Over the course of past decades, if not centuries, warnings of an overpopulated world have existed. It seems logical on the surface. More people mean more mouths to feed and consumption of a larger number of scarce resources. Sure, there might be more warm bodies to cultivate the land, but in a finite world, there has to be limits. This has led many scholars and forecasters to warn us of the impending doom that might occur with overpopulation. And with climate changes and rising carbon emission, population anxiety is even greater today. However, these predictions, despite their basis in common sense, may not actually be valid. In fact, underpopulation effects today are a much greater concern than overpopulation ones.
From a historical perspective, predictions about global populations have consistently been inaccurate. For example, world population figures a decade ago suggested we would reach 11 billion people by 2060. Now, these predictions have been adjusted to less than 10 billion. But beyond this, there is strong evidence that underpopulation effects have much more serious repercussions than excessive population figures. Nations around the world with lower birth rates have seen a decline in productivity and innovation. Indeed, resource demand may be less, but it doesn’t well match the lower economic growth being realized. For these reasons, it’s worth rethinking the legitimacy of our collective population anxiety that’s so pervasive today.
Examining Global Population Numbers
When it comes to the world’s human population, its pinnacle occurred in the 1960s. At the time, the birth rate among women peaked at 4.5 children per woman. Since, however, there’s been a progressive decline in the last half-century. Today, the global birth rate is roughly 2.3 children per women, which is about the same as the death rate. Certainly, population anxiety triggered these declines in part, but these weren’t the only factors. Higher incomes, higher education for women, and access to contraception all played a major role as well. And in some countries like China, mandates restricted the number of births per family. Several countries including China, Japan, Italy, Greece and Thailand now have birth rates around 1.5. South Korea comes in among the lowest of these underpopulation effects at 0.78 children per female.
Given these figures, it’s evident that rapid overpopulation isn’t likely in the immediate future. However, the global population is still approximately 8 billion currently. While this is a significant figure, the population’s distribution is far from even. African nations have a significant percentage the world’s population with a birth rate exceeding 5 per woman. Likewise, on a global level, the proportion of the population over 60 years of age are advancing faster than other age segments. This is important from the perspective of underpopulation effects. A declining birth rate means fewer youth to drive productivity and innovation. And the failure to educate and support human populations in developing areas like Africa similarly undermine economic growth. Population anxiety in these regions may be better warranted but not on a global scale otherwise.
Confronting the Overpopulation Myth
When it comes to population anxiety, many suggest lower fertility rates are an answer to the world’s biggest issues. Certainly, resource scarcity is believed to be less of a worry with fewer people. Similarly, pollution, carbon emissions, and climate change would presumably be better as human populations decline. And food security could be better addressed while reducing the threat of wars, which often involve a battle over resources. While this seems to be intuitively correct, it actually is not. As the world’s population has grown, resource use has actually decreased. Pollution generally speaking has also been on a decline. And increasingly, solutions that reduce carbon emissions are being implemented. If overpopulation was the key issue, then this wouldn’t be the case.
Interestingly, humanity has found ways to reduce resource use over time as populations have grown. Roughly 15 years ago, about 38% of the world’s land was used for agriculture and food cultivation. Now with the population increased by a billion, this figure remains the same. Technologies that reduce pollution have also been implemented that have resulted in cleaner air in many nations despite population growth. And all the while, developed nations have enjoyed higher standards of living and greater food security. This may not be the case in developing regions, but their problems aren’t a reflection of overpopulation. Instead, ongoing issues here represent a failure to fully tap into the human potential to solve problems. As such, we should be much more concerned about underpopulation effects rather than focusing on population anxiety.
A Call for Population Growth
Based on global trends over the years, the call for population anxiety is not substantiated. Instead, underpopulation effects pose a much greater threat to humanity. Why? Because the human potential to solve problems have consistently been underestimated. And in order to optimize this potential, the world needs population growth. Lower birth rates result in a shift to older age demographics, which is not advantageous. As this shift moves 10% toward older age groups, economic growth declines 5.5% and productivity falls 4%. Older societies are generally less dynamic, more resistant to change, and have less innovation. In contrast, youth is linked to greater creativity and a more frequent occurrence of major scientific discoveries. Thus, as birth rates drop, the impact of underpopulation effects poses greater risks to our future.
Understanding this, we should be exposing the myth of population anxiety and encourage population growth. As global populations increase, alongside better education and support for developing countries, progress occurs. We are already seeing advances in vertical farming, materials sciences, and clean energy technologies today. The future is likely to usher in even more impressive innovations related to nuclear fusion and precision medicine. But in order to realize these innovations, we need the human mind. In this regard, more is better. Bold discoveries and solutions become increasingly more likely when we invest in the human potential. This is why we should put population anxiety aside and encourage ongoing population growth. In doing so, the world and humanity stand a much better chance to thrive for centuries to come.