Never before in human history have there been as many people alive as there are right now. The human population had been gradually increasing for the last couple of millennia, until there was an explosion in growth in the 19th century due to rapid medical and economic progress, brought about by the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. As a result, the number of people has skyrocketed in the last two centuries: from 1 billion in 1800, to 2 billion in 1928, 4 billion in 1975, and 7.7 billion in 2019. If the number of people on earth quadrupled in the last 100 years, what can we expect to happen by the end of the 21st century? What does overpopulation mean for the future of humanity?
During the 1960s, the world saw an unprecedented rate of population growth. As a result, apocalyptic prophecies started to spring up. The poor might propagate limitlessly and envelop the developed world. The tale of overpopulation was thus born. However, a closer look reveals that overpopulation is not an endless, unstoppable monster, but instead part of a process that the entire world is going through. Population explosion and sky-high birth rates are a temporary feature that accompanies countries as they make the transition to a developed economy. This is the demographic transition. Developed countries have mostly already gone through this change, while other countries around the world are experiencing it right now. This is evident as fertility rates have crashed as countries have industrialized and developed. To be able to understand this demographic transition, let’s go back to the United Kingdom of the 18th century.
Over 250 years ago, Europe was beginning its own demographic transition. Back then, by today’s stable standards, Europe was faring a lot worse than developing regions today such as parts of Africa. People suffered from inadequate medicine, nutrient-poor diets and dirty sanitation. Swathes of people died, most of them at a young age, and so the population grew at a very slow rate. Women would have 4-6 children, with only 1 or 2 surviving infancy. This was the first part of the demographic transition: population levels holding fairly constant whilst the country as a whole is underdeveloped. Suddenly, the Industrial Revolution happened in the UK, bringing about the single greatest change in quality of life since the Agricultural Revolution. Peasants became workers; goods became widely available as they were mass-produced; scientific knowledge grew and subsequently brought advances in areas such as medicine, communication and transportation to name but a few; women were emancipated and their role in society changed. A middle class emerged and even the working class’ standard of living and healthcare greatly improved. This was the second stage of the transition. Since people now had better healthcare, nutrition and hygiene, the number of people dying prematurely fell sharply. As a result, there was a population boom: the number of people living in the UK doubled from 1750 to 1850. Now that so many children were no longer dying at a young age, families didn’t need to have so many kids. The third stage of the transition began. The fertility rate went down, and population growth consequently tapered off. Finally, an equilibrium was reached, with fewer people dying and fewer being born. Thus, the UK had reached the fourth and final stage of the demographic transition. Of course, the UK’s population is still increasing, though that’s being driven by incoming migrants and a gradually ageing population: the fertility rate in the UK is only 1.79.
This demographic transition hasn’t solely occurred in the UK – it’s been completed in some countries and is ongoing in the rest at this moment in time. Thus, the global population is still growing quickly, with no sign of stopping for quite some time. Despite this, global population growth really has slowed down: the average fertility rate is 2.5 today, as opposed to 5 which it was 40 years ago. As time passes, the fertility rate will continue to decline, and population growth will continue to slow. In fact, in some parts of the world, the demographic transition has been made stunningly quickly. This is evident in Bangladesh. The average woman had 7 children in 1971, with a quarter dying before the age of 5. However, in 2015, the fertility rate was down to just 2.2, with child mortality at only 3.8%. How did this happen? Back then, life expectancy was around 45 and per capita income was among the lowest on earth. Bangladesh decided to implement a national family planning program: education helped teach people to plan families better as mothers were told to wait longer and have fewer children; improved healthcare meant parents didn’t need to have as many children anymore anyway and contraceptives were introduced, with contraceptive use rising from 8% in 1975 to 76% in 2019. Improvement in education and public services drove higher employment and income which decreased the fertility rate too. Historically, it took developed nations like the UK over 80 years to halve the fertility rate from 6 to 3 children. On the other hand, other countries today are catching up fast and making good headway. South Africa and Malaysia achieved this in only 34 years. Bangladesh managed it in 20. Iran took just 10. Only a few decades ago, many Asian countries were at a similar point to Sub-Saharan Africa today, which brings me onto my final point.
One particular point of concern regarding overpopulation is Sub-Saharan Africa. The demographic transition simply doesn’t seem to be happening there. Sub-Saharan Africa is currently home to about 1 billion people living in 46 countries. Its growth rate has slowed down in the past couple of decades, however it is still much higher than the rest of the world. Furthermore, projections about its population by the turn of the century vary wildly, with some expecting a population of 2.6 billion, while others predict over 5 billion. These are scary figures and such population growth would probably cripple the continent, with it being the poorest region on the planet. So, why do the projections vary by over 2 billion people? And is Sub-Saharan Africa, and the planet, doomed? Education in Sub-Saharan Africa has improved slowly, with the percentage of educated people rising and more schools being built everywhere, and while contraceptive use has doubled there since 1990, 60% of adolescents still don’t have access to contraception when they need it. There are a number of reasons for these problems. First, most of Sub-Saharan Africa suffered from the scourge of colonialism until very recently and it has had a rough transition to independence: New nations often lacked unity and were too ethnically diverse. As a result, many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa have been repeatedly shaken by local conflicts and brutal civil wars – this means that it has been difficult for proper education and healthcare to develop. Furthermore, foreign aid, with the US and USSR battling it out, and the way it was administered further served to simply complicate life and worsen matters. Some countries are also reluctant to give aid, fearing that Sub-Saharan Africa may start taking jobs from developed nations. Though this may be true, it would be overshadowed by the increased innovation and services that would be brought to the market. Finally, parts of Sub-Saharan culture make trying to reduce the fertility rate really difficult, though to what extent this has an effect on overpopulation is unknown. This description is a broad generalisation and the reality is a lot more nuanced, however it paints a pretty good picture of what’s going on. Nonetheless, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are indeed flourishing, whilst others are seriously struggling. In the end, how much the population grows and how the continent handles the sudden influx of people depends largely on how much foreign countries decide to help Sub-Saharan Africa.
Hence, it is actually in the interest of more wealthy nations to help out developing countries. The more support developing countries receive, the quicker they’ll catch up and the more prosperous the entire planet will be. That’s why programmes that aid poor countries are so vital. What kind of aid is best and what do poorer nations need? Investment in healthcare, education and family planning is the most essential. In fact, small changes can have a colossal impact. For example, if women could just have their first child two years later with better family planning and education, there would be 400 million fewer people by 2100 as a result. If contraception became universally available in Africa and families were able to choose how many children they wanted, the fertility rate would fall by 30%, resulting in 800 million fewer people in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2100. These figures aren’t just theoretical: Ethiopia had a 13% decrease in child mortality since 1990 after health services were improved. 30% of the country’s budget was invested in education, and the result was a 25-fold increase in the number of schools over 20 years.
While the news can seem quite gloomy and scaremongers may talk apocalyptically of overpopulation, there’s plenty to be positive about. The number of people living in extreme poverty is at an all-time low. Furthermore, population growth is projected to eventually come to a halt and we’ll all be better off in the end. The UN forecasts that the 12th billionth human will never be born. As global prosperity increases, there’ll be a subsequent ever-increasing spiral of innovation and success. The number of educated people will increase tenfold; countries who used to desperately need support will be able to contribute more to the global economy. Of course, there are serious challenges ahead, and it’ll be a pretty tough fight, but we can certainly win it. Sub-Saharan Africa does not need gifts or sympathy, but fair investment and dedication. It’s a region rich in culture, resources and potential. If things go well, we’ll see a magnificent turn-around, similar to the one we’ve seen across the majority of Asia in the last few decades. However, it’s important to note that this will leave another problem in its wake. Declining fertility rates and an increasing life expectancy are contributing to a rapidly growing aging population. Population explosions in developing nations can be prevented and helped, while a growing population is just a natural symptom of a growing world economy.