Today the world’s population passes seven billion, more or less. Population is growing by about 200,000 a day and nobody really knows when it passed, or will pass, this milestone. But UN officials declared October 31 as their best guess.
This led to some silliness about declaring one person to be the “seven billionth baby” — proof that people like stories better than statistics. Since India is the country with the most babies being born, and Uttar Pradesh the most populous state in India, with 11 new babies every minute, why not pick a baby there as the lucky number 7 billion? Why not indeed? “A primary health centre in Sunhaida village has predicted the baby will be born to 25-year-old Pinky Pawar, wife of a local shopkeeper.”
Then a couple of NGOs that focus on the skewed sex ratio of boys and girls, the result of sex-selective abortions, decided to pick a girl baby in Uttar Pradesh, in order to draw attention to their issue. They picked the newborn daughter of a poor farmer, Baby Nargis, to symbolize how great baby girls are (what’s not to like?)
But why cede ground to India? International relations is a competitive business after all. The Philippines got a jump by declaring Danica Camacho the 7 billionth even though she was born two minutes before midnight. Her mother said simply, “She looks so lovely.” But a Philippines health official warned, “We should really focus on the question of whether there will be food, clean water, shelter, education and a decent life for every child … If the answer is ‘no,’ it would be better for people to look at easing this population explosion.” Easier said than done.
Recently I have been lecturing about the encouraging decline of armed conflict worldwide in recent decades. At almost every event, someone in the audience asks whether it isn’t true that the world’s growing population and a shortage of natural resources will send war back into an upswing. My answer is mostly no. The partial truth behind this idea is that poverty is a big risk factor for civil war Economist Paul Collier has written clearly about the “conflict trap” in which war keeps poverty in place while poverty makes war more likely. To the extent that growing world population makes it harder for the poorest countries to get economic growth going, those countries will be at greater risk of civil wars. However, we can see from the example of India that rising population and some festering little civil wars do not necessarily hold back a big country from getting its economic legs under it. India’s economy is growing robustly, its birthrate has been falling for years, and its war-proneness is also gradually abating. The same is generally true for the world as a whole.
As for fighting over natural resources, I don’t really buy it. It’s one thing to see small bands of thugs, I mean armed militias, grabbing diamonds or coltan in very remote locations in very poor countries in Africa. But the idea of big wars between countries fought over water or oil or food doesn’t fly. After all, this was the model of Japan in the 1930s — use military conquest to secure access to needed natural resources — and of Germany’s military expansion to gain “living room” for its growing population. How did that work out for them?
Today China has some conflicts with its neighbors over, say, oil in the South China Sea. The moment a war breaks out, nobody will be able to pump oil there. Or take Israel and Lebanon, trying to figure out who owns newly discovered natural gas deposits offshore near their border. Fighting over them will not allow the gas to be developed. Rather, the way to get the goods is through negotiation, agreeing on a line or a division of the spoils, and using international institutions to monitor compliance. In the Caspian Sea, vast oil deposits were discovered just after the Soviet Union broke up and the international boundaries were unclear. But no war resulted. Instead the countries yelled at each other for a few years, then got out the maps, drew some lines, and started pumping oil.
Thinking about the big wars of recent decades, none of them were fought over access to natural resources: The Ethiopia-Eritrea war,the Iran-Iraq War, the India-Pakistan Wars, the Vietnam War, the Korean War. Some people look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a grab for oil, but if so it sure didn’t work out.
Wealth these days comes from trade, not land. Trade is disrupted by war. Countries used to encourage patriotic baby-production to create larger armies. Now technology trumps size in military conflicts. Therefore a growing population does not mean growing levels of violent conflict.
As for baby Danica Camacho in the Philippines and baby Nargis in India, they arrive in a world wired for Internet, not for war. Just Google “Danica Camacho billion” — 200,000 results, impressive for someone not yet a day old. And “baby Nargis billion”? 2.4 million pages. We have a winner! You go baby!