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The global population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. What does this mean for us?

The United Nations estimates that the global population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050 and could peak close to 10.4 billion in the mid 2080s. What does this mean for us?

Thomas Malthus was an economist who, in 1798, posited that food production would not be able to keep up with population growth. He argued that population growth, when left unchecked, will increase “geometrically”. As food production wouldn’t be able to keep up, and there’d be a much larger population, this could lead to mass hunger or war.

You can see why he’s credited for one of population’s early doomsday predictions. “The superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice.” He argued that any improvement in living standards would soon be wiped out because of population growth, and there’d be a cyclical shift between subsistence, higher living standards and then back to subsistence.

Many people still support Malthus’ views and use it when arguing for stronger population control measures. He did have a point. If population does get out of control, we’ll be in trouble. But many argue that his hypothesis isn’t relevant to today’s world. Technology is improving at a rapid rate, and it’s up to us to harness it to ensure sufficient food is available and distributed to a growing population.

Tokyo skyline

Also not all countries have populations that are getting larger. Japan is one example. The government has been reviewing various solutions to the population decline and the government set a target for Japan’s current population of 126.5 million not to fall below 100 million. Current forecasts are for Japan’s population to fall somewhere between 79.97 million and 94.6 million by 2060, depending on the fertility variant we go by.

As the population declines, there’s a greater shift towards urbanisation as more people start leaving rural areas. Towns and villages in Japan are being abandoned as a result, creating rural ‘ghost towns’ with schools in Japan are closing at a rate of around 500 per year. [Source: Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, Jared Diamond]

Japan has historically focused on isolation and self-sufficiency as the solution to its problems, however people there are people questioning whether this outlook is still viable.

Children in African village

There’s an inverse correlation between poverty and fertility rates, the average number of children a woman gives birth to, and this an argument often made in favour of helping the world’s poorest countries climb out of poverty. In poor countries, infant mortality rates are higher than in rich countries. There can be many reasons – lack of access to safe water and sanitation, lack of adequate healthcare facilities, not enough trained medical staff, and so on. When there’s a higher infant mortality rate, parents in poor countries may compensate by having more children to overcome the infant mortality risk. What tends to happen, however, is that there’s an overcompensation, which then leads to greater population growth.

And the opposite is true when infant mortality rates decline. When there’s no longer a high risk of a child surviving, there’s no need for the parents to compensate by having many children. One can see in many countries that as infant mortality declines, so too does the fertility rate.

Economic development also drives a shift from an agrarian dominated economy to a more urbanized economy. As more people move from rural to urban areas, having more children to help with farmwork is no longer needed.

Improved economic development also means greater job opportunities for women. This means that if parents have more children, there is lost income because more time has to be spent to look after the children instead of earning money. As a result, women in more developed economies choose to have fewer children and take advantage of the income earning opportunities available to them.

Two-thirds of the projected increase in global population through 2050 will be driven by the momentum of past growth. When one looks at a population figure as large as that which is projected, it can be surprising to see how much the world’s population has changed in the past 2 millennia. There was gradual population growth in the first millennium. That gradual growth continued in the second millennium until the 1700s/1800s, the period of the Industrial Revolution, and the population skyrocketed.

Population momentum played a part in that exponential growth during and following the Industrial Revolution and it also explains why the global population will continue to grow even if we bring down fertility rates. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there are 4 people in the world.

  • They pair up and each couple has 5 kids.
  • The world population has gone from 4 to 14. The fertility rate was 5 since on average, each mother had 5 kids.
  • Now lets say the 10 children grow up, and pair up with each other, but the fertility rate goes down to 4.
  • This means the 5 couples (paired up from the 10 children who have now grown up) have 4 children each.
  • Assuming no deaths and 20 children added to the total population, the population now stands at 34.

So even though there’s been a decrease in the fertility rate, there is still a substantial increase in population from the ‘momentum’ of previously high fertility rates. Now even if the fertility rate goes down to 2 (half the fertility rate of the previous generation), and assuming the 20 children grow up and pair up, the population increase will be 20 new children – exactly the same number of children produced by the previous generation despite having half the fertility rate!

Because of population momentum, the United Nations statesGiven that most population increase until 2050 will be driven by the momentum of past growth, further actions by Governments aimed at reducing fertility would do little to slow the pace of growth between now and midcentury” but “the cumulative impact of such changes could contribute to a more substantial reduction of global population growth in the second half of the century.

Auto rickshaw in Delhi, India

The United Nations estimates India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country in April 2023.

One population-related idea that many scientists have argued about is the earth’s carrying capacity. This is the total population number the Earth can carry. Estimates are wide-ranging. Some put it at 10 billion whereas other say we’ve already exceeded it. The good news is that the global population is expected to stabilize at around 11 billion by the year 2100, and then decrease from there on.

However this is the median projection. If things go to plan and we follow the low variant projection, the population will stabilize at just under 9 billion people in the 2050s. A ‘doomsday’ scenario is the high variant. This sees the world population reach 12 billion people by the 2060s and 15 billion people by the 2090s.

This projection isn’t too far off our current rate of population growth. That means if we keep growing at the rate we are now, we’ll be on track to reach those astronomically high population figures. It’s essential that we stabilize early and then reduce our population.

We are seeing population growth rates declining around the world. The majority are seeing decreases in their fertility rates. But the worry of not keeping population in check is likely driving various initiatives. Buildings and skyscrapers have been getting higher as we run out of space in cities. Apartments are getting smaller too. Property developers have been looking underground and even in the sea to create living spaces. And of course there’s space exploration. While space exploration may be driven in part by an innate desire for humankind to explore, it’s likely also being done out of necessity. If the Earth’s population grows unsustainably large and beyond its carrying capacity, a solution will be to look for space outside of the Earth. Various agencies have been tasked with modelling how we could populate and colonize our nearest planets. Mars, of course, has been the subject of such considerations.

Population growth is dangerous when it gets out of control. However humankind isn’t destined to live a cycle that permanently confines us to subsistence. Through the provision of better medical facilities, contraceptives, family planning and economic growth, population can stabilize and eventually decline.

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