By improving health and empowering women, population growth comes down.
Major crises regularly dominate the news – political instability, food and water shortages, global warming, severe poverty, energy resources, religious differences, wars, and global economic instability. Virtually all these problems relate in some way to population growth.
More than 7 billion people currently inhabit the planet, compared to only 3 billion in 1967. Every year about 135 million people are born and 55 million people die, adding about 80 million to our global population. That's about one USA every 4 years, or 1 billion more every 12 years. Almost half of the global population is under the age of 25 and their decisions during their reproductive years will determine whether we have 6 billion or 14 billion people by 2100. (1)
China currently has the largest population, though growth is slowing. India is second and will overtake China as the world’s most populous country within the next decade. USA is third, followed by Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. (2)
Forecasts & Projections
2014 UN forecasts indicate that world population will grow from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050, 100m more than the last report just two years ago. More than half the growth comes from Africa, where the population is set to double to 2.5 billion.
Nigeria's population will reach 413m, overtaking America as the world's third most-populous country. India will surpass China as the world's most populous country in 2022, six years earlier than was previously forecast. China's population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2028; India's four decades later at 1.75 billion.
Changes in fertility make long-term projections hard, but by 2100 the planet’s population will be rising past 11.2 billion. (3)(4)
What matter is population density. Many small countries have much higher density than large countries. (5) This data can be compared with the US states where smaller states like New Jersey and Rhode Island have higher densities than New York, California and Illinois. (6)
Each person uses far more land than the few feet they actually occupy. We use cropland to grow food, grazing land for meat and dairy, oceans for fishing and oxygen generation, forests for lumber and carbon sequestration, and developed land for habitation, transportation and commerce. This is our Global Footprint. For an average European or American lifestyle, it is 10-20 acres per person.
Environmental & Social Problems
Population growth is a root cause of many environmental and social problems, from life threatening to disruptive: (1)
- Population growth is tied to poverty and inequality.
- Over 1 billion people do not have enough food and safe drinking water.
- Energy sources are becoming scarcer and harder to reach or extract.
- People now live in areas that are basically unsafe. Hundred of thousands of people died in 2010-2011 because they lived on floodplains in Pakistan or by the tsunami-prone coast of Japan. These regions were sparsely populated just 30 years ago.
- Global warming is disrupting our ecosystems
Food & Water Shortages
Population growth raises a host of questions about the future of humanity. (7) This year, for the first time in history, over 1 billion people go hungry every day. Every year 100 million more people suffer from chronic hunger and poverty.
Rising energy prices and growing water scarcity will make it harder to feed an expanding population. In many parts of the world at various times of the year, major rivers no longer reach the ocean. In some areas, lakes are going dry and underground water aquifers are being rapidly depleted. And climate change will make the water situation even more critical. Drier areas will be more prone to drought, wetter areas more prone to flooding, and the summer runoff from snowpack and glaciers will diminish.
As food, water, and other resources are strained by the increasing needs of a growing world population, the number of environmental refugees in the world will rise, as will the potential for conflict and war.
Ageing & Decline
The median age of 30 will rise to 36 in 2050 and 42 in 2100 – the median age of Europeans today. A quarter of Europe's people are already aged 60 or more; by 2050 deaths will outnumber births by 32m. The UN warns that only immigration will prevent the region's population from shrinking further.
Population decline is caused by several factors – disease, famine, war, heavy emigration and limited immigration, fertility below replacement rates. (8) (9) This indicates that within about 50 years world population will peak at about eight billion and then start to decline fairly rapidly. In developed countries, continuing advances in technology, such as automation and robotics, will increase productivity to diminish the problem of decreasing population. (10)
Migration & Immigration
Since about 3000 BC, various clearly identifiable groups of people have moved from one area of the world to another. Sometimes large numbers of people arrive suddenly and with hostile intent. At other times identifiable groups are moved in large numbers against their will. The transfer of Africans to America as part of the slave trade is a clear example, with race being the defining factor. Also, large groups of voluntary immigrants – the Irish coming to America, for example – remain identifiable and have a similar influence on history. (11)
The futures should be relatively bright for developed countries that can absorb new immigrants at a modest cost. They will help enable a rebalancing of population that will help the entire planet. In contrast, developed countries with relatively inflexible notions of national identity, and thus with strict immigration policies, may shrink in population and lose influence.
As this blog was being written, the news is filled with immigrants to Europe from war-torn Syria and the Middle East. They are risking themselves as they flee with their families towards a better life. It is likely that most of them will contribute substantially, bringing the best of their own culture and skills to their adopted country.
Population growth raises important ethical issues around the balance between reproductive rights and social and environmental responsibilities. (12)
- Population growth rates can be controlled by only 2 ways: family planning, or more deaths (famine, disease, war).
- This is not just an issue for poor countries.
- Everyone needs to be aware of the ethical implications of having large families.
- Family planning should be a very high priority.
- Humans must stop occupying, degrading and destroying wildlife habitats.
- Governments should have a national goal of environment sustainability.
Throughout history, most wars have had trade and resources at their core fueled by imperialistic motives. The resulting stress is caused by how people choose to live, produce, consume and waste resources. The poor actually consume far less resources of the planet. Different, wiser and longer-term choices must be made.
There is one simple strategy that will help to address all these problems: provide universal access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health services.
There are over 100 million women in the world today who want to space or limit their pregnancies, but who lack knowledge of, or access to, modern methods of contraception. By educating and empowering women, and giving them access to family planning services, lives can be saved, families strengthened, poverty reduced, environment preserved. This helps to achieve a population that can live in harmony with the planet. (13)
Gaia Vince is a journalist specializing in science, the environment and social issues. She travels the world meeting the people, plants and animals that make up our unique living planet. Her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene is a best seller. I was motivated to write this blog after reading her latest newsletter, Wandering Gaia. (14)
As people get richer, better educated, and urban, and as resources become scarcer, women will continue to have fewer children. Such a shift is already happening in parts of the rich world and the social consequences are enormous. Wealthy societies will increasingly have to rely on immigration to support the generational population disparity.
Rather than focusing on population growth as the primary environmental problem, we need to accept our growing numbers and look to what we can acceptably change. It comes down to our use of resources. For example, if product engineers were made to consider the 10-billion global population during the design phase, they could create products that are more durable, longer lasting, and more easily dismantled for efficient recycling of their materials. Energy could be generated from nonpolluting sources. Instead of wasting 40 percent of our food, as we do now, we could farm, store, transport, and eat it more efficiently.
Until the next population-decimating pandemic sweeps the globe, we need to make our large number part of the environmental solution rather than the problem.
Please share our discussion by responding to these questions directly via the blog.
- Is population growth a problem or an opportunity?
- Are there any countries where population is not growing? Is that good, or bad for those countries?
- Do you favor or oppose immigration? Would you favor allowing more immigrants into your country?
- If you are an immigrant, do you feel that you have blended into your new country? Do you still speak the language of the country of your origin?
- Much of the world is still empty space; have you considered moving? Would you consider emigrating?
- As the population ages, would you favor increasing the retirement age?
- How should the increasing number of retired and elderly people be cared for?
- What solutions would you propose to control population growth?
- How do we meet human needs and still preserve Earth's finite resources, biodiversity, and natural beauty?
- Best Population Size? - The Big Picture: http://goo.gl/WU15NN
- Countries in the world (ranked by 2014 population): http://goo.gl/dfHCj1
- A World With 11 Billion People? http://goo.gl/DbdVsz
- Global population forecasts – Chart: http://goo.gl/Cngn2B
- Highest population density – Many different indices: http://goo.gl/jtyYqc
- List of U.S. states by population density: https://goo.gl/Lxgr5j
- Population based on Resource Sufficiency Evaluation: http://goo.gl/eHVln9
- World's Fastest-Shrinking Countries: http://goo.gl/SbVS5h
- The Population Surprise: http://goo.gl/MnzjLw
- Population Decline and the Great Economic Reversal: https://goo.gl/aQwgyh
- A Strategy for Rich Countries: Absorb More Immigrants: http://goo.gl/TTD2If
- Population & ethics: http://goo.gl/KWVAo2
- From Population Crisis to Sustainable Solutions: http://goo.gl/kASPra
- Wandering Gaia – Are we too many? http://goo.gl/XVnPiI
Carlsbad, CA. USA
9 September 2015