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 problematic as we add more people. Meanwhile, in every locality, it's important to know how fast population is growing, so that we can build sufficient sewers, roads, power plants, and schools.
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 2000 was 2 times greater than it was in 1960, 4 times greater than 1900, and 10 times greater than 1700. 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 EVERY MINUTE. That equates to 70 million more people every year, about the same as the combined population of California, Texas, and New York. Although we have made encouraging progress in slowing the growth rate, any rate of growth is unsustainable in the long term, so we must stabilize population soon for the good of future generations.
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. Growth in several southern African countries has slowed due to higher death rates because of AIDS. 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, 7 billion people may well be too many already. Cornell University professor David Pimentel's research shows 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 less than the average American). Secondly, U.N. experts predict that world population will increase for at least the next 50 years, with a "most likely" prediction of 9 billion people by the year 2050. There probably will be additional growth beyond that.
There's no doubt that the worldwide average number of children per woman has come down over the last 50 years -- from more than 5 to less than 3 -- 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 half 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 -- so that 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 5 births for every 2 deaths 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. 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... they don't have the money 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 another 500,000 to a million 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 into the U.S. hardly make a dent to relieve the crushing problems created by the almost 70 million more people into these resource stressed countries -- each year!
If we continue letting in 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 growth of 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 only a fraction of the time they're dependent in their childhood. Right now retirement lasts only half as long as the dependent period before a young person enters the workforce. If trends continue, it may decrease to a third or even a quarter of that youthful dependency. So children are far more expensive to the economy than the elderly! Secondly, population growth has to stop sooner or later, so bringing in more people is not a long-term solution. The long-term solution is to restructure our system so that we don't need a constant influx of more people. The sooner we stop the increase in numbers, the more intact we leave our resource base for our children of the future.
What do you mean by "humane" population stabilization?
Population continues increasing because the death rate worldwide dropped much farther than the birth rate. Of course no one wants to see death rates rise. That would be an unthinkably inhumane way to stop population growth!
The humane way is for birth rates to drop and balance with today's lower death rates. 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 stabilization.
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.