Why is population an important topic?
The human race has an enormous impact on this planet! We control and modify the Earth more than any other species. How do we meet the needs of human beings and also preserve Earth's finite resources, biodiversity, and natural beauty? This is the fundamental question of our time, and the challenge is becoming more critical as we continue to add more people.
Do we know exactly how many people there are in the world today?
No. There are so many people on this planet that counting them up, exactly, is impossible. However, experts believe there are more than 7 billion people in the world today. This is a fairly reliable estimate. World population in 2016 was 2 times greater than it was in 1970, 4 times greater than 1910, and 10 times greater than 1730. After growing very slowly for tens of thousands of years, world population has grown very rapidly in the last few centuries and continues to do so.
How fast is the world's population growing?
In terms of net gain (births minus deaths), we are adding over 200,000 people to this planet every day, or 140 people every minute . That equals over 70 million more people every year, about the same as the combined populations of California, Texas, and Washington. Although we have made encouraging progress in slowing the growth rate, our current population is unsustainable. To create long-term sustainability we must first stabilize and then reduce global population humanely through dramatic and voluntary reduction in birth rates.
Are there any parts of the world where population is not growing?
Yes. Roughly speaking, populations are holding stable in Japan and Western Europe. Populations are decreasing somewhat in Russia and some Eastern European countries. But population is growing either rapidly or very rapidly in every other part of the world right now, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the United States of America, Australia, Ethiopia and China. In other words, population has stabilized where about 1.2 billion people live and is still increasing very rapidly where 4 billion people live -- those who can least afford it. Result: the annual net gain of over 70 million people!
I've heard some say the world population crisis is over and that it's not a problem anymore. Is this true?
No, absolutely not. First of all, we are vastly overpopulated right now with over 7 billion people. Research conducted by the Global Footprint Network suggests that about 2 billion people is the number the planet can sustainably support, if everyone consumes the same amount of resources as the average European (which is about half the amount of the average American). Secondly, U.N. experts predict that, unless we change course, world population will continue increasing until after 2100, with a "most likely" prediction of over 11 billion people by the year 2100.
There's no doubt that the worldwide average number of children per family has come down over the last 50 years -- from more than 5 per woman to around 2.5 -- but: (1) the current average is still well above replacement level, which would be 2.1 children per woman, and (2) the number of women having children is about TWICE what it was in 1960. There is also huge "demographic momentum," since 2/5 of the world's population is age 24 or younger -- either having children now, or poised to have them in the next 10 to 15 years. Any changes we make today may not have a visible effect until a generation has passed!
Finally, people are living longer all over the world and will continue to do so, with a resultant slowdown in death rates. Thus, there's a big imbalance in the birth to death ratio: currently about 2 births for every 1 death worldwide.
So much of the world is still empty space -- can't people just move to less crowded places?
A lot of that space isn't empty: vast tracts of farmland are necessary to feed the people who live in cities and towns, and forests are necessary to produce wood and oxygen and absorb much of our carbon emissions. Much of the land that hasn't been settled by people simply isn't habitable: it's too dry, too cold, or too rocky. Besides, the people who are most overcrowded are struggling to exist on less than a dollar a day and they don't have the resources to move.
The United States and other countries with low birth rates let in millions of immigrants each year. Doesn't this act as a "safety valve" to relieve the population pressure of the faster-growing countries?
Not really. Think of it this way. Each year the U.S. currently allows about a million people to immigrate legally (And about another 500,000 to come in illegally.) But each year most countries of the developing world add almost 70 million more people to their numbers, net gain! The one to two million coming to the U.S. hardly make a dent to relieve the crushing problems created by the almost 70 million more people added to these resource-stressed countries -- each year!
If we continue accepting as many immigrants for the next 50 years as we have for the past 25, we will absorb only about 4 percent of the population growth from the less-developed countries! Although migration can greatly improve the lives of the immigrants themselves, it is not an effective way to relieve the population pressures in the countries they come from.
I've heard that as population growth slows, countries like the U.S. are going to have to support increasing numbers of dependent elderly people. Don't we need to have more kids and increase immigration so that we'll have enough workers to support all these retired people?
No. First of all, people are dependent in their retirement years for about the same amount of time as they're dependent in their childhood. Secondly, on a planet with finite resources, population growth has to stop sooner or later, so bringing in more people is not a long-term solution. The sooner we stop the increase in human numbers, the better our chances of leaving ample resources for future generations.
What do you mean by "humanely" solving overpopulation?
No one wants to see death rates rise through famine, disease, and war. We can only humanely solve overpopulation through a dramatic reduction in births.
Repeated studies in countries all around the world show that the longer children stay in school, the fewer children they will have. Smaller families can provide more resources for each child, and entire nations benefit when they have fewer children to drain their limited, declining resources. So education is the key to humane population reduction.
Another highly successful educational approach involves the use of specially-created soap operas, both on TV and radio, that communicate -- even to illiterate people -- the benefits of having fewer children. These special soaps are currently running on every continent (except Antarctica) and are having an incredible impact to help reduce people's expectations about their "desired family size."
Our mission at World Population Balance is education because education is the key!
Many of the statistics on this page come from the Executive Summary of World Population Prospects, 2004 Revision and more recent editions.
I've heard people some people say that technology will solve any resource shortages we might face. Is this true?
Humans are an incredibly inventive, creative species. But it is important to realize, technology does not create resources. Technology cannot create fertile topsoil or produce abundant fresh water. Technology allows us to use resources - including the "master" resource of energy. Over 80% of the globe's total energy is supplied by non-renewable and depleting fossil fuels, and this proportion has changed little over the past several decades. Industrial and information age technologies alike require enormous quantities of non-renewable fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. As these resources become scarcer, they also become more expensive.
Technology can make our use of resources more efficient. In the short-run this can make resources cheaper but, in the long-run, with steadily increasing population and consumption the demand for resources increases and so does the cost. Then we have to find some new technology to increase efficiency and lower cost - and the process continues - all the while more and more resources are consumed.
Also, our technological advances in recent decades have not been as amazing as many of us assume. Some areas of modern life, such as our communications technologies with computers and smartphones, have indeed grown enormously in the past two decades. But technologies used in essential areas such as agriculture and energy have seen no major breakthroughs. Other areas, like transportation, have remained nearly the same for decades. And some areas, like the built infrastructure in the developed countries - are moving backward as roads, bridges, rails, and ports crumble and decay for lack of maintenance.
Technology can help us devise smarter ways to conserve resources. But we cannot rely on technology to "save" us from the overshoot we are in and the collapse we face if we continue overpopulating and overconsuming the planet.
I've heard people say that the planet could support far more people. Is this true?
There's a lot more to it than just discussing how many people we could cram onto the planet. Yes, we could physically have more people on the planet, but right now our human population is gobbling up resources faster then the Earth can create them. We live on a finite planet, and we simply have too many people already, consuming too much for the Earth to sustainably support long-term.
And what about the quality of human life? What is the role of our species? Should we keep trying to grow and artificially modify this planet more and more? Should we keep using up many precious resources faster than they can be replenished, leaving little or nothing for our great-grandchildren and driving thousands of species to extinction in the process? Should we keep trying to test the limitations of natural resources, hoping that technology can buy us a little more time? From a biological, ethical, and philosophical standpoint, it is far better for us to reduce the human presence on the planet for the sake of all species - including our own. Wouldn't future generations want us to do that?
Are the world's resources really all that finite? For instance, I've heard we've got more than enough food for everyone on this planet.
Food production has increased an impressive amount in the past several decades. Most of that increase was due to what's called the Green Revolution - which involved better seeds, more irrigation, more farm machinery, more fertilizer, and more herbicides and pesticides.
Only the "better seeds" part of the Green Revolution involved pure human ingenuity. The rest of the increased production was due to the intensive use of fossil fuels to power machinery, pump groundwater, and synthesize fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
The fossil fuels of oil and natural gas that have fueled the Green Revolution are depleting non-renewable resources. Similarly, two essential minerals found in fertilizer - phosphorous and potash - are being mined at industrial scale and at unsustainable rates. The increase in the the cost of energy and minerals has helped raise food costs since the year 2000 by nearly 50%.
Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of producing food for 7+ billion of us are staggering: huge amounts of soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and deforestation; water pollution from fertilizer tun-off; and large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Nearly 40% of the Earth's land surface is used for cropland and pastureland, and only marginal land remains. According to the UN, an area of cultivated land the size of Iowa and Wisconsin combined is lost every year to erosion and more population sprawl!
If current population and consumption trends continue, the UN estimates that food production will need to increase by 60% by 2050! Meanwhile, the growth in yield for our staple crops is slowing, and agricultural researchers see no Second Green Revolution in sight.
All this points to steadily increasing food costs in the coming century. And, in the global auction for food, the poorest will suffer most. Reducing birth rates will allow our soils and aquifers to replenish and help build a sustainable agriculture that can provide adequate nutrition for everyone on the planet.
What about water resources? Aren't there lots of ways to become more water-efficient like drip agriculture? Can't we just desalinate ocean water? Or what about moving water from wet to dry places?
On a global scale, we are currently over-pumping groundwater aquifers 3 1/2 times faster then they can be recharged. The UN predicts that by 2030 almost half the world's population will live under conditions of high water stress. Climate change is altering rainfall patterns and large areas of the planet that have typically received sufficient rainfall are now going dry.
There is much we can do to conserve water and use it more efficiently. Drip irrigation is very water-efficient, but it also requires an expensive investment in resource-intensive metal pipes. Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive. Moving water is also hugely expensive. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, and it requires canals and pumps to move it long distance.
And water's not just needed for us humans. Freshwater and ocean marine life are under stress as we continue to pollute the planet's waters and warm and acidify the oceans. Sadly, increasing numbers of aquatic species are threatened with extinction.
Give me a quick rundown on the world energy situation. So what if we run out of fossil fuels? Won't we just find other energy sources?
Unfortunately, nothing we've found so far can give us as much cheap, reliable energy as fossil fuels do. Lower greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to avoid ongoing climate change and renewable energy use if growing. But renewable energy - hydropower, solar, wind, biofuels, biomass (mostly wood), and geothermal - supplies only 11% of total world energy use. By themselves, solar and wind comprise barely more than 1% of total global energy. Nuclear energy remains dangerous and expensive and dreams of nuclear fusion remain dreams.
The fossil fuels of oil, coal, and natural gas continue to make up over 80% of total world energy. And billions of people around the world want the cheap energy fossil fuels provide so that they can have the agricultural and industrial machinery, lighting, heating, cooling, transport, and modern industrial products that most people in the developed countries take for granted.
These cheap fossil fuels are finite and, as they continue depleting, they will become more expensive over the long-term. The transition to renewables is necessary, but it will take decades and the cost will be enormous.
Like any animal, we humans have increased our numbers as we've increased our access to energy. Since the fossil fuel era began two hundred years ago we've increased our numbers from 1 billion to 7 billion. As the cheap fossil fuels deplete we will need a smaller global population to achieve an adequate standard of living for all. Dramatically reducing birth rates can greatly ease the necessary but costly transition away from fossil fuels and toward the renewable energy future.
Won't sending humans into space solve the population problem on Earth?
The resources it takes to send just eight or nine people into space right now are enormous! And we continue to add over 200,000 people a day to the world's population, net gain! It is highly doubtful that any time soon we will "solve" the world's overpopulation problem by sending over a million people into space every week!
At present, Earth is our "spaceship" -- and a very beautiful and fertile one at that, but it is one that is under tremendous ecological strain. Dramatically reducing birth rates all over the world can create a more habitable planet and a brighter future for all species.