Updated 11 July 2013

Population: let's talk about it

With 7.2 billion of us now on an increasingly stressed planet, it’s time to stop skirting around the often avoided and misunderstood issue of overpopulation.

Population is politically and ethically sensitive, and has long been avoided as a green issue. But the vast number of us humans, and the resources we demand, cannot possibly be left off the environmental agenda. Thursday 11 July, World Population Day 2013, is a good time to get talking about it, starting with these key points:

1. The issue isn't just the sheer number of humans, but how much they consume. Overconsumption, also sometimes referred to as "consumption overpopulation", is even more problematic. A child born into privilege will consume many times that of his developing world counterpart. The idea that it's fine to "have as many children as you can afford" is overly simplistic and out of synch with our times. Family planning needs to include the consideration "how many children can the planet support?" The wealthier the child, the more serious this consideration becomes.

 2. The best proven way to control population growth, both ethically and practically, is by improving the rights of women and girls. Girls who are able to have longer childhoods, better education and employment and control over their reproductive rights are much more likely to have fewer children. Fertility rates and population figures are higher than were previously predicted; although the reasons for this are not fully understood, it may in large part be because government spending on family planning has stagnated in recent years.

Interesting recent population estimates:

- World population now: 7.2 billion. In 2025 (12 years’ time): 8.1 billion. In 2050: 9.6 billion.

- 222 million women who are sexually active but don't want to become pregnant are not using contraception. Two out of five pregnancies worldwide are unintended, and more than one in five births results from such pregnancies.

- India will pass China to become the most populous country. Around 2028, their populations will be roughly equal. Then India’s population will continue to grow to 1.6 billion, declining to 1.5 billion in 2100. China’s population will start decreasing after 2030.

- Nigeria may pass the USA by 2050, and by 2100 could start to rival China as the second most populous country. Other countries with populations set to grow over 200 million by 2100: Indonesia, Tanzania, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Niger.

- Most population growth will occur in developing regions, projected to increase from 5.9 billion now to 8.2 billion in 2050. The population of the developed world will remain largely the same at 1.3 billion

- 48% of the world’s population lives in “low-fertility” countries, where women have fewer than 2.1 children on average e.g. all Europe except Iceland, China, USA, Brazil, Russia, Japan, Vietnam.

- 43% lives in “intermediate-fertility” countries, where women have on average 2.1 to 5 children e.g. India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines.

- 9% lives in “high-fertility” countries: women have 5 or more children on average. Of the 31 high-fertility countries, 29 are in Africa.

- More than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa: its population could more than double by mid-century, increasing from 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion, and potentially reaching 4.2 billion by 2100.

- Europe’s population will decline by 14%.

- Population ageing is occurring worldwide i.e. the proportion of children is decreasing while that of older people is increasing. In 1950, children under age 15 in the developed world accounted for 27% of the population, while people over 60 made up only 12%. By 2013, the proportion of older persons had surpassed that of children (23% vs 16%). In 2050, it will be 32% older persons vs 16% under-15s. Even in developing regions where fertility remains relatively high, the proportion of children declined from 38% in 1950 to 28% in 2013, while the proportion of older persons increased from 6 to 9%. By 2050, it will be 19% older persons vs 22% children.

Population Division, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: World Population Prospects, the 2012 Revision. (June, 2013)
Image of paper dolls: Shutterstock


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