The population explosion is over

Those may seem fighting words given that the world’s population has doubled since the 1950s, and is expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050. By this time the population will be peaking, and the slope likely to turn downwards. This issue certainly exercises the minds of some blog contributors, who see this as one of the greatest threats we face – and one that will contribute mightily to global warming.

But, by and large, it is over. The rate of world population increase has fallen by about a half since the 1960s. More and more people in poor countries are now using contraception, although Africa remains a problem for a variety of reasons (economics and high infant mortality among them). In fact people take to contraception like ducks to water wherever free facilities are readily available.

I make no claim to expertise here, and I have no doubt that those who have studied the question in depth will have some comments to make. I look at the UN projections, and I see estimates which vary between 8 billion and 10 billion by 2050. The major growth will take place in the less developed countries, while the developed countries continue to decline. Current world population is nearing 7 billion of which 60% is in Asia and 14% in Africa. Europe accounts for 11%.

The major factors in the assumptions are the control of disease. (Aids is important here) and the rate of fertility (changes in half a child per woman, up or down, make a substantial difference). These in turn depend on prosperity.

We are exhorted not to look at contraception as the solution to problems in Africa, but rather to put our energies into lifting Africa out of poverty by promoting sustainable development through different and positive means. But of course if that should be achieved it will certainly be accompanied by widespread use of contraception. That’s an interesting dilemma. 

But lowered fertility rates are a mixed blessing. As they drop so the proportion of the elderly tends to increase, and this is accelerated by prosperity extending life expectancy. Were the overall fertility rate to drop below replacement level (as is already the case in Europe) the world would eventually decrease, and continue to decrease, in population. One would expect this to have a deflationary effect as consumers become fewer and the efficiency of production grows. And I take no account here of the demographic effects of global warming.

Population projections since the days of Malthus have tended to be over pessimistic, and the ingenuity of mankind to increase our ability to support population has proved remarkable. But there seems to be no doubt that there will continue to be many problems between now at 2050. And these will steadily grow. By that time I shall be aged 116, But many of you will be younger. Good luck!


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The population explosion is over

  1. claret says:

    I’m not too sure Quentin if the ‘threat’ you write of in your opening para is one of over population or under population.
    I assume the former but the latter may well be the greater threat.
    In nature everything has a ’cause and effect,’ and when we intervene in big way then we upset the balance of nature with unforeseen and dramatic consequences. Population control is no different. Why should it be?
    David Attenborough has recently set himself up as some kind of saviour of the world by promising to highligh over population as something inherently bad that needs drastic remedies. And this from a man who has spent an entire lifetime studying the
    ill-effects of man messing about with nature!
    It is not self evident that population growth is bad for the environment and our survival but by labelling it as such then irrational fears as to the ‘truth’ of such claims becomes unchallengeable, as though they are self-evident without any need to prove it.
    Earth is capable of sustaining an ever growing population because it is not food production and water supply that is the problem but poverty and the exploitation of wealth that goes hand in hand with it.

  2. RMBlaber says:

    Earth is not capable of sustaining an ever-growing population, pace Claret, and nor is the depiction of population growth as bad for the environment irrational – although it is clearly not self-evident, at least to Claret!
    In proof of the first point: imagine the scenario depicted in one ‘Star Trek’ episode, where the crew of the Starship Enterprise came across a planet so crowded with people they were crammed on its surface like the proverbial sardines in a tin. There has to be an upper limit imposed by population density and available habitable land.
    Of course, we can build upwards -but there comes a point where social and psychological factors would militate against further growth. (I call this the ‘rats in a cage’ scenario. Put too many rats in a cage and they kill each other. We have the same mammalian brain structures as rats, and are not so different in extremis.)
    As to the second point, enough has been said – surely – about the environmental damage caused by humans. What concerns me rather more is the damage we will do to ourselves by over-population and adverse ecological impact.
    Quentin is certainly right to say that ~2050 will represent a peak in human numbers. The curve will turn downwards after that – but how steep will the curve be, and how far will it go? I suspect it will be very steep, and go a long way down indeed.
    I refer readers of this ‘blog once again to the facts relating to oil and natural gas reserves, climate change, and food and water shortages. See .

  3. gerry says:

    Where can I start! Quentin is quite right, people do take to contraception like ducks to water, and in developed countries, and the countries of the Far East, and belatedly in most countries of Latin America, it is fair to say that the end of the population explosion is just about in sight, though not before it has done great damage to the environment and to non-human species.

    However there is one large region of the world where, in most countries, family planning is not easily available and where the population explosion is far from over. This is Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan. The population changes and the estimated population changes in this region are as follows:

    300 million in 1950
    600 million in 1976
    1,200 million in 2002
    2,400 million in 2050
    And onwards – very rapidly – from there.

    The United Nations latest (2008) low, medium, and high estimates for the 2050 population are 2413 million, 2760 million, and 3132 million respectively.

    Why it is that the peoples and governments of the Far East realised decades ago that rapidly increasing populations would bring poverty, whilst the governments of Africa and the Greater Middle East even now cannot see this, I must leave others to explain. But I do know that in sub-Saharan Africa Catholics are influential and do try to obstruct the supply of family planning if this includes artificial contraception; and I do know that aid agencies – non-Catholic as well as Catholic – are reluctant to consider the population explosion as a cause of poverty; and I do know that about half the figures noted above are made up of Muslims and that many Muslim leaders – not all – resist the introduction of family planning. Perhaps these are sufficient reasons to explain the demographic drama in this region.

    I do hope that one of your contributors will hazard a guess as to how the relatively elderly, mainly prosperous, people of the European Union, numbering about 500 million, will interact with the relatively young mostly very poor people of Africa and the Greater Middle East as their numbers climb towards 2,400 million and beyond. We must go on doing our best to help the extremely poor, but the numbers needing our help will soon be daunting.


  4. chauffer says:

    I took a shortcut through the rough end of Roath in Cardiff, yesterday – an area which doubles up as a slinging-out patch for former residents of Her Majesty’s hostelry.

    The above article came to mind!

    It’s difficult not to observe the tendency for the ‘underclass’ to breed like rats (most other species have their seasons) and get up to little else. It’s then natural to ponder the extent to which any half-educated attempt at recycling cans or junk mail is inevitably offset by the hordes who wouldn’t care less: and probably wouldn’t if they had 500 year lifespans with which to consider the concept of non-selfish instincts every few years.

    Maybe a Salvationist would have more to offer than the acquired pessimism that I’ve chosen to adopt from proximity to the above and worse estates in the past. Like Quentin, I confess ‘no claim to expertise’ but instead posit my own impressions from day to day interpretation of green news reports and grey surroundings.

    ‘Underpopulation’ arguments seem to stem from entirely economic criteria which disregards the stark fact that we haven’t the 4 or 5 planets which our current consumer strain on global ecology would require in order to meet anything resembling a sustainable human impact on the one precious planet with which we have been tragically entrusted.

    Any post-industrial population expansion should surely be considered in terms of quality as much as quantity when even ‘economic’ desirability is not satisfied by dole culture. I’ve also been struck – not physically, yet – by the pathologically aggressive elements of “deprived” estates who would nonetheless run a mile from any military service to the country which sustains their purgatorial existence, should it ever be threatened by future conquest; arising perhaps from fresh water shortages or other criteria which could transform traditional ‘aggressors’ into reluctant patriots – assuming that Christendom will forever put the sword before the Cross.

    I often fail to share the infatuation with our own species which official Catholic proclamation seems to have nurtured since at least the 1960’s.

  5. Trident says:

    OK. if Chauffer can group people into categories like the ‘underclass’ so can I. Perhaps the sort of people who contribute to a blog like this are part of an educated middle class – with many advantages like coming from settled families, at least 2 pennies to rub together, and coming from a good moral background.
    it seems to me that we will be judged by much higher standards than any underclass. And what have we and our peers, who can influence things, actually done with our society over the last 20 years? I’m by no means certain that we will not get the greater blame.
    I think I understand the bile which makes Chauffer speak of the Church’s ‘infatuation’ with the poor. And I hope I don’t sound too pi when I translate the poor in this case as ‘the least of my little ones.’

  6. claret says:

    I would be inclined to take a bit more notice of RMBlaber’s rantings if they didn’t draw upon episodes of Star Trek for evidence along with emotive phrases like ‘rats in a cage’ to describe a scenario that is never going to happen.
    All these so-called studies have a basis of keeping the ‘status quo’ as predictions for the future. There are other studies that predict a population decline and the problems that would be bring.
    But lets just get things in persepective.
    1. You could fit the entire population of the world on the Isle of Wight. (Standing room only admitedly but there would still be the rest of the world to spread out into!)
    2. We leave/ destroy/ waste as much food as we consume.
    3. We consume about three times as much food as we need to keep us healthy.
    4. We utilise millions of gallons of drinking water on a daily basis for things other than drinking that could get by using water that is unfit for drinking. Wasted drinking water is far in excess than what is needed for drinking purposes.
    5. Instead of restricting families to one or two children we could achieve the same effect by reducing families to having no more than one domestic pet animal. (preferably none at all.)
    6. If we stopped eating meat and all went veggie then there would be no food crisis. Feeding animlas for the sole purpose of then eating them is a grotesque waste of crop foods.
    7. Already in certain Western European countriues we face a problem not that far off where an ageing population cannot be financially supported because the next generation are not populous enough to do so.
    8. The population growth quoted above for Africa is equally evidence for showing that an increased population can be supported. There would not be the food problems in Africa if economic necessity didn’t compel them to sell their food production overseas to countries already awash with food.

    So , when we talk about over population and food shortages what we really mean is that those of us fortunate enough to live in relative plenty have no intetniton of altering our over indulgent life styles to cater for changing circumstances. Keep the poor and starving in their hovels so the rest of humanity can continue along its way unperturbed by what is going on around it. Poverty, distribution, lack of will and exploitation are the real problems but lets not tackle them , lets tackle population growth. (Complete with its unknown consequences.)

  7. gerry says:

    Tackling poverty, distribution, lack of will, exploitation AND population growth would be better.


  8. Iona says:

    All these alarming forward projections of population growth seem to be taking only birthrate into consideration, not death-rate. As ecological disasters become more frequent and more severe, the death-rate is certain to rise. In countries (like our own) where the population is almost totally dependent on highly-organised communications and transport, the consequences of a major sustained breakdown in these would include a huge number of deaths (no food in the shops, no medical services, no piped water, no services dependent on electricity, gas or oil, no-one keeping nuclear power stations under control). I can’t forsee many survivors at all.

  9. Horace says:

    “Never prophesy, especially about the future.” (Sam Goldwyn)

  10. tim says:

    It’s sad that when Quentin tells us that the population explosion is over, we immediately start worrying about it!

    Nobody knows how many people the planet can be home to (nor is the human race necessarily permanently limited to it). All the predictions of doom that were around half a century ago have failed miserably (a new Ice Age among them – maybe Global Warming will have better luck). India today exports food – in the 70’s we were told that mass starvation there was inevitable. We have not run out of anything – not even oil, which we probably won’t need in 100 years’ time. We are surrounded by inventions that nobody predicted. We can’t say, even with hindsight, which we would have done better to suppress.

    So let’s follow Horace’s advice, as far as we can. Let’s set ourselves modest targets, preferably evidence-based. And let’s keep ‘the environment’ in proportion: it’s important, but not all-important.

  11. gerry says:

    Iona, you are quite right to bring death rates into the equation. It is the extraordinary reduction in death rates, unaccompanied by a fall in the birth rate, that has caused this population explosion, and examples can be found all over the developing world. Nigeria’s birth rate is more than double its death rate. Pakistan’s birth rate is four times its death rate. Perhaps the most dramatic figures are from the Gaza Strip where for every death there are ten births.

    The figures for life expectancy can sometimes be more useful than comparing birth and death rates as helps to understanding these huge demographic changes. Here are just two examples:

    Karl Marx, in Chapter XX111 Section 4 of “Capital”, notes: Dr Lee, medical officer of health for Manchester, declared not long ago “that the average age at death of the Manchester…upper middle classes was 38 years, while the average age at death of the labouring classes was 17; whilst at Liverpool those figures were represented as 35 against 15.” (Marx found these figures in the “Opening address to the Sanitary Conference, Birmingham, January 15, 1875, by Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of that town”) Life expectancy in both Manchester and Liverpool is now above 70 years.

    Or again. Life expectancy in Algeria in 1950-55 was 43 years. It is now over 70 years. Many Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East have improved their life expectancy similarly as western medical expertise has spread through the developing world. In sheer numbers, this must be the greatest humanitarian effort in history.

    Nowadays, few Europeans are interested in these huge demographic changes and in many developing countries population control is going to be left to famine, disease, and war.


  12. Andrew Lack says:

    I am lucky enough to go to France each year – lucky enough, as I am always struck by the lower population density there. There is space. Bigger country, same population as here. We really could do with a reduction in England – Wales and Scotland are less crowded – and the 1.7 children per woman birth rate (or thereabouts) would reduce it after another 30 years or so, were it not for immigration. I feel really torn here – we are urged as Catholics not to use artificial contraception in any form, and indeed most of the methods available are awful (think of the feminising influence of the hormones in our drinking water, affecting us and the frogs). But I am seriously dismayed by the likes of Jonathon Porritt and David Attenborough catching the band wagon and being bossy with us about how many children we should have. I agree with Quentin that population will go down anyway – all the evidence from the rich countries suggests it will and, though there may be the odd economic difficulty, the country will be better off in the ways that matter for it.

  13. Iona says:

    Tim says the environment is “important but not all-important”. But surely it’s the ground we stand on. The human race won’t have a continued presence on earth if the environment becomes too seriously disrupted.

    The dramatic changes in life expectancy noted by Gerry are due largely to changes in infant mortality rates. There will always have been people living into their 70s and 80s, but when a huge proportion of them died within their first two or three years of life, this brought the AVERAGE life expectancy down by decades.

  14. tim says:

    Iona, the environment certainly includes the ground we stand on: also the air we breathe and the water we drink. Indeed, what doesn’t it include? It’s an almost all-embracing concept, covering everything except human beings (usually). That’s why I say it’s not all-important – we are as important as it, maybe even more so. This does not deny our dependence on it. But we do need to look more carefully at any proposal which is inspired primarily by a wish to preserve the environment from ‘damage’. ‘Environmental damage’ is not a well-defined concept. We can get very worried about things that are quite innocuous, and disregard what turns out to be vitally important.

  15. gerry says:

    Iona is, of course, quite right. Infant mortality rates have a huge impact on life expectancy figures. Life expectancy in biblical times may have been only 22-24 years, but this was because infant mortality was probably over 250 per 1000 live births per year, and under age 10 years mortality was around 500 per 1000 live births. We know, however, from an observer at the time, that many lived to “three score years and ten” and a few to “four score years” (Psalm 90)

    Today, life expectancy in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is 73 years and infant mortality is 17.5, having fallen from 160 per 1000 per year in 1950-55. Under five year mortality is 20 per 1000 live births.

  16. tim says:

    One more contribution from Polyanna (alias tim). This comes from the book by Tim Harford (no relation): “The Logic of Life” (2008). His final chapter is entitled “A million years of logic” and propounds an interesting theory. This is that the rate of invention is proportional to the world population. Anyone is as likely as anyone else to have a good idea. Once available, it spreads – anyone can use it. The more people there are, the more good ideas. This accounts for why life is getting better faster and faster (as it has – broadly – over recorded history).

  17. tim says:

    … and here is a sober article putting the case for population increases:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s