Halting Population Growth Would Bring Balance to the Global Environment

Seiji Fuji

Fewer wars over the long term

 The January 9 Morning Edition of The Nikkei ran an article on its third page, titled, “10 Major Risks: American Division is Number 1.” It read:

“The Eurasia Group, an American consultancy led by international political scientist Ian Bremmer, published its Top Risks 2024 on January 8. According to the report, the number-one risk facing the world in 2024 is ‘The United States vs. itself.’ It says that American political division will worsen before the November presidential election, and American democracy will be tested like never before.” “The Eurasia Group shares its predictions at the beginning of each year regarding major factors that could affect politics and economies. The top risk in 2023 was ‘Rogue Russia.’” “The report harshly states that the U.S. (named the biggest risk factor in 2024) is more dysfunctional than other advanced democracies, and that it will weaken further in 2024.”
“Former President Donald Trump is being indicted for multiple crimes. President Joe Biden is seen as problematic because of his age, which is 81. The Eurasia Group says these candidates from the two major political parties are uniquely poor choices for president, and that the American people do not want either man as their leader.” “The number-two risk is ‘Middle East on the brink,’ referring to the continuing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The U.S., Iran, and many other countries are involved in this regional situation, and the Eurasia Group says it is possible that the Gaza fighting is merely in its initial phase, and will expand into further conflict in 2024.” “If the fighting comes closer to Iran, the report points out that crude oil could be disrupted, leading to soaring prices.” “The third risk is ‘Partitioned Ukraine.’ The report predicts that Ukraine will be effectively divided and conquered in 2024. Russia has gained control of the fighting and has superior resources. If Ukraine does not take measures against this, it could be defeated as early as 2025.”

 After World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union were engaged in a long cold war. The cold war of today is between the U.S. and China. As suggested by the term “cold war,” humankind has avoided the outbreak of conflict that would lead to another world war. I think this is because nations no longer benefit from wars, due to more destructive modern weapons that cause major damage to both sides. The Asahi Shimbun website posted an article on September 18, 2022, titled “Steven Pinker’s Insight: Humans Have the Ability to Overcome Violence.” According to the article, Pinker (an American experimental psychologist) believes the world is becoming more peaceful, based on data such as the declining number of war deaths. He says the reason for this is because humans are rational beings. This way of thinking supports my belief that nations will not engage in wars that bring them no advantages. And due to global economic ties between many nations, commerce also offers greater advantages than violence, serving to discourage warfare. Pinker states that violent war is on a trend of decline, despite the conflict in Ukraine. I am sure that asymmetrical, regional conflicts will continue, but it seems there will be fewer wars between nations.

Japan must imagine multiple scenarios for the American election

 Considering this, a particular issue will be division inside major powers. It makes sense to me that American division is this year’s top risk. The American people were most severely divided during the Civil War in 1861. It was the bloodiest conflict in American history; more than 600,000 people were injured or killed, exceeding the roughly 400,000 casualties in World War II. Civil wars cause much greater damage than other conflicts because they are fought between citizens. Americans are divided today because of the upcoming election. Although it may not result in casualties like the Civil War, this election may lead to serious confrontation between the two groups that will likely have lasting effects, no matter which side emerges victorious.
 This situation poses a risk to Japan as well. Based on the possibility of a second Trump presidency, the Eurasia Group describes how American division could affect Japan. They say Shinzo Abe was unable to discourage Trump from placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Japan. The U.S. still has a major trade deficit with Japan ($68 billion USD in 2022), which would likely anger Trump – who dislikes trade deficits – if he gained the presidency again. The report says it is possible that Japan and other countries could be the targets of further tariffs. The Eurasia Group says Japan is working to increase its defense spending to 2% of the GDP by 2027, but it is likely that Trump will find this dissatisfactory and put pressure on Japan to further boost spending. However, it may be possible for Japan to influence Trump. According to the report, because Trump will probably take an extremely hard line against China, he may see the usefulness of Japan and other important allies. If Trump won, it is possible that domestic division could bring about policies and regulations that differ vastly by state. The Eurasia Group foretells that this would pose a risk to Japanese manufacturers that expanded into the U.S. to avoid tariffs during Trump’s presidency. Abe, who built a strong relationship with Trump, is no longer alive. Katsuyuki Kawai, the man who brought them together, has lost his position. I doubt we can expect much from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other government ministers when it comes to dealing with Trump. Japan must keep a careful eye on circumstances in the U.S., imagine the potential scenarios, and consider how to cope with them.

The Limits to Growth did not actually predict collapse

 Although wars are the source of less significant harm, we are facing serious risks caused by global warming and other environmental issues. Abnormal weather is causing huge amounts of damage around the globe. There is an enormous number of problems that must be solved, including improving food production technologies in a changing climate, and developing and promoting energy that produces no greenhouse gases.
 More than 50 years ago, the Club of Rome published a report on the question of global sustainability. This club was founded by Aurelio Peccei, the former vice-chairman of Olivetti, an Italian company. The Limits to Growth caused a worldwide sensation when it was released in 1972. This is described in “The Infamous 1972 Report That Warned of Civilization’s Collapse,” published in Japanese by WIRED online on August 12, 2022.

“The computer model indicated that civilization could collapse within the following century if humans harvested too many finite resources, causing widespread pollution, and if the population continued growing in an unsustainable fashion.” “One would not be surprised if this model was produced just last week, considering climate change, water shortages, and microplastics expanding across the planet. However, it actually comes from The Limits to Growth, published in 1972 by the Club of Rome, an international group of intellectuals founded in 1968.” “The report caused a major sensation, sold millions of copies, and was translated into more than 30 languages. It was a very early computer model using the MIT punch-card system, and the simulation vastly simplified complex systems around the world. Still, it was a grand, important prediction (as the old aphorism says, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’). The model’s scenario indicated two diverging paths for mankind: it could find sustainable, fair ways of living to achieve prosperity, or it would be destroyed by capitalists who continued plundering the earth and civilization.” “The Club of Rome Vice-President,” “Carlos Alvarez Pereira, said, ‘The simulation said that in most (although not all) cases, human civilization would collapse by the mid-21st century considering the growth of variables such as population, production, and pollution.’” “‘The overall simulation was understood as a sign that the world will be destroyed. The Club of Rome did not successfully convey the message that this was not the case; it actually wanted to state that we humans have options, and we possess the ability to choose the best future.’”

 The report was premised on “an astronomical increase of people, accompanied by a mere arithmetical increase of food.” The Club of Rome estimated variables such as population, food, and resources. Many people remember The Limits to Growth as an erroneous prediction; its recommendations have been misinterpreted as described in the article above, and population growth speed has fallen since it was published. However, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of World Population 2023 report says the global population has reached eight billion for the first time in 2023 (specifically, 8.45 billion). The growth rate is slowing down, with historically low birth rates in many countries. The UNFPA predicts the world will reach a peak of 10.8 billion people in 2086, a number that will be maintained for some time after. In other words, the population is not growing as quickly as predicted in The Limits to Growth. The Club of Rome proposed that humankind could select its future path if it makes better choices regarding the variables of population, food production, industrial production, natural resources, and pollution. This is entirely consistent with measures underway to cope with global warming, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We must consider how to achieve a sustainable global environment

 The Club of Rome is still active today, and it published a new report in 2022 that shifts from “the limits of growth” to the concept of “planetary boundaries.” The Asahi Shimbun website covered this in detail on December 28, 2023 in “What are Planetary Boundaries? Nine Items Analyzing Environmental Impacts and Countermeasures.”

“Planetary boundaries indicate the range in which the global environment can maintain stability and return to its original state despite the impacts of environmental changes (particularly those caused by humans).” “This concept is drawing attention as an easy-to-understand method that summarizes, in a single image, scientific analyses of factors that threaten these boundaries.” “There are many different factors and circumstances involved in the worsening global environment, and they can be interpreted in varied ways. Even experts have struggled to comprehend the overall picture of the global environment. However, by focusing on whether we have exceeded these sustainable boundaries, we can view different problems from the same angle and make big-picture decisions.”

 The nine boundaries are climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, freshwater use, land-system change, introduction of novel entities, and atmospheric aerosol loading. Of the nine, only three have yet to be exceeded (ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, and atmospheric aerosol loading). The major factor for this is thought to be the growing human population. The Club of Rome’s “five turnarounds” suggest a scenario in which pressure on the natural environment can be significantly reduced and planetary boundaries improved by returning the population to six billion in 2,100 (the same level as the year 2,000).
The entire world should strive to maintain a sustainable environment while also enjoying fulfilling lifestyles. Statistics clearly show that the most affluent nations have the lowest birth rates. We could halt population growth by resolving global issues like poverty and inequality. Nations and individual citizens should consider what they can do to ensure sustainability in this world with fewer wars.

January 16 (Tuesday), 5:00 p.m.