On November 15th, a foreboding figure dominated headlines everywhere: 8 billion. In just 11 years, we’ve added another billion people to our planet, according to a UN prediction based on population modelling.
The breaking news was met with a variety of reactions— most being extreme. Alarmism in response to a quickly growing population is not a new phenomenon. The world’s population has more than tripled in the past 70 years, with the population growth rate peaking in the 60s. Even 50 years ago, this was met with worst case scenario forecasting: in 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which began with, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Alarmism has also resulted in extreme government policies like China’s one-child policy and forced mass sterilizations in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, India, and other countries.
But since the 1970s, humanity has not experienced the Armageddon that Ehrlich feared. Instead of running resources dry, we have used resources more efficiently by increasing supply and developing substitutes. Population trends over history reveal that, as standards of living improve and as societies develop, people opt for smaller families, a phenomenon called the “fertility transition.” The population growth rate declines as education (especially for young women) improves, child mortality declines, access to contraceptives improves, GDP increases, and the percentage of the population living in urban areas increases. Women are also having children later in life, which means that they are more likely to bear fewer. The population growth rate, since peaking around the time Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, is now less than 1% per year. The UN projects that the world population will peak at around 10.4 billion in approximately 2086, and then steadily decline. Trends and predictions reveal what booming headlines that embolden “8 billion” and instil alarmism ignore: population growth is not wildly out of control.
However, our tendencies toward alarmism aren’t hindered by data. There is an equal amount of worst-case scenario predictions on the other end of the spectrum, causing freakouts about low birth rates and ageing populations. As growth rates decline and life expectancies increase, older demographics comprise a larger percentage of the population. In Japan, people now buy more diapers for the elderly than babies. A recent column in the Sunday Times made a controversial case for the UK to “tax the childless” to address declining fertility. An ageing population will limit people in the working class or the military and force governments to face stronger demands for social security and healthcare measures. Our alarmism feels inescapable: either there are too many of us and we exhaust the world’s resources, or there’s not enough of us for economies to sustain themselves.
We have a choice. We can either meet “8 billion” with a similar alarmism to Ehrlich and his adversaries, or we can think rationally, reflect on historical patterns of population growth and decline, and look for solutions to adapt to a more populated world.
It would be ignorant to assert that resource overuse and climate change are completely independent of the size of earth’s human population. Of course, more people on the planet means more carbon footprint. But population growth is not the main factor contributing to climate change, and not what policy and mass media should be addressing as our biggest problem. In reality, the biggest drivers of climate change are the inequality and conspicuous consumption instilled by capitalism.
North America and China, the top global emitters, account for almost half of global emissions. The Western way of living, with inherently high energy use and high consumption, contributes significantly more to a changing climate than ways of living in other parts of the globe. Studies have found that an additional four billion people in low-income countries would have no effect on global emissions. Large corporations play a large role as well: studies have revealed that only 20 companies have caused about a third of carbon dioxide emissions.
Having fewer babies cannot and will not solve climate change. Blaming climate change on population growth actually fuels a postcolonial discourse rooted in racist, white supremacist beliefs. Overpopulation arguments typically originate in the global north and criticize high population growth rates in low-income countries, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. On the other hand, worries about low fertility rates largely concern white, middle-class populations in the global north.
So, what can we do? Firstly, we should all work towards changing the discourse around population growth and decline. Instead of trying to control the number of people on the planet through forced sterilization, the “developed” world should focus on redistributing resources, preparing for an ageing population, and investing in health to prevent infertility. Birth rates in the “developing” world will stabilize as education and development increase.
There are more than enough resources to support a larger population, so long as they are managed and distributed fairly. Craig Welsh, for National Geographic, asks an enticing question: “Which will control our future more—the billions of mouths we’ll have to feed, or the billions more brains we could employ to do so?” Humanity has adapted and mitigated in the face of countless problems before. Alarmism is unnecessary.