malthusianism fails to take account of and population growth in developing countries has actually been about decreasing death rates, rather than increasing birth rates….

Hans Rosling explains the demographic transition in this brief video clip (19 to 28 mins)

Malthusians fail to recognise the role of Politics in causing ‘Overpopulation’.

Overpopulation proponents suggest that there is not enough food for everyone, however, the World Food Programme points out that there is enough food for everyone, but several hundreds of millions of people lack access to that food because of such things as poverty, conflict and poor agricultural infrastructure – In other words it’s not too many people that’s the problem, it’s the economic and political systems that block access to available food.

According to the latest figures from Earthscan, if everyone were to consume at the level of people in America, then it would take five planets to provide the necessary resources and soak up the waste generated. People in the West consume vastly more than their fair share of the earth’s resources. A typical consumerist lifestyle is hugely dependent on vast amounts of energy, especially that from oil, and this cannot be sustained with current technology.

You can explore your own ecological footprint here….

https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ – /

Relating this back to Dependency Theory, part of the problem is that the developed world requires a disproportionate amount of the world’s land and resources because of its higher levels of consumption. This is illustrated in the video below…

Extension Work – Visit Overpopulation is a myth – Watch the short video clips on this web site and note down further criticisms of the Malthusian view of population growth

Hungary’s tax break for breeders

Hungary’s Right Wing government recently announced a new social policy exempting women who have more than four children from income tax for life.

There are also other financial incentives designed to encourage families to have more children – such as loans of up to £27,000 which will be partially or fully written off if the couple go on to have two or three children.

The stated aim of the policy is to reverse the country’s population decline so that Hungary does not have to rely on migrant workers in the future.

The Prime Minister, Victor Orban stated that women having fewer and fewer children was a problem all over Western Europe, and that the solution tended to be to increasingly rely on immigrants in the future, to replace the ‘missing’ native children. Orban believes that Hungarians would rather have Hungarians working in the future rather than immigrants.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is an unusual example of a right wing (New Right) policy explicitly designed to encourage marriage and the more babies being born (it seems within nuclear families).

At the same time it is pro-nationalist and and anti-immigration, hence anti-globalisation.

I guess from a narrow minded ‘Hungary first’ Nationalist perspective if makes sense in a ‘defend our boarders’ sort of way.

Unfortunately in itself it’s going to do nothing to actually stem the flow of migrants to Europe from poorer non-European countries, and neither is it going to do anything to curb global population growth – surely from a globalist/ environmentalist perspective what we need is wealthier countries having fewer babies, and more migrants from areas where the birth rate is still high to fill jobs in developing countries in the future?

This is a great example of an unusual family policy, quite extreme in nature, and also a good example of how short-sited Nationalism is.

Japan’s Declining and Ageing Population

Last year Japan’s population declined by 300, 000, to 126 million, and and its population is predicted to decline to 87 million by 2040.

Japan also has an ‘ageing population’ – it is already one of the world’s oldest nations, which a median age of 46, and its predicted that by 2040 there will be three senior citizens for every child under 15, the opposite of the situation in 1975.

ageing population sociology

ageing population Japan

This is an interesting case study relevant to the ‘ageing population‘ topic within A-level sociology’s families and household’s option (AQA 7192/2).

Why is this happening?

Excluding Monaco, Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country in the world – 83.7, and a very low fertility rate of 1.45. However, these figures are not too dissimilar from some European countries, so what really explains Japan’s declining population is it low immigration rate – only 1.8% of Japanese are foreign, compared to 8.6% in the UK for example!

What will the consequences be:

Nicholas Eberstadt argues that we already seeing some of the consequences:

  • Labour shortages, especially in care work, hospitality, construction and agriculture.
  • 400 school closures a year.
  • The emergence of ‘ghost towns’ as the population decreases
  • Increased burden on elderly welfare – by 2060 36% of its population will be 65 or older.

Eberstadt suggests that Japan’s future has only been imagined in Science Fiction (perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson can offer some help?).

Why is the Fertility Rate so Low?

It’s basically a combination of two factors:

  • Economic problems – 50% of the population are in precarious jobs, and economic insecurity is a key reason for not having children. Also, if couples were in a position to have children childcare is too expensive for both partners to remain in work, so this may scupper the desires of even those in permanent jobs!
  • Traditional gender values remain intact – Japan is the 114th most gender unequal country in the world – traditional and patriarchal values remain in-tact – women don’t want children out of wedlock or with men with no economic prospects – which is about half of all men in Japan!

Why is Migration so Low?

Japan is geographically remote and culturally homogeneous. Japan has long discouraged immigration – they see it as a threat to Japans’s culture and low crime rate – in fact they point to migration across Europe as an example of its negative impacts.

How is the government going to tackle the crisis?

There are a range of measures…

  • Government sponsored ‘speed dating’ services.
  • By providing longer maternity leave and childcare
  • To offset the shrinking labour force through a ‘robot revolution’.

Is there an Upside?

Well, there’s more land per head, and because Japan is the first to transition into what will likely become a global trend, it’s an opportunity for it to become a world leader in technologies that can assist an ageing population.

Sources:

Adapted from The Week 2nd December 2017.

Outline two consequences of the ageing population for British society

Consequence 1 – The ageing population may put a strain on public services

Increasing numbers of pensioners puts a strain on the NHS because pensioners use health services more than younger people

Furthermore, with increasing numbers of pensioners ‘sucking money’ out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – services for the young are being cut to compensate

This is because healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia both of which require intensive social care.

While the ageing population presents problems, there are solutions – such as improving education about how to stay healthy in later life, changing ideas about working so that people are able to work for longer could be part of the solution.

Consequence 2 – The ageing population puts more of a burden on the younger generation

An ageing population means the dependency ratio has increased – there are fewer working aged people around to support pensioners. The next two generations are bearing a disproportionate cost of the current ageing population.

People in their 50s have become a ‘sandwich generation’ – they are now caught between having to provide care for their elderly parents, while still having their 20 something children living at home.

However, things are even worse for today’s teenagers – the retirement aged has now been pushed back to 68 – young people today are going to have to retire much later than their current grandparents.

While the ageing population presents problems, there are solutions – such as improving education about how to stay healthy in later life, changing ideas about working so that people are able to work for longer could be part of the solution.

Demography – Families and Households Topic Overview

Topic 7: Demography

Demography refers to the study of the causes and consequences of changes to the size and structure of a society’s population. There are generally three things which can change the size and structure of a population – birth rates, death rates and migration, and these three things make up the three major sub-topics.

As with marriage and divorce, we break this down into discussing the reasons for the changes and then consider the consequences. A final additional topic here is migration patterns, which we deal with separately.

Subtopics

7.1: Reasons for changes to the Birth Rate

7.2: Reasons for changes to the Death Rate

7.3: The consequences of an Ageing Population

7.4: The reasons for and consequences of changes to patterns of Migration

Key concepts, research studies and case studies you should be able to apply

  • Birth rate

  • Death rate

  • Dependency Ratio

  • Total fertility rate

  • Infant Mortality Rate

  • Child Mortality Rate

  • Life Expectancy

  • Healthy Life Expectancy

  • Demographic Transition

  • Immigration

  • Emigration

  • Net Migration

  • Push Factors

  • Pull Factors

Possible exam style short answer questions

  • Suggest two reasons for the long term decline in birth rate (4)

  • Suggest changes in the role of women that may explain why they have fewer children (4)

  • Suggest three consequences of the decline in the birth rate (6)

  • Suggest three reasons for the long term decrease in the death rate (6)

  • Suggest three problems society may face as a result of an ageing population (6)

  • Suggest three ways in which the elderly might be represented in stereotypical ways (6)

  • Suggest three ways in which society might respond to the challenges of an ageing population (6)

  • Suggest three pull factors which might attract people to immigrate into a particular country (6)

  • Suggest two push factors which might explain patterns of migration (4)

  • Identify two changes in the patterns of child-bearing over the last thirty years (4)

Possible Essay Questions – You should plan these

  • Examine the reasons for, and the effects of, changes in family size over the past 100 years or so (24) (January 2012)

  • Using material from item B and elsewhere assess the view that an ageing Population creates problems for society (24) (June 2014)

Family diversity by ethnicity in the UK

How does family life vary by ethnicity in the UK today?

This brief update explores the extent to which family life and attitudes to family-life vary across some of the different ethnic groups in the UK. It looks at such things as marriage, divorce, birth rates, household types, equality and household structure.

It has been written mainly for the A-level sociology specification, families and households topic.

Data from the latest (2011) census shows that 86% of the UK population are classified as ‘white’, 7.5% as ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian-British’, 3.3% as’ Black’, 2.2% as ‘Mixed’ and 1% as ‘other’.

(NB – This represents a signficant increase in ethnic minorities compared to the 2001 census. In 2011, 14% of the population were non-white, compared to 9% in 2001.)

A brief history of South-Asian Family Life in the UK

Ballard (1982) noted that most South-Asian families had a much broader network of familial-relations than a typical white-British family and one individual household might be only one small part of a complex global network of kin-relations.

Ballard argued that in order to understand South-Asian family life in the UK in the 1980s, you had to look at the ideal model of family life in Asia which is Patriarchal, being based on tight control of women, collectivist (the group is more important than the individual) and obsessed with mainting family honour (primarily through not getting divorced/ committing adultury or having children outside of wedlock) because maintaining honour was crucial to your being able to do business in the wider community.

Ballard also stressed the importance of Honour and its Patriarchal nature….. The complexity of the question of the asymmetry of the sexes is nowhere better illustrated than in the concepts of honour, izzat and shame, sharm. In its narrower sense izzat is a matter of male pride. Honourable men are expected to present an image of fearlessness and independence to the outside world, and at the same time to keep close control over the female members of their families. For a woman to challenge her husband’s or her father’s authority in public shamefully punctures his honour. To sustain male izzat wives, sisters and daughters must be seen to behave with seemly modesty, secluding themselves from the world of men.

One of the key questions A-level sociology students should ask themselves is the extent to which the above research is true today, or the extent to which things have changed!

Household type by Ethnicity, UK Census 2011

According to the UK 2011 Census, we had the following variations by ethnicity:

Some of the most obvious differences of ethnic minority households (compared to white) households include:

  • Asian households are three times less likely to be cohabiting, and have higher rates of marriage
  • Asian households have half the rate of Lone Person households compared to white households.
  • Black and mixed households have twice the rate of lone parent households.
  • Black, Asian and mixed households have incredibly low levels of pensioner couple households compared to White households, and much higher rates of ‘other households’ (could be ‘multigenerational?)

Source here.


British Asians have more conservative views towards marriage and sexuality.

According to a poll in 2018, British Asians are twice as likely to report that ‘sex before marriage’ is unacceptable than ‘all Britons’, they are also more likely to be against same-sex relationships.

Source: BBC News report, 2018

A previous UK National Statistics report showed that the highest proportions of married couples under pension age, with or without children, are in Asian households. Over half of Bangladeshi (54%), Indian (53%) and Pakistani (51%) households contained a married couple, compared with 37% of those headed by a White British person. Demonstrating the importance of marriage for the Brit-Asian communities.


Divorce today is now much more common among Asian couples

Divorce has traditionally been seen as something shameful in Asian culture, with children under pressure to stay in loveless marriages in order to uphold the family’s honour and prevent shame falling on the family.

However, for today’s third and fourth generation Asians, things are much different.. According to this article there is a soaring British Asian divorce rate now that young Asian men and especially women are better educated and increasingly going into professional careers.


Forced Marriages are more common among Asian Families

There is also a dark-side to Asian family life, and that comes in the number of Forced Marriages associated with Asian communities.

In 2018 the British authorities dealt with 1500 cases of Forced Marriage, with there being over 1000 cases a year for most of the last decade.

Nearly half of all cases involve victims being taken to or originating from Pakistan, with Bangladesh being the second most involved country.

Only 7% of Forced Marriages take place entirely in the UK, so there’s an interesting link to (negative) Globalisation and family life here.

Source: ONS Forced Marriage Statistics


Immigrant women have higher fertility rates

The fertility rate for UK born mothers is 1.63, compared to 1.99 for non UK born mothers. This means the birth rate for non-UK born mother is about 25% higher.

The percentage of babies born to women from outside the UK has increased considerably over the last 20 years, but has recently leveled off and could now be declining.

Around 28% of births are to women who were born outside of the UK in 2018.

Source: ONS statistics: Births by Parents Country of Birth

The number of interracial relationships is increasing

The fact that interracial relationships are increasing might make it more difficult to make generalisations between ethnic groups in the future…..

Overall almost one in 10 people living in Britain is married to or living with someone from outside their own ethnic group, the analysis from the Office for National Statistics shows.


But the overall figure conceals wide variations. Only one in 25 white people have settled down with someone from outside their own racial background. By contrast 85 per cent of people from mixed-race families have themselves set up home with someone from another group.


Age is the crucial factor with those in their 20s and 30s more than twice as likely to be living with someone from another background as those over 65, reflecting a less rigid approach to identity over time.

Source: The Guardian, 2015

Other stuff

This is interesting: When will we stop blaming single black mother households.

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