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.