"Instead of wondering if we have too many or too few people, we should ask how we can sustainably meet the needs of the people who are already alive"
According to UN data, the world's population is reaching these days to 8 billion people. This figure has already provoked worry Will there be enough food, water and energy to support our growing population. While human activity undoubtedly preventing the climate crisis, population growth is not an important factor in this matter.
Concern about population growth has a long history. On the one hand there are concerns that there are already too many people, and that the sheer numbers are causing our current environmental crisis. On the other side there are arguments that we have too few people. Elon Musk He said that "population collapse due to low fertility rates is a much greater risk to civilization than global warming". and column which was recently published in the Sunday Times” naively claimed that Britain should “tax the childless” to address declining fertility rates.
As demographers - experts in the study of the population - we see these two arguments as wrong, and at their core they are an answer to the wrong question. Instead of wondering if we have too many or too few people, we should be asking how we can sustainably meet the needs of the people who are already alive.
Although the figure of 8 billion people is a significant milestone, it is somewhat misleading. The population growth rate Peaked 50 years ago (around 1962-65) And today it stands at less than 1% per year. In the world, the average number of births per woman currently stands at 2.3, slightly more than "replacement level" - 2.1 children on average per woman required for the population to remain static. We are certainly not facing an "empty planet" or a "population collapse". The UN predicts that the world population will reach a peak of more than 10 billion In 2086 or so.
Debating whether we have an underpopulation or an overpopulation is unhelpful and distracting when, in reality, there is very little we can do to affect population growth. Worse, these arguments have often tones Racism, eugenics. Overpopulation arguments often originate in the Global North and aim to reduce fertility in the Global South (developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America), where most of the world's black, brown, indigenous, and mixed-race people live.
Meanwhile, proposals to tax the childless and take other measures to increase fertility are aimed at countries in the Global North, where most of the world's white people live. Also, infertility is a popular issue that mostly affects middle-class white women in the Global North, but in fact, the highest rates of infertility in the world are in the Global South. Health systems and population policy often reflect (and perpetuate) this misconception.
Global population growth is shaped by births and deaths, but migration can affect regional populations. Another factor is also at play: population momentum. This concept explains why the age structure of a population can cause it to grow even when fertility falls below the replacement level. In fact, even if the fertility rate is falling, there is still a large absolute number of people of reproductive age in the population, resulting in more births than deaths.
For example, in Nigeria The UN is watching Because if the fertility rate drops to replacement level today, the population will continue to grow for the rest of the century, with 124 million more people than today in 2100 (an increase of 57%). However, Fertility rates in Japan have been below replacement level since 1959, leading to a much older population, but population size only began to decline in 2005.
If all fertility rates were at replacement level, the world population would still reach 9 billion in 2039 – just two years later than current projections.
In the absence of an unprecedented disaster, the population will continue to grow. Even mortality from corona had a very small effect on the size of the world population. The World Health Organization estimates that 14.9 million excess deaths arose from Corona in 2020 and 2021. This is a very large absolute number, but dwarfed by the 269 million births that occurred during that period.
The problem with population policy
Of course, the absolute number of children has a large effect on the ultimate size of the world's population. From an environmental perspective, some would argue that reducing the fertility rate is still important. Yet, The carbon footprint of a child born in a "low-fertility" country in the global north is on average many times greater than a child born in a "high-fertility" country in the global south.
Furthermore, policies designed to directly influence decisions about childbirth are usually unsuccessful. In China, where a one-child policy was implemented for many years, Studies indicate this that the assessment of the impact on fertility rates was exaggerated, and that a similar decrease in productivity would have resulted from economic growth alone. Incredibly effective education and development in reducing the number of children people want, while modern contraceptives have given people the ability to plan their number and timing better than ever before.
According to a UN database, 70% of national governments Want to lower or raise fertility rates. But the gap between these goals and actual fertility rates shows how difficult it is to achieve a certain fertility rate, especially while preserving reproductive rights.
For example, forced sterilization camps were set up in India During the 70s, and the goals of sterilization continue even today. It is estimated that A third of the sterilized women did not agree to the procedure.
It is not easy to manipulate the demographic future, especially without violating human rights. Instead, we must plan for our demographic reality. Eight billion people is not too few, nor too many - it is simply the number of people on the planet. Instead of trying to increase or decrease the number of people, we should build a planet that allows everyone to live their lives freely, sustainably and with dignity.
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