That’s an incredible number of human beings, considering our population was approximately 2.5 billion in 1950. Watching our numbers tick up between milestones can be anxiety provoking. Do we have enough food? What does this mean for nature? Are more humans a catastrophe for climate change?
The answers are counterintuitive. Since rich countries use so much more resources and energy, greening and reducing consumption in these countries is more effective and equitable than calling for population control in low-income nations. Fertility rates in most parts of the world have dropped dramatically. As countries get richer, they tend to have fewer children.
We can choose to adequately and fairly feed a population of 10 billion by 2050, even as we reduce or eliminate global greenhouse gas emissions and ongoing biodiversity loss.
Why does the world population keep growing?
We affected 7 billion people just 11 years ago, in October 2011, and 6 billion in October 1999. And we’re still growing: the United Nations predicts 9.7 billion humans by 2050 before potentially reaching 10, 3 billion at the end of the century. But models from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation project the population to peak much earlier, in 2064, and it will fall below 9 billion by the end of the century.
Why is it still growing? Momentum. The number of women entering childbearing age is growing, even as the average number of children per woman is decreasing. Also, we generally live longer.
In 1950, the world’s population was growing at nearly 2% a year. That growth rate is now less than 1% and is expected to continue declining. There is little we can do to change population trends. The researchers found that even if we introduced tough one-child policies around the world, our population trajectories would not change significantly.
In many ways, the story of population growth is evidence of improvement. Better agricultural techniques and better medicines made the population boom possible. And the slowdown in population growth has come from falling poverty rates, as well as better health care and education systems, especially for women.
Greater gender equality and women’s empowerment have also contributed. Put simply, if women are allowed to choose their own path, they still have children, just fewer. That’s why climate solutions group Project Drawdown ranks girls’ education and family planning as one of the best ways to tackle climate change.
Should we worry about overpopulation?
You are now one of the 8,000,000,000 human beings alive today. How should we feel about it?
The modern fear of overpopulation has ancient roots. In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus warned that the population grows exponentially while the food supply does not. Nearly two centuries later, Paul and Anne Erlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb unleashed a new wave of concern. As our numbers skyrocketed, they argued, we would inevitably hit a Malthusian cliff and run out of food. Famine and war will follow. It didn’t happen.
What resulted were inhumane population control policies. The book – filled with racist passages about a crowded Delhi “slum” – directly influenced India’s forced sterilization policies of the 1970s. China’s notorious one-child policy has emerged from similar concerns.
Read more: ‘Overpopulation’ and the environment: three starting points for a sensitive discussion
Low- and middle-income countries are often faced with overpopulation. And the people calling for the action tend to come from high-income, high-consumption countries. David Attenborough is also concerned.
Recent calls by Western conservation researchers to address environmental degradation by slowing population growth repeat the same problem, focusing on parts of the world where populations are still growing strongly: sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and some countries Asians.
People from low-income countries reject these calls. Pakistani academic Adil Najam noted that these countries are “tired of international population policy in the name of the environment”.
Collectively, the richest 1% in the world are responsible for 15% of global carbon emissions. This is more than double the emissions of the poorest 50% of the planet, which is the most vulnerable to climate change.
Prince William, for example, has linked Africa’s population growth to the loss of wildlife, even though he has three children and comes from a household with a carbon footprint nearly 1,600 times larger than the average Nigerian household.
And to save wildlife? Again, a mirror can be useful here. It turns out that demand from rich countries is the main driver of biodiversity loss globally. How? Your beef burger may have been made possible by burning the Amazon for grazing cows, as well as many other global supply chain problems. Even rich countries like Australia are notoriously bad at protecting their wildlife from agriculture and logging.
That’s not to say that population growth in low-income countries isn’t worth discussing. While many countries have seen their population decrease naturally as they get richer, countries like Nigeria are showing signs of strain due to very rapid population growth. Many young Nigerians are moving to the cities in search of opportunities, but infrastructure and job creation have not kept pace.
For Western environmentalists and policymakers, however, it would be best to move away from a guilt mentality and address the factors of inequality between and within nations. These include supporting family planning, removing barriers to girls’ education, better regulating global financial markets, reducing transaction costs for global remittances, and safe migration for people seeking work or refuge in the higher income countries.
As we pass the eight billion mark, let’s reconsider our response. Blaming low-consumption, high-growth countries for environmental issues ignores our role. Worse, it distracts our attention from the real work ahead of us to transform society and reduce our collective impact on the planet.
Read more: Why we should be wary of blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis