The fear of overpopulation and resource depletion is one deeply rooted in popular culture. Movies like WALL-E, Soylent Green, and others talk about a world unlivable due to the destruction of the earth. Good thing overpopulation isn’t the problem.
Global average life expectancy is over 70 years. Due to modern medicine and health science, we live most of those years in pretty good health, according to the World Health Organization, the NATO subsidiary that collects data on global health information.
As a result, the world population has boomed from 3 billion in 1970 to over 7 billion today and counting, according to the World Bank that leads many to be rightfully concerned about whether the world will become unlivable due to humanity’s growth in the near future.
The population may be growing at an increasing rate, but the rate cannot grow to infinity. Because of this, we know that there is a limit that population growth rates will hit in the future. If population growth could grow to infinity, it would mean women would be giving birth to infinite babies, and that doesn’t make any sense. Therefore, the assumption that the growth rate of the world population will keep going up doesn’t hold water.
The logic behind the panic is this: population has been growing at an increasing rate over the past century. Therefore, by using the rate at which we’ve been growing, we can predict that in the next couple of hundred years, the population will grow to such epic proportions that the earth won’t have the necessary resources to keep all of us alive.
The Population Reference Bureau states that the reason the population has been increasing is not because people have been having more children, it’s because less children have been dying. If we look at average birth rates in the world, we can see that they’ve been going down from five births per woman in 1965 to around three in 2015, according to the World Bank.
The earth isn’t infinite, and if we keep destroying forests, wasting food, letting species go extinct, and trashing our oceans, there won’t be enough for future generations. Just because we shouldn’t be worried about overpopulation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about global climate change, landfills, and other pressing issues. No amount of people will be able to live on this earth if we have no plants to make oxygen, the oceans boil away, or all the fish die from eating plastic. So let’s stop worrying about overpopulation and start fixing the real problems.
There are four stages to population growth, and it just so happens that a large amount of the world is going through them at the same time due to globalization. Frank Notestein, an American demographer from the 20th century, developed a model that explains why overpopulation is not a threat. In layman’s terms, it goes like this:
Stage 1 - Lots of births and deaths. Due to low standards of living and lack of access to healthcare, families have six to eight children, and many of those children pass away. There is little population growth, if any. Most of the world was in this stage before the industrial revolution.
Stage 2 - Lots of births and few deaths. Access to work, healthcare, and food allow for people’s standards of living to increase, thus allowing them to stay healthier and keep their children safe and fed. This is also the stage of growth that some of the world’s largest populations like China and India are currently transitioning out of, leading to huge population numbers.
Stage3 - Fewer births and few deaths. In this stage, child mortality rates have fallen to around five percent or lower. The need to have many children in order to ensure at least a few survive infancy is no longer there, and people can focus on things besides barely staying alive. This leads to fewer births and a slowdown in the population growth rate. This stage is where many developed countries, like the U.S. are at or are transitioning out of with a child mortality rate of 3.6 percent in 2015, according to the World Health Organization.
Stage 4 - Few births and few deaths. In this stage, population death and birth rates hit an equilibrium where people are having just enough kids to replace the deaths in the population.
The other argument made by those who fear overpopulation is that there isn’t enough space to put 10, 15, or 20 billion people in the world. This is also unfounded. Yes, if someone looks out into downtown LA, Tokyo, or New York, it may seem like there is barely enough space to put everyone. But, if one drives a few hours outside those densely populated areas, there are miles of land that could be more developed.
Former biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin Eric Pianka explained that if we divide the total livable land in the world of about 25 million square miles (total 57 million square miles minus 57 percent, which is either desert or mountains) and divide it by our current population, we get 2.3 acres of land per person. This doesn’t take into account people living together, vertical building, or any other space - saving innovation that humanity has used in order to live in small places.
If we take the math a step further and make groups of four people share 2.3 acres of land, we can use the now vacant 36.75 billion acres of unused land (6.9 acres times 5.25 billion people who are now living with others). This 36 billion acres would be used for roads, power plants, stores, nature preserves, etc. For reference, those 36 bilion acres would fit roughly 28 Amazon rainforests.
All in all, the fear of overpopulation need not take up any more time in your day. We’re not going to have to flee the planet because there are too many people. If we make sure not to destroy the world, our children and grandchildren will be just fine.