New Internationalist

Is the world’s population really a timebomb?

October 2011

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Every 10 seconds, 44 people are born. Even after factoring in death rates, that’s 83 million more people each year. According to the United Nations Population Fund, there will be seven billion of us shuffling on the surface of this planet by the end of October, a figure that is predicted to rise to nine billion by 2050. But claims that the world’s population is spiralling dangerously out of control are alarmist.

According to Hania Zlotnik, Director of the UN’s Population Division, world population is ‘on a path towards non-explosion’. Women, on average are having far fewer children and high fertility affects only 16 per cent of the population.

The global increase in family planning means the world’s population is predicted to reach 9.3 billion during the middle of the century and continue growing but much more slowly until it reaches 10 billion by 2100, before levelling off and beginning to decline, says the UN.

But with people living longer, the anticipated accumulation of people over the next few decades has led some to argue that the world’s already fragile environment and dwindling resources will be unable to cope with the swell. Others say we are pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

Blaming too many people for climate change is like blaming too many trees for bushfires,’ says Simon Butler, writing in Australia’s Green Left Weekly. ‘The real cause of climate change is an economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy and unsustainable agriculture.’

Heavily industrialized countries, which make up only 20 per cent of the world’s people and where populations are declining in many cases, are responsible for 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide accrued in the atmosphere due to human activity. The few places where birth rates remain high have the lowest per capita carbon emissions.

So, while freely accessible family planning in countries with large population growth may help, it is likely to have little impact on climate change. As UK-based campaign group The Corner House puts it: ‘Massive fossil-fuel use in industrialized countries cannot be countered by handing out condoms.’

A more pressing concern is that a rising population could mean that many more will go hungry. Since the 2008 food crisis – widely attributed to climate change, commodity speculation and the rampant use of biofuels – shortages have become a serious concern and over a billion people are already going hungry.

Yet a growing number of scientists and activists argue that feeding 10 billion is well within our collective capabilities – through a combination of efficient farming, better waste reduction and less meat-eating.

Nick Harvey

This article is based on New Internationalist's No-Nonsense Guide to World Population, by Vanessa Baird, which is out this month.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 446 This feature was published in the October 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 PGCan 23 Oct 11

    Glad to see that someone has finally addressed this question. Humans have many ways of addressing the population boom, not least is educating women and alleviating poverty and increasing reproductive choices. Countless studies have shown that better educated women, with more opportunites choose to have fewer children. And hunger is basically a social distribution, socio-political-economic problem, not a problem of production and supply but a problem of distribution and wealth and access to resources. So, population booms can be controlled but only if we, as a species have the political will to do so and are not frustrated by self-serving, anti-democratic economic and political systems.

  2. #4 greg 13 May 13

    so are we all fucked then? no seriously.

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This article was originally published in issue 446

New Internationalist Magazine issue 446
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