Global population growth: The fear of “overpopulation”


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As of: March 9, 2023 11:39 a.m

More than eight billion people now live on earth – and the population continues to grow. This fuels the fear that at some point there will be too many people. But according to experts, the number is not the problem.

“Bill Gates wants to control population through vaccination,” is the title of a YouTube video in which a shortened quote from the Microsoft founder from 2010 is brought forward to support the thesis of alleged population control. Conspiracy circles repeatedly allege that powerful and influential people like Gates are secretly planning to reduce the world’s population in order to prevent so-called overpopulation.

But “overpopulation” is not only discussed in conspiracy stories: the fear of too many people on planet Earth can be found in many circles – and is specifically used by some actors to stir up fears. Right-wing extremists and right-wing populists in Western countries are warning against a supposed population exchange in view of population growth, especially in the global south. In climate protection circles, some activists such as the British naturalist David Attenborough are calling for population growth to be limited, otherwise they fear fatal consequences for the environment. But how will the world population actually develop?

Population is growing rapidly

There are now more than eight billion people living in the world; according to the United Nations, the threshold was exceeded in November 2022. It is the current climax of a development that seems unstoppable given the numbers: it took more than 100 years from the first to the second billion people, and 35 years from the second to the third. In the years from 1960 to 1999, the world population doubled to six billion people, and twelve years later it was already seven billion.

Even with eight billion people, the end of population growth has not yet been reached: experts expect a further increase until the second half of the 21st century. The UN assumes this, that there will be 10.4 billion people living on earth in the 2080s. Other models such as from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict that the ten billion mark will not be completely broken in the current century. The main reason for the slightly different forecasts are different assumptions for the development of the fertility rate – i.e. how many children a woman will give birth on average.

Resource consumption crucial factor

However, this is not a reason for concern, says Catherina Hinz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. Also the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) comes to the conclusionthat feeding so many people is possible. “It’s not just the number of people that matters, but above all the behavior,” says Hinz. Resource consumption and CO2 emissions do not just depend on population size.

According to the non-governmental organization Global Footprint Network, humanity has been using too many natural resources since the 1970s. Especially those Countries in the global north live beyond their means: If all people lived like Europeans, almost three Earths would be necessary to sustainably consume resources. If everyone lived like they do in the USA, there would be almost five Earths.

However, numerous countries – including populous states such as Pakistan and India – remain below the sustainability threshold of one earth. “It is important that all over the world it is possible to decouple improved living conditions from the ecological footprint,” says Hinz.

Frank Swiaczny from the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB) also sees it this way: “Ultimately, it is not population development that exceeds the sustainability limits, but rather unsustainable overconsumption.” Caused by the poorest half of the world’s population according to the UN just twelve percent of global CO2 emissions, the richest one percent around 17 percent.

Since the predicted population growth will take place primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, this is currently not that problematic in terms of resources and CO2 emissions. The sub-Saharan population is expected to grow by 2.6 billion people by 2100 – about 90 percent of total global population growth. “People who are born there contribute relatively little to the earth’s ecological footprint,” says Swiaczny. “The populations that are currently stagnating are those that are currently living significantly above global standards, not just today, but also historically.”

Growth comes to a standstill

Even though the population will probably continue to grow in the coming decades, experts expect a trend reversal in the long term. While the UN’s calculation assumes that the world population will remain relatively constant at 10.4 billion until 2100, researchers from the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital (WIC) in Vienna expect it to begin this century population decline.

“We know that birth rates have declined worldwide and in all countries that previously had very high or high birth rates. And this process is still underway and will probably continue,” says Tomas Sobotka, deputy director of the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID). The birth rate worldwide is currently around 2.3 children per woman – which means it has more than halved in the past 50 years. With a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman, the population remains at a stable level, below which it begins to shrink.

The main factors for falling birth rates are women’s education, Health and declining mortality, economic development, urbanization and access to contraceptives. Because if, for example, child mortality falls, the desire to have children also falls. When it comes to education, the following applies: “The more educated women are, the fewer children they bring into the world, because then they simply have other options, other perspectives,” says Sobotka.

Demographic developments are sluggish

Other factors such as religion also played a role, albeit a minor one, says Hinz from the Berlin Institute. So would have Religious communities and their representatives definitely have an influence on how many children are considered desirable and how contraceptives are thought about. However, Hinz points out that “even in very religious societies, education or economic status play a greater role than religion itself.”

According to Swiaczny from BiB, the fact that population growth will initially continue quite quickly despite the global decline in fertility rates is due to the sluggishness of demographic developments. “Even if high fertility as a prerequisite for growth has not existed for a long time, the population will continue to grow for several decades. Because large generations of young people will first grow up to the age at which they can then start families themselves.”

Biggest Challenge is migration

Experts see migration as the greatest challenge to population growth. “The increase in population will mean constant migration pressure,” says Sobotka from the VID. The medium and highly developed countries would therefore have to develop a clear migration policy. While the population is growing rapidly in the global south, the fertility rate in many western countries has been below 2.1 children per woman for years. In Germany, for example, it is only 1.53. This means that countries like Germany rely on migration if the population is not to decline.

“I think we should view migration much more positively – not only in terms of demographic change, but also in terms of economic strength and thus our prosperity and our future prospects,” says Hinz. “That means we have to adapt to the so-called third countries and also willingly allow immigration.” Hinz sees a risk in the fact that a so-called brain drain could set in, i.e. too many well-educated people emigrating from developing countries and then being missing there.

fear of “overpopulation” has existed for a long time

The fear of an “overpopulated” earth is not new. As early as 1798, the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus used the term “overpopulation” in an essay. At that time, Malthus put forward the thesis that the population was growing faster than food production – poverty and starvation catastrophes would be the consequences. In 1927, the first World Population Conference was held to discuss population growth.

“The fear of ‘overpopulation’ has always increased when there has been a dramatic change in population development,” says Swiaczny from BiB – such as during the industrial revolution or in the 1960s and 1970s.

In order to stop population growth, some countries have even gone so far as to mandate the number of children per family – the most famous example is probably China with the so-called one-child policy. At the UN World Population Conference in Cairo in 1994, it was finally decided that all population policy measures should be based on the principle of voluntariness and preserve human dignity.

For Swiaczny, it is important that population growth models are not used to pursue a political agenda. “The topic gives many people existential concerns – either humanity will die out or overpopulation will plunge the earth into catastrophe.” In principle, population scientists only have to make it clear what is fact and what is myth. “We cannot protect ourselves against the fact that certain aspects of our calculations are taken out of context and misused.”

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