Jacques Véron

Senior researcher emeritus at INED, answers questions about his book Faut-il avoir peur de la population mondiale? [Is there reason to fear the world’s population?].

(Interview conducted in December 2021)

Your book is called Faut-il avoir peur de la population mondiale? [Is there reason to fear the world’s population?] Why that title?

From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the world’s population grew by 1 billion; there are now 8 billion people living on earth. Aren’t there reasons to be worried about what can be described as a demographic explosion? Should people give up having children to “save the planet,” for example, as some have affirmed? Lastly, is there any justification for fearing the world’s population, and if so what can be done? Who can take action? In what ways? As a demographer it seemed useful to me to clarify what can reasonably be said on this issue. How are we to understand world population trends and projections? How should we interpret them in relation to development and the environment? Is there consensus on certain impacts of population trends? What constraints are associated with the phenomenon of demographic inertia? What real maneuvering room do countries have? And if the demographic issue were settled, would we have nothing more to fear for the planet? 

Where should we position ourselves on the continuum between radical catastrophism and reassuring discourses? I wanted to specify what is really at issue as I see it—in a way that takes into account the complexities involved. 

What impact is world demographic growth having on the planet, especially the environment?

Biologists and environmentalists have long accused the human population and population growth of being largely if not solely responsible for environmental deterioration. Demographers, meanwhile, have been reluctant to venture into a debate that seemed outside the scope of their discipline. That is no longer the case. Specifically, the issue of environmental or climate migration has taken on great importance in their disciplinary remit. But one of the great difficulties is that we need to reconcile macroscopic and microscopic perspectives on relations between population and the environment. Given the diversity of the world’s ecosystems, what seems to have been proved at a local scale does not lend itself to generalization. What’s more, population distribution across the earth is highly uneven, meaning that issues and problems vary from one place to another. 

Nonetheless, the international community must address the challenge of rising demographic pressure, and the primary means of doing so is to campaign for lifestyles that will be less aggressive toward the environment. Given that the impacts of population, human consumption, and technological progress compound each other, if the world’s population did stabilize, it would be important for consumption to remain stable too rather than “taking over” from population and rising in turn. And while technological progress does provide solutions, it also creates new problems by working to further artificialize the world. Regarding the relationship between population and the climate, more investigations are needed. 

It seems nearly impossible to curb world population growth. Still, what role can the discipline of demography play in debates on the future of the planet?

It does seem misguided to think that world population growth could be curbed in a top-down voluntary way. Population policies designed solely to limit births are largely ineffective. The history of family planning in India is there to prove it: the first programs date from the early 1950s, and India’s population has not been stabilized yet. Without genuine development, we cannot expect a significant fall in fertility in high-fertility countries. As I see it, development should give priority to health and education matters, particular for women. 

So what is the role of demography in all this? If we go back to the essentials, every human being puts some degree of strain on the environment, a degree determined by their level and type of consumption—especially the issue of how easily the goods they use can be recycled. In this respect we are profoundly unequal. Climate injustice is simply a fact. In theory, the soon-to-be 8 billion human beings should be weighted by how much each furthers deterioration of the environment. But this would require utterly impossible breakdowns as many types of environmental damage—deforestation, for example—cannot be “distributed” among individuals. The world’s population is not one and indivisible! 

Nonetheless, demography, through its scientifically informed demographic projections, does offers a general frame. To proceed further, we need specify the connections between population dynamics, the environment, and development. Here, demographic study of extreme environmental events has much to teach us because it brings to light contrasting “responses” to such events in terms of fertility, mortality, and population movements. Rather than a particular phenomenon, we need to conceive of what can be called demographic systems and how they are related to development (but what kind of development?) and the environment (but what, really, does that last term cover when more than half the world’s population live in cities?).