The world’s population grew by 89 million in 2015, according to the demographers at the respected Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in Washington, D.C., who have been compiling and analyzing demographic data since 1929. In mid-2016, we stand at approximately 7.4 billion people, and counting. Counting very rapidly, in fact.
In 2015, there were 57 million deaths worldwide, far surpassed by a staggering 146 million births. Every minute, on average, there was a net increase of some 169 people, and every day, an already overburdened Mother Earth had to somehow furnish food, clean freshwater, wood, energy, land, raw materials and a safe, stable climate for 244,000 new claimants and consumers.
It has been practically an article of faith for us population scholars and activists that global population growth has been slowing down as families worldwide opt for fewer children and girls and women are educated, empowered and employed. Global fertility rates and family sizes have indeed plunged in most regions over the past half-century, and contraceptive use and family planning have risen dramatically, again, in most, but importantly, not in all, regions.
But when we are dealing with the treachery of unsustainable exponential growth, it is all too easy to perceive progress to date on these important fronts as sufficient to resolve the problem, when in fact it is merely necessary. And the gap between sufficient and necessary is huge.
The bottom line is this: Is global population growth actually slowing down? Are we truly approaching population stabilization on a global scale?
And the distressing answer is a resounding NO.
If global population growth were actually slowing down, then 10 years earlier, in 2005, the world’s population should have increased by more than it did in 2015. But this is not what has actually happened. Using the same data sources, the PRB’s World Population Data Sheets for 2004 and 2005, we see that global population increased by 81 million between mid-2004 and mid-2005. In other words, in 2015, the world’s human population grew by eight million more than it had a decade earlier, in 2005.
The annual rate of increase measured by percentage was 1.2 percent in both 2005 and 2015, but this identical percentage was applied to a larger population base, so the annual increment increased from 81 million in 2005 to 89 million in 2015.
Back in 2005, PRB projected a global population of 9.3 billion in 2050. Now it projects 9.8 billion in 2050.
Both the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations Population Division are also revising their projections upward. To any thinking or humane person, this should be a cause for deep consternation rather than celebration.
There are three main reasons for this serious setback on the road to a sustainable, stabilized global human population. First, fertility rates have remained stubbornly high in sub-Saharan Africa; they have not fallen in that region like demographers and economists had earlier planned and hoped. Of the top 12 countries with the highest fertility rates in the world, all of them are in Africa, with Niger the highest, at 7.6 (i.e., on average, each woman in Niger gives birth to between seven and eight children).
Having increased very rapidly over the past half century to one billion inhabitants at present, the population of Africa alone is projected to shoot up to four billion by 2100, and still be growing. The extreme pressure to migrate to Europe in desperate search of work and opportunity, already intense in these poor countries with high unemployment and few prospects, is only predicted to intensify. It is a recipe for social strife, conflict and even chaos, as we are seeing in Europe already.
Second, in some areas, fertility rate declines have stalled out, and in certain countries, fertility rates that had been falling have begun to increase again. In Egypt, for example, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in 2005 was 3.2; by 2015, it had edged back up to 3.5. In 2005, PRB projected that there would be 126 million Egyptians by 2050; now, in 2015, PRB is projecting 162 million Egyptians by 2050. In 1960, Egypt’s population was a mere 28 million!
If these projections come to pass, the grim squalor in that overcrowded country hugging the overstressed Nile River will only worsen for many tens of millions of inhabitants, which is good news only to Islamist extremists looking to recruit waves of unemployed, alienated and sexually frustrated young men as suicide bombers and jihadi warriors.
Third, in still other countries that had already achieved replacement or sub-replacement fertility, fear bordering on hysteria over the economic and social effects of inevitable population aging has led governments to incentivize or even coerce women into having more children. This has happened in countries as diverse as China, Vietnam and Iran. China has ended its one-child policy, while Vietnam’s TFR increased from 2.2 in 2005 to 2.4 in 2015.
The need to provide ever more energy for an ever-increasing population
will alone generate massive environmental impacts. Clockwise from top right:
the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform explodes into flames in the Gulf of Mexico, ironically on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day in 2010; solar photovoltaic panels
cover desert habitats; proliferating power lines; an oil-soaked pelican; mining impacts; “green” wind energy that is renewable but can blight scenic landscapes
and kill birds and bats in large numbers if not sited properly.
Humanity’s inability to tame the “population monster” – or at least our procrastination in doing so – will have massively negative social, cultural, economic and environmental repercussions on a global scale. It will stoke social, ethnic and racial conflicts at all scales, from local to regional, national to international. It will intensify competition for dwindling and depleting renewable and nonrenewable natural resources, such as fisheries, arable soils, timber, oil, minerals, lands and, most importantly, water.
It will fuel internal migration from rural areas into crowded, dense mega-cities already bursting at the seams, and it will precipitate international migration from low-income, rapid population growth countries to higher income countries with stable or shrinking populations. Those prosperous nations that have managed to achieve population stability will see that achievement crushed unless they sharply limit the influx of economic immigrants and those claiming to be refugees, mustering the will to resist international pressure to open their borders to the less fortunate.
It will exacerbate air, water and toxic pollution, and it will destroy wildlife habitat and drive many species of plants and animals extinct. Human overpopulation and overconsumption have pushed the Earth into its sixth major extinction event since multicellular life emerged on the planet. Biodiversity will plummet, as one gluttonous species, Homo sapiens, co-opts the vital resources needed to support tens of thousands of other species.
It will accelerate man-made climate change by increasing the number of energy consumers and carbon and methane emitters; this threatens to bring not only sea level rise and droughts, but water shortages, negatively impacting agriculture, settlements and ecosystems. As well, expect more deadly storms that wreak havoc, flatten and flood homes, and kill thousands.
Migrants march en masse into Slovenia, 2015: a sight that will become
ever more common as this crowded century proceeds, unless rapid population growth in some countries is tamed and borders in other countries are enforced.
It is nothing short of disheartening that half a century after awareness began to be raised of the insuperable problems posed by rapid, unsustainable human population growth that it is even necessary to harp on this issue at all. By now, humankind should have already halted population growth and moved onto other pressing sustainability challenges. Clearly, we have underestimated the enormity of the population challenge. The primordial urge to leave offspring and to increase the numbers of one’s own kind and kin is just too deeply rooted in our genes and/or cultures.
But reality is reality: on a finite planet, population growth will stop, one way or the other. The only question is how: Will it stop because enlightened human beings rationally and humanely lower aggregate birth rates or because nature – utterly indifferent to our values, wellbeing or even survival – raises the death rate?
The answer to that burning question is still unknown, but it makes all the difference in the world as to what type of Earth we are bequeathing to our descendants and the rest of creation.
UPDATE: The PRB's Population Data Sheet for 2016 has now been posted and is available online at: http://www.prb.org/pdf16/prb-wpds2016-web-2016.pdf.
It reveals that world population grew by 90 million over the last year, even higher than the 89 million estimated for 2015. Thus, the trend towards higher and higher annual population growth increments called out and lamented in this blog post continues. Far from having been tamed, the "population monster" continues rampaging like a juggernaut.