With the world’s population rising faster than ever before, will our population growth outpace our resource reserves? How can the dangerous effects of overpopulation be managed without diminishing the major improvements in our quality of life that come about thanks to population growth?
The UN projects that over half of the Earth’s population growth in the next three decades will occur in the continent of Africa. This is due to the fact that, from 2010 to 2015, Africa’s population grew at a rate of 2.55 percent annually, with the continent still maintaining the highest pace of population growth among other continents. The UN predicts that, behind Africa, Asia will be the second greatest donor to future international population growth, with an expected addition of approximately one billion people by 2050. In contrast, within every European nation, fertility rates are currently below the population replacement level, which is approximately two children per woman. In most of Europe, fertility rates have remained beneath replacement level for decades. The global population grew fourfold in the past 100 years, so what impact could increased population growth have in the future? Will there be mass-migration? Overcrowding in already densely populated or resource-rich areas? Poor living conditions and sanitation similar to Industrial Revolution era slums?
The global population is currently rising at a steady rate. The number of humans existing on Earth has never been as high as it is now. In 1800, Earth had approximately 1 billion inhabitants, which rose to 2.3 billion in 1940, then 3.7 billion in 1970, and approximately 7.5 billion today. In the last five decades, Earth has experienced an extreme population boom. This phenomenon is known as overpopulation, where the condition in which the amount of humans currently existing on Earth outstrips future resource availability and earth’s carrying capacity. Throughout human history, birth and death rates have always counterbalanced each other, which ensured that Earth had a maintainable population growth level. However, in the 1960s, the global population increased at an unparalleled rate. This brought about a variety of apocalyptic predictions, most prominently, a revival of the Malthusian trap panic.
Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 novel, The Population Bomb, eerily echoes Thomas R. Malthus’s landmark 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. Ehrlich’s novel proposes theories regarding potential outcomes for when agricultural growth does not keep pace with population growth. Ultimately his theories say that the world’s food supply will inevitably become inadequate for feeding the general population, whose numbers would continue to swell until famine, disease epidemics, war, or other calamities took root. These Malthusian predictions about out-of-control population growth have resulted in a variety of detrimental global impacts, particularly the emergence of extreme reproductive control measures, which have taken center stage on an international scale. Today, despite the fact that population scientists mostly agree that Malthus’s forecasts were overblown, the lingering prevalence of these fears have contributed to millions of forced sterilizations in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India, as well as China’s two-child policy. Overall, this has left many wondering whether extreme population growth projections are legitimate or merely groundless panic perpetuated by alarmists.
The Demographic Transition
In reality, rising birth rates and population booms are components of a four-step process called the demographic transition, which the Earth is currently undergoing. Most developed nations have already made this transition, but other countries are currently experiencing this change. In the 1700s, the entire world was undergoing the first stage of the demographic transition. During this time, the continent of Europe was in even poorer condition than the modern-day definition of a developing region, and was afflicted with inferior public health, sustenance, and medical facilities. Birth rates were higher; however, death rates were also higher. For this reason, population growth remained largely stagnant.
Statistically, in the 1700s, women birthed four to six children. However, on average, only two survived to adulthood. When the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the mid-18th century, the Earth experienced the most significant shift in human lifestyles since the Agricultural Revolution. The Industrial Revolution altered every aspect of society, and fostered a greater sense of global interconnectedness. For example, many peasants became factory workers, manufactured products became widely available due to mass production, and countless scientific advancements improved existing methods of transportation, communication, and medicine.
Gradually, this economic development created a middle class and, after the work of union activists, ultimately raised the standard of living and health care for the impoverished labor demographic. Thus began the second transition stage. The increased availability of better foodstuffs, sanitation, and medicine directly contributed to lower death rates, causing a population explosion that doubled Great Britain’s population from 1750 to 1850. In the past, families tended to have more children because not all were expected to survive, but when child mortality rates decreased, the third transition stage was launched. This stage involves reduced conception rates and slowing population growth. Ultimately, a balance was established, with fewer deaths and births, creating a stable population growth rate and signifying the attainment of the fourth and final stage of the demographic transition.
Even as birth rates have decreased dramatically, Earth’s population is still rising at an alarming rate because the humans conceived during the population boom of the 1970s and 1980s are currently having more children; however, the current average number of children per family remains two and a half, while it was five during the late 1970s. As this generation ages and its fertility diminishes, the rate of population growth will likely continue to decrease in every nation. Most of the world’s countries have reached the fourth stage of the demographic transition. In approximately 80 years, developed countries will experience a reduction in fertility from over six children to fewer than three children. Malaysia and South Africa reached this point in 34 years, Bangladesh in 20 years, and Iran in 10 years. If developing countries are afforded more support, they will reach this point much faster.
Overall, most scientists postulate that human population growth will eventually come to an end, and the UN predicts that Earth’s population will not exceed twelve billion. Some of the major causes of population growth are reduced infant mortality rates, increased lifespans, higher fertility rates, advances in science and technology, and improved access to proper medical care. With the UN’s continued assistance, concurrent with overpopulation, the development level of the global community will increase, and the number of people living in poverty will decrease. Nonetheless, an ever-expanding human population is an immense social and economic challenge that necessitates the alignment of different national interests, especially with regards to reproductive rights, resource availability, and environmental concerns.
The United Nations Takes Action
In 1969, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was established in order to lead the UN in implementing population programs fundamentally based on the notion of family planning, or the “human right of individuals and couples to freely determine the size of their families” without governmental interference or legislation. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, the designated objectives of the UNFPA were determined in greater depth. It was decided that the UNFPA would specifically focus on the gender and human rights elements of population issues; consequently, the UN Population Fund was granted the lead role in aiding nations in fulfilling the Conference’s Programme of Action.
The three most significant sections of the UN Population Fund mandate are “Reproductive Health,” “Gender Equality,” and “Population and Development.” The United Nations Population Division (UNPD) works to confront the interconnected global issues posed by population growth, which is primarily fueled by rising fertility rates, increased longevity, and greater international migration. The UN produces the official demographic approximations and predictions for every country and all regions of the world. The UNFPA specifically addresses global population by compiling data and statistics regarding migration, fertility, marriage, regional development, urbanization, world population projections, and national population policies.
In November 2012, the UNFPA declared family planning a global human right; however, approximately 12 percent of 15 to 49-year-old women internationally are not afforded access to family planning. This is considered an egregious modern-day human rights infringement. The UNFPA aids various UN bodies like the Commission on Population and Development, and endorses the implementation of the Programme of Action undertaken by the International Conference on Population and Development (IPCD) in 1994. The UNFPA has been successful in urging international cooperation on the issue of securing family planning as a human right, pushing the UN to hold three conferences concerning the issue of population, along with two special sessions of the General Assembly and a summit in 2019.
The Way Forward
Ultimately, apocalyptic population growth fears are overblown, and as such, draconian population control regulations are unnecessary. We have witnessed progress on an international scale in this area, perhaps most notably with China revoking its infamous, longstanding one-child policy just seven years ago. However, a broader global focus on guaranteeing family planning as a human right remains essential. In the words of economist Julian Simon, “Whatever the rate of population growth is, historically it has been that the food supply increases at least as fast, if not faster.” Since Ehrlich’s initial fear-mongering regarding an overpopulation-induced Armageddon, the planet’s population has more than doubled. However, annually, famine deaths have dropped by millions. Today’s famines are war-induced, not caused by natural resource consumption. As production rose, prices fell and calorie consumption increased, which decreased malnutrition worldwide. In Simon’s words, human ingenuity is the “ultimate resource.” Therefore, the enactment of heavy-handed population-control regulations is not only abhorrent, but is also irrational and unsupported by scientific evidence.