The ‘grand problematique’ is a phrase sometimes used in futures works to describe that coming collision of population increase, food supply issues, energy shortage, and climate change impact – which, it’s said, could be making our lives hell by 2030. (Colin Mason called it the ‘2030 Spike‘). There has been a wave of related reports and news stories on this recently, so I thought it would be worth running a quick score. I’m planning a series of posts covering off the stories I’ve noticed – starting with population.

The conventional wisdom on global population is that the global population will peak somewhere around 2050 at around 9 billion – and then decline. It’s based on UN projections, and there have been some encouraging signs. Fertility levels in some parts of the less affluent world have fallen far more sharply than anticipated as women gain in status (often as a result of greater education). But the World Watch Institute has recently questioned some of these assumptions. The nine billion figure is the mid case in a range of projections that go from around eight billion to just under to 11 billion, but all of these assume falling fertility levels; quite a large if.

But right now population is still growing rapidly. It’s sobering to realise that the world’s numbers have doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970, less than 40 years ago.

In a recent ‘Vital Signs’ update from the Worldwatch Institute, Robert Engelman argues that sustaining falls in fertility levels will require fairly urgent investment by governments to improve access to good health care. These budgets have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and could be overwhelmed by social or environmental deterioration.

Another WWI article quotes Engelmann thus: “Governments will need to increase their spending significantly in these areas before fertility rates are likely to reach the low levels assumed in the most commonly cited population projections.”

Half of all women from 15 to 49 in developing countries risk unintended pregnancy because they are sexually active but using contraception improperly or not at all. Use needs to increase sharply if we’re to reach the lower fertility levels assumed in the population projections.

And the same is true closer to home, as far as the WWI is concerned. The US has seen an upturn in ferility levels – 2006 reached 2.1 – the highest level seen since 1971. The reasons appear to be similar: the funding climate, together with the politics of the religious right (my interpretation, not theirs) have led to greater proportions of young people lacking easy and affordable access to sexuality education, contraception, and abortion services.

Of course, when dealing with large numbers, and long time frames, relatively small changes now can lead to quite significant shifts in out-turns in 40 years time. Can the earth sustain 12 billion people? We don’t know – but the experiment wouldn’t be pretty.