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.
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 to 3 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 60% 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 10.9 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 2.4 -- 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 over 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 more than 2 births for every 1 death worldwide.
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 approximately 7.8 billion people in the world today. World population in 2020 is over 2 times greater than it was 50 years ago, 4 times greater than it was 100 years ago, and about 10 times greater than 300 years ago. 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 220,000 people to this planet every day, or over 150 people every minute. That equals over 80 million more people every year, about the same as the combined populations of California and Canada. 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 Western Europe. Populations are decreasing somewhat in Russia, Japan, 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, most of the Middle East, most of Africa, the United States of America, Australia, and China. Result: the annual net gain of over 80 million people!
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.
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 many resource-stressed countries -- each year!
If the U.S. continued accepting as many immigrants for the next 50 years as it has for the past 25, the U.S. 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 and a healthy environment 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 soap operas 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, 2012 Revision and more recent editions.