Three billion to join human race in one lifetime

Crowded out: Since 1970, the average life span has increased by more than 11 years.

Can the Earth support three billion more people? That is how many will be added to our planet over the next 80 years, says the United Nations. Total population will have doubled since 1960.

In 1804, Robert Malthus predicted that the planet’s booming population would cause an imminent starvation crisis. At the time, there were one billion people on Earth. Today, there are 7.7 billion.

By 2050, the world’s population will have swelled to more than 9 billion. And, by the end of the century, just 80 years or one average Western lifetime from now, the number of people alive will peak at 10.9 billion.

At this point, according to the United Nations’s latest report, the numbers will level off due to plummeting fertility rates in wealthy nations.

In the 1990s women had 3.2 babies in their lifetime. By 2050, it will be down to 2.2. Couples need to average 2.1 children to replace themselves and keep the global population stable.

And as we live longer and longer, thanks to better medical care, our populations are ageing. By 2050, one in six people will be older than 65. Now, that figure is one in 11. Already, in Japan, there are only 1.8 working-age adults for every one retiree.

Across much of Europe and Southeast Asia, states are facing a looming pensions and social care crisis as money to look after the elderly runs dry.

In other areas, births are still soaring.

In 2027, India will overtake China as the most populous country. The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa, where clean water, food and sanitation are in short supply, could double in the next 30 years. The population is growing fastest in areas that are least able to support it.

Yet, globally, living standards are rising, especially in poorer nations. For the first time, half of the world’s population is middle class. While wealthier populations reproduce less, they also consume more.

As affluence grows in South America, Asia and Africa, so will demand for fossil fuels, fertile soil, drinkable water, oil and other finite resources whose consumption is driving global warming and destroying ecosystems.

Estimates vary but, by 2050, experts say there will be between 25 million and one billion climate refugees, driven from their homes by the devastating impact of the climate crisis.

Boom or bust?

Can the Earth support 10.9 billion people? Not according to ecologist William Vogt. His thesis is that we must radically reduce consumption and limit the population to avoid ecological catastrophe. We are burning through Earth’s resources, and demand will only increase as affluence grows — while the poorest are left to fight each other for the scraps.

But Vogt’s contemporary Norman Borlaug represents another view. The agricultural revolution more than doubled overnight the amount of food Earth produced. We have not stopped innovating since. In the same way, technologies (like green energy and lab-grown food) can solve the problem of finite resources whilst saving the environment.

You Decide

  1. Are there simply too many people?
  2. Could technology solve the climate crisis?

Activities

  1. Imagine it is 2100. (You may well be alive then!). You are very old and living in a world where a lot of people are very old. The global population has hit maximum. Write a short letter to your grand daughter describing your daily life.
  2. Class debate: “This house believes it is morally wrong to have children.”

Some People Say...

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Mahatma Gandhi, Indian activist who used in nonviolent protest (1869-1948)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In fact, the 10.9 billion figure was revised down from 11.2 billion in the UN’s previous report. Eight countries will account for almost half the world’s projected population growth between now and 2050. They are India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt and the US. It took 127 years for the world population to double from one to two billion. By contrast, since 1960, world population has grown by about one billion every 13 years.
What do we not know?
The accuracy of the predictions. It depends on many factors. For example, in places where the birth rate is very high, like in sub-Saharan Africa, improved sex education and access to contraception could help limit the population to more sustainable levels.

Word Watch

Robert Malthus
He theorised that Earth’s population was growing much faster than our ability to provide food. He predicted a crisis, which is now known as a Malthusian catastrophe.
Plummeting
Dropping rapidly.
Japan
The country has a birth rate of only 1.44 children per couple.
China
China’s population is expected to fall by 23m by 2050 as its middle class grows.
Populous
Where a very large number of people live.
Clean water
Egypt and Ethiopia are locked in a dispute about access to the River Nile. Experts believe there will soon be wars over water.
Middle class
In 2018, the World Data Lab categorised people as middle class if they had disposable income to buy large consumer items, such as refrigerators, washing machines or motorcycles; if they paid to go to the cinema, or for other forms of entertainment, and if they went on family holidays.
Affluence
Wealth.
Finite
Something that is limited and will run out.
William Vogt
An ecologist with an interest in population control (1902-1968).
Norman Borlaug
Sometimes called “the father of the Green Revolution” (1914-2009).

Subjects