Population is a headache for many governments, our own included. The worry is about numbers, either that there are too many people, not enough or an imbalance of the sexes or generations. Today, as the world marks the birth of its seven billionth person, there is concern that if trends continue, the earth will buckle under the weight of too many to feed and their environmental impact. It is a challenge, but one best left to personal choice, science and policies that improve lives.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon set the tone last month, telling leaders in New York that the seven billionth child, most likely to be born poor, would come into a world of food shortages, global warming and desertification. It is hard to believe that the six billionth child, Adnan Mevic, the son of Bosnian parents, is little more than 12 years old, or that the global population has tripled since 1950.
New UN Population Fund figures estimate that numbers will rise to 9.3 billion in 2050 and 10 billion in 2100, putting enormous pressure on efforts to ease poverty and conserve the environment. Similar debate raged in the 1950s and 1960s, encapsulated in the best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which warned of the mass starvation of humanity in the following two decades - a prediction that was obviously flawed.
What the book did not account for was that with modernisation and development, fertility levels fall. The better off a society is the fewer children it tends to have. The ideal is two for every couple, but in the past 20 years it has dramatically dropped to below this level for much of the developed world, creating fast-ageing populations. In Hong Kong's case, our birth rate is consistently at or near the bottom of global rankings.
Then there is the matter of mainland China, which faces serious demographic problems due to its one-child policy. As planned, its glut of working-age people is driving economic growth. But the advantage is coming to an end and apart from creating a huge gender imbalance, in a few decades there will be too few people to care for too many elderly. The policy has served its purpose and steps should be taken to bring it to an end.
There are parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where it would be beneficial to encourage smaller families, but how many children has to be the choice of parents, not governments, religious leaders or even grandparents.
Education and science will improve awareness of the world's problems and help find solutions. Instead of worrying about numbers, population policy should be based on equity, opportunity and social justice, especially for women and younger people.