Tackling Myths About the World’s Growing Population

(United Nations, DESA, Population Division, 2022 / World Population Prospects 2022 / Creative Commons)

World population is projected to cross 8 billion on Nov. 15, 2022, according to the United Nations Population Division. Our large and growing population has enormous implications for human welfare and the environment.

Stories around the 8 billionth baby—most news coverage of the 7 billion milestone was of this variety—miss an opportunity to discuss the undeniable consequences of rapid population growth. Coverage of this important milestone should tackle:

  • myths surrounding population trends (e.g. that there is a population collapse);
  • the consequences of continued population growth for people and the planet; and
  • efforts to end population growth that maintain a dedication to human rights and bodily autonomy.

Influential people like Elon Musk do a lot of harm by fear-mongering about a ‘population collapse.’ Our population is nowhere near collapse. … We are already seeing attempts to restrict access to family planning and safe abortion, including in Iran, China, and right here in the United States with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. 

John Seager, president and CEO, Population Connection

Population Myths

Some people—none of them demographers or population professionals—claim that we are experiencing a population collapse. (See: Elon Musk.) They are doing so as the world population grows by between 65 and 80 million people a year. The world population is projected to grow to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in the 2080s, where it will likely remain through the end of the century.

On the domestic front, the United States population is growing by nearly 1 million a year, due largely to immigration and high rates of unintended pregnancy (45 percent) and births (37 percent). The U.S. population is projected to reach 400 million in 2058 from today’s population of 333 million.

World and U.S. population have both grown by smaller numbers in recent years due to COVID-19, but the number of U.S. births increased again in 2021.

Consequences of Population Growth

Population growth can outstrip the ability of the planet to provide everyone with food, clean water and other natural resources. It can also outstrip the ability of human-created infrastructure to provide everyone with healthcare, sanitation, housing, education and employment.

This is already happening in some rapidly growing areas, evidenced by stagnating and even reversing progress towards the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to achieve a good quality of life for all on a healthy planet. The number of people suffering from hunger and food insecurity is on the rise again, for example. Researchers have referred to the Sahel region of Africa as a “powder keg” due to the combination of rapid population growth and climate change resulting in food and water shortages as well as escalating violence.

Mozambican women and expecting mothers await medical care at the Murrupelane Maternity ward on July 5, 2018, in Nacala, Nampula Province, Mozambique. The United Nations Fund for Population supports the country’s effort to improve the reproductive health of its citizens. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP via Getty Images)

Rapid population growth can keep large numbers of people in poverty and at risk of illness and early death. At the household level, when parents have many unintended births, children often suffer malnourishment, physical stunting and—especially among girls—low educational attainment and early marriage. This perpetuates the cycle of high fertility and poverty. The number of girls out of secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa actually increased between 1998 and 2018 due to enrollment rates not keeping pace with the increase in the school-age population.

Population growth is a major driver of environmental degradation as well, especially in high-consuming countries such as the United States and in places where people rely heavily on ecosystem services for their very survival.

Deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, overfishing, wildlife poaching, fresh water overdraft, species extinctions and soil erosion have all been increasing in step with human population growth. We are already using natural resources 1.8 times faster than they can regenerate, meaning we would need two Earths to sustain current population and consumption levels without destroying nature.

Ecological overshooting doesn’t only harm the environment; it also threatens human well-being and our future on this planet.

History of Population Milestones

The global population has been growing by each additional billion in fewer and fewer years since reaching 1 billion in 1804.

Indeed, it took 123 years for the population to reach 2 billion, in 1927, but this latest billion was added in a dozen or fewer years. (The 7 billion milestone was commemorated on Oct. 31, 2011, but U.N. demographers recently revised earlier milestones, saying they now estimate that we reached 7 billion in 2010.)

Causes of Population Growth

Fertility and mortality are the two components of population change at the global level. (At the country level, migration comes into play as well.) The massive population growth that we’ve seen over the past 200+ years is due to a phenomenon called the demographic transition.

At the world level, before the Industrial Revolution, birth rates and death rates were both high, balancing each other out and keeping the population relatively small and stable. As mortality rates began to fall—happily, most strikingly among infants and children—and fertility rates remained high, the population increased dramatically.

Countries and regions are now at very different stages of the demographic transition, with high-income countries at the final stage, wherein birth and death rates are very low, causing a return to population stabilization or even decline in a few situations (e.g. Japan, Italy, Spain). Most middle-income countries are in the middle stages of the transition where birth and death rates are falling, but because of a large number of people entering their reproductive years (a phenomenon called population momentum), population continues to grow at a steady clip.

The least developed countries, which are still in the early stages of the demographic transition, still have very high birth and death rates and find their populations doubling in as few as 19 years (e.g. Niger).

How to Stabilize the Population

In every country where affordable comprehensive reproductive healthcare is available and women have choices and access to education, fertility rates have fallen to replacement level or lower. In other words, on average, when women are able to determine for themselves when and whether to become pregnant, and when and whether to carry pregnancies to term, they have fewer children. This causes fertility rates to decline, slowing the speed at which populations grow.

People in high-income countries already have a reasonably good level of access to modern contraception and safe abortion—although that trend is moving in the wrong direction in the United States. This has resulted in fertility rates declining to:

  • 1.5 births per woman in Europe.
  • 1.6 in Australia, New Zealand and Northern America.
  • 1.9 in Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia.
  • 2.14 in Oceania.

The only major world region that has a fertility rate above replacement level is Africa, at 4.24 births per woman. There is wide variation among countries within different world regions, which is most dramatically expressed in Africa: Women in Mauritius have an average of 1.39 births each, while women in Niger have 6.75.

Rapid population growth in the poorest countries on Earth—almost all of them in sub-Saharan Africa—prevents progress on essential sustainable development efforts. In turn, low achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals plays a large role in continued high fertility and rapid population growth.

The United States has an obligation, as the world’s largest contributor of overseas development aid, to fully fund international family planning at our “fair share” amount of $1.74 billion per year. That’s more than a billion dollars above our stagnant funding level of $607.5 million.

The United States Congress should also put a permanent end to restrictive funding policies, including:

  • The global gag rule, which bans any U.S. global health assistance to any foreign healthcare provider who even mentions the word abortion, let alone counsels patients on abortion as an option, refers patients to abortion providers, or performs abortions—even when it is legal to do so in their own countries and when they use their own non-U.S. funds.
  • The Helms Amendment, which prohibits U.S. global health assistance from being used for safe abortion procedures, under any circumstances, even when abortion is legal in the aid-recipient country.
  • The fickle funding of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which has been a political football for nearly 40 years. Since 1985, every Republican president has refused funding to UNFPA and every Democratic president has approved it, it, but a bill currently in the House (the Support UNFPA Funding Act) would finally end the back and forth. UNFPA is the largest multilateral family planning agency in the world, funded by over 180 countries and working in over 150—far more countries than the U.S. is able to help through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The newly elected Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2023, and will have the opportunity to reintroduce and pass bills to permanently end these regressive and harmful policies. People worldwide, and the planet we all depend upon, are counting on it

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Marian Starkey is the vice president for communications at Population Connection.