Since 1930 the world's population has risen from 2 billion, and now approaches 8 billion. There are many people alive today who have seen our numbers triple in their lifetime, and a growing number of people who have seen it quadruple. Food production and infrastructure is not keeping up in a sustainable manner, and we are damaging the Earth, and as a result we are harming future generations. Population directly contradicts regions' attempts to curb climate change1. Almost all progress in energy efficiency, waste avoidance and pollution reduction go towards servicing our ever-increasing numbers rather than improving our situation. We are not going to be saved by luck or by miracle - "demographic changes are much more certain than many other long-term predictions" writes one sociologist2 - we need to put effort into stabilizing population growth. The United Nations reports that, in particular, improved education (especially women's) brings down uncontrolled growth3. Wherever possible, we need to keep spreading the message about maintaining sensible birth rates, and countries with lower rates need to accept migration from elsewhere, in order to smoothen out the demographics crises.
Our species' population rose to 1 billion around 1830 and it took one hundred years for us to add another billion. The next billion occurred within a single generation, taking us to three billion in 1960. The subsequent generation saw over three billion added by 20005. Every decade, our growth in numbers accelerated. We will hit 8 billion towards the end of 2022. "Before the 20th century, no human had lived through a doubling of the human population, but there are people alive today who have seen it triple"6.
The rate of increase is slowing7 but not quickly enough. With UN predictions that our population will reach 9.7 billion by 20504, action needs to be taken to calm down the population explosion to give us time to adapt our food production and living standards.
Jared Diamond's tracing of the history of various catastrophic cultural mistakes has taught us that we are poor at collectively deciding to plan for the future, especially when it comes to the effects of our population.
“Even today, there is a human tendency to increase production and population during good decades, forgetting (or, in the past, never realizing) that such decades were unlikely to last. When the good decades then do end, the society finds itself with more population than can be supported, or with ingrained habits unsuitable to the new climate conditions.”
Our ability to manage our rising population is not keeping pace with the rise in our numbers. There are many negative sides to population growth, already witnessed throughout the world now and in history. How many resources does it take to feed, water, shelter and educate 200,000 people? That's how much our population is currently growing every day. As long as this rate continues, all of the following problems continue to get worse:
Given the number of warnings about population, spanning history now for 4,000 years, is it time that we forgot our fears, and learned to concentrate on symptoms one at a time? Are concerns about overpopulation misguided?
“But one can also draw a different conclusion - that fixating on population numbers is not the best way to confront the future. People packed into slums need help, but the problem that needs solving is poverty and lack of infrastructure, not overpopulation. Giving every woman access to family planning services is a good idea - 'the one strategy that can make the biggest difference to women's lives' [says Shailaja Chandra].”
"Seven Billion" by Robert Kunzig (2011)18
Despite the fact that family planning services is population control, there are arguments that we will simply, somehow, manage to cope with our ever-increasing population. These are:
We produce enough food, but the problem is with distribution. We will find ways of distributing food more evenly and fairly.
We will find ways to increase food productivity.
Poverty is the real issue, and economic boosts will overcome most problems to do with overpopulation.
There is plenty of room left on the planet.
God will provide a solution, as It told us to go forth and multiply in the first place.
Waste disposal, burial grounds, water supplies, raw resources and other material supplies can all be stretched further and further due to continued gains in efficiency and as results from scientific breakthroughs.
But all of these ideas have shortcomings. In the same order:
Campaigners for sustainable food production often point out that the globalisation of food is one of the biggest causes of increased resource usage (i.e., transport and fuel costs) and, health campaigners point out that adding salt and preservatives to food (to make it last during transport) is one of the biggest causes of pandemic health problems. Local food production means healthier food and less strain on the planet and becomes more and more important the more our populations grow.
Overexploitation of soil and the mass conversion of forested land for agriculture has caused the degradation of ecosystems, resulting in massive drops in soil quality. As a result, soil erosion and increased flooding (both caused from lack of trees) has devastated crop production in many countries, especially in those places where overpopulation led to soil overexploitation. Our efforts to increase food production are often at the expense of long-term production viability. The most advanced countries and the biggest staple agricultural producers have not managed to increase overall crop production for decades, leading some to conclude that efficiency ceilings are already being reached. Not only that, but stocks of food in forests and the oceans have dwindled and many fish species are now so endangered that they cannot be fished. Food production has peaked in some areas, and is falling in others due to overexploitation, so it is hard to imagine that production gains can continually be made.
Unfortunately, increasing poverty increases resource usage, and puts additional burdens on the planet. The best way to reduce poverty is to keep families small, and to prevent overpopulation. The poorest countries are already the most overpopulated ones. Maintaining a sensible population is the easiest way to equalize the distribution of wealth and prevent goods (and food) from becoming too expensive for the poor. The more people there are, the more expensive food is, and the more the poor suffer. Poverty reduction needs to go hand in hand with population control.
All fertile land is being used for produce already, and, all sensible places to live have been taken. Expansion of housing on to flood plains and areas of natural disaster have led to increasingly serious damages to lives and livelihoods as a result of floods, volcanoes and earthquakes. All housing expansions are now at a cost to nature, and it is upon nature that we rely for food production and environmental health.
Given the record of divine natural disasters and divinely endorsed cataclysms, this seems to be an unlikely appeal.
In nearly all causes, these methods result in higher costs and worse quality of life. Cemeteries and burial grounds are filling up and all waste requires space and expense to process. Some gains will be made, but, increasingly expensive research is now needing to be spent on this. It is better to control population and allow research to go into matters that increase quality of life rather than going into dealing with the side-effects of overpopulation. Prevention is better than cure, especially when the improvements to efficiency are increasingly small and increasingly expensive.
Few people doubt the severity of the problem that overpopulation presents for this planet. Its consequences are poverty, famine, disease and death, sometimes on very large scales. Minor problems include overcrowding, strained infrastructure and social instability. By facilitating contraception and women's medical services we enable family planning. "Allowing women to plan their pregnancies also leads to healthier outcomes for children. A recent study showed that if all births were spaced at least two years apart, the number of deaths among children younger than five would decline by 13%. The number would decline by 25% if there were a three-year gap between births"19. Making birth control accessible to all is a moral requirement for anyone who has the power to help. It is inconsistent, for example, to say that contraception and abortion is "murder" whilst ignoring the fact that poverty and overpopulation are far bigger killers.
Aside from population control, "the health benefits of contraceptive use are substantial. Contraceptives prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the number of abortions, and lower the incidence of death and disability related to complications of pregnancy and childbirth"19. The numbers of abortions that are prevented by contraception is staggering. A Guttmacher Institute report on the developing world predicts that "in 2012, use of modern contraceptives in the developing world will prevent 218 million unintended pregnancies, which, in turn, will avert 55 million unplanned births, 138 million abortions (40 million of them unsafe), 25 million miscarriages and 118,000 maternal deaths. It will also prevent an estimated 1.1 million neonatal deaths (those within 28 days of birth) and 700,000 postneonatal infant deaths (those from 28 days to one year of age)"19. Condoms help prevent the spread of disease - their effect is strong enough that long-term use by a community can gradually eradicate strains of sexually transmitted diseases from the community. Venereal disease causes unimaginable suffering and can affect the purely innocent. Babies are frequently infected with the diseases of the parents; in this way, the prevention of disease with contraception is vital because once women in a local area are infected with a disease, children will also be directly infected. In the case of incurable diseases, such an event can lead to unsurmountable suffering. Such a terrible state of affairs is prevented by the correct use of contraceptives such as condoms. The number of women with unmet needs for contraception in the developing world is still increasing - between 2008 and 2012 the figure rose from 153 million to 162 million19. Those 69 countries are the ones that are least able to support growing populations.
“Some of the religious traditions have presented recurring obstacles to open discussion of certain kinds of birth control at UN population conferences. These religious groups are associated largely with Islam, Roman Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity.”
"Religion and Ecology"
Mary Evelyn Tucker (2011)20
Religious opposition to abortion, birth control and contraception: Despite the practical necessity of birth control, the benefits of disease prevention, the moral responsibility we have towards the future of our children and the responsibility we have with regards to the stewardship of our planet, many religions have opposed birth control for various superstitious reasons. On the other side of the fence, it is worth knowing that all of the pioneers of contraception were freethinkers21,22 (that is, people who are opposed to the influence of organized religion on people´s opinions and beliefs). Why have religions determined to prevent family planning? The answer is in a kind of survival of the fittest amongst religions themselves. As most religious people simply abide by the religion of their parents23, religions that encourage parents to have more children will attain a stronger and longer-lasting base of adherents. Barber (2011) notes that religions promote fertility by encouraging marriage at a much earlier age than amongst the non-religious24.
Bearing this out is Catholicism, which has an infamously strict suite of dogmas that forbid all kinds of birth control. The Roman Catholic Church is the most notable, powerful and active organisation that lobbies against birth-control wherever it can, internationally. Thankfully Most Catholics routinely ignore the Church on this issue, especially in educated and developed countries, but there are still plenty of fast-growing countries where the Catholic Church is still prospering the old-fashioned way. It took the government of the Philippines 13 years to force through legislation to allow government-funded contraception and for sex education in schools because of the strength of the opposition of the Catholic Church there - in a country where 11 women die of pregnancy-related problems every day. The Catholic Church "ferociously" opposed it, warning of moral and social collapse, the destruction of family life, and divine wrath, if it was passed. The bill is considered "a major step toward reducing maternal deaths and promoting family planning in the impoverished country, which has one of Asia's fastest-growing populations. [...] The United Nations said early this year that the bill would help reduce an alarming number of pregnancy-related deaths, prevent life-threatening abortions and slow the spread of AIDS"25.
For more, see:
|Highest Fertility Rates (2013)27
|2.0 is best27
|Timor-Leste (E. Timor)
The fertility rate is, in simple terms, the average amount of children that each woman has. The higher the figure, the quicker the population is growing, although, to calculate the rate you also need to take into account morbidity, i.e., the rate at which people die. If people live healthy and long lives and morbidity is low, then, 2.0 approximates to the replacement rate, which would keep the population stable. If all countries had such a fertility rate, population growth would end. The actual replacement rate in most developed countries is around 2.1.
The Economist in 2008 pointed out some of the great improvements in the fertility rate that are being witnessed in some regions of the world. Despite this, because our overall numbers are still going up, the population still continues to rise. But if trends like these - driven mostly by greater education and economic stability - continue, then, it will be to everyone's benefit.
“In East Asia and the Pacific, the [fertility rate] was 5.4 in 1970. Now it is 2.1. In South Asia, the fertility rate halved (from 6.0 to 3.1). In the world as a whole, fertility has fallen from 4.8 to 2.6 in a generation (25 years). [...] The most important exception to the rule of declining fertility is sub-Saharan Africa.”
"The world's silver lining" in The Economist (2008)29
Increasing longevity, and subsequent aging, is a long-term trend around the world30. Global life expectancy has risen above the 70s, reaching 72, by 201631, as part of a global trend towards better health31,32, and due to huge portions of the world being gradually lifted out of poverty. It also reflects overall improvements to cultural health, including diet, health services systems, attitudes to exercise and well-being, and also family structure and caring. For decades, Japan was well-known for having the highest average life expectancy33, until the top spot was taken by Hong Kong. The regions with the best life expectancy are Europe (78.4), The Middle East (75.2) and Asia (73.2)34 and the worst, by some way, is Africa (62.8)34.
One effect of rising longevity is the 'demographics crisis'; where an increasing portion of the population is old and retired, putting pressure on services and taxes35. The solution is for aging countries to import younger workers from elsewhere; over time, as birth rates stabilize, geriatric care improves the length of the working life, and population growth calms, this situation will stabilize.
For more, see:
Throughout Human history, grandparents have been vastly outnumbered by the young. If you maintain a strong workforce aged 25-64 relative to the size of the rest of the population, the result is an 'economic dividend' which is the most effective way to boost national finances"World Population Prospects 2019 Highlights" by the UN (2019a)30. Many experience this as fertility rate falls"World Population Prospects 2019 Highlights" by the UN (2019a)30.
But this millennium, countries are entering a wizened era where increasing longevity is resulting in larger old-age (65+) populations32. The old-age dependency ratio compares this group to those of working age (15-64); 12 countries have a ratio of over 4 to 10, impacting on pensions, housing, health services and social structures, which are all struggling to cope. In the case of pensions, the whole system is threatening to fail as it becomes impossibly expensive.
There are two answers: Prevent runaway population growth (which delays the problem, but makes it worse in the end), and, spread out the young between countries through open labour markets - immigration increases tax revenues to pay for services for the old, and, also provides the answer to the labour shortage that threatens aging countries - Japan's impressive automation robots are slow to develop and expensive. No doubt, the true economic solutions to such complicated problems have not yet been found.
For more, see:
Whilst much of the world is fighting bitterly to reduce the harm we're doing to the planet, the most religious countries are still growing their populations at staggering rates37,38. Different religions have had various stances on procreation: the Cathars considered the world so corrupt that they abstained from all sex39,40. But religions that had a doctrine of having as many babies as possible were always destined to be successful for simple Darwinian reasons: The largest organized religions today are all anti-birth-control41, often using their weighty influence and resources to oppose birth control, prevent family planning and restrict women's rights42. They are most successful in developing countries that lack strong governments, where women's rights are poor, and in countries where religious groups loom large in the education sector. Together, these campaigns are doing immense harm to the planet, to human society, to womankind and to our future generations.
For more, see:
“Despite the practical necessity of birth control and disease prevention, the moral responsibility we have towards (a) the future of our children and (b) our stewardship of the planet, many religions have opposed birth control for various superstitious reasons.”
Contraceptives and sex education are two key tools in the eradication of grassroots poverty. Another is the way in which developing countries sometimes leapfrog decades of technological development. For example in Africa, the adoption of mobile phones means that Africa has not needed to build a telecoms infrastructure, and wireless technologies may mean it doesn't have to build one in the future, either. But gadgets derived from science will not result in an easy cure for massive overpopulation; it must always go hand in hand with sex education and contraceptives to control fertility rates. Unfortunately for Africa, growing Christian fundamentalism and Islamisation of the continent has meant that religious forces are now threatening the basics of sex education42; both competing groups argue against many of the findings of modern science. It seems that the developing world is plagued by two of Humanities' worst enemies: ignorance of sex education, and superstition. If these forces overwhelm the educators, then the cultural war I warned about above between the haves and have-nots of the world, is again on the agenda despite the fact that at the moment fertility controls are reducing poverty.
“A stunning 135m people escaped dire poverty between 1999 and 2004. [...] Perhaps the biggest change affecting people's lives has little to do, at least directly, with development policy or public spending. People in poor countries are now able to exert more control over their own fertility, and hence over the size of their families.”
"The world's silver lining" in The Economist (2008)29
If women and men are sterilized after having three children then the only way to have more children, if parents wish, is to adopt. There are strong arguments against this idea from a human-rights stance, but there are limits on all freedoms. In any democracy, people are not free to endanger and undermine the future of other people. Or at least, that's the idea, and such moral obligations are present in many circumstances and are sometimes translated into legal obligations. Continued human population growth will continue to harm all people, the whole planet, in a gradually increasingly severe manner. The more people there are, the greater the problems due to overpopulation, including degradation of everyone's quality of life. It is a human-rights and free-will issue: we are not free to harm others, and, that means, we should not be free to have as many children as we like. This is the moral issue. But as most people have continued to have too many children, it must eventually become a legal issue. Sterilisation is one of the very few ways to effectively protect future generations from the poor choices of the current generation.