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The global population has reached 8 billion people this week and continues to grow. How will it affect our planet?

Photograph: Rob Curran/Unsplash
The Earth population this week has surpassed 8 billion people. Even though it is impossible to precisely calculate the date when it happened, the UN points to 15 November as the date. Back in the 1970s, many experts forecasted that the global population increase would very soon lead to famine as well as ecological, economic, and social collapse. In 2019, 11,000 scientists all over the world called on the global community to stabilise and preferably reduce the world population. We break down how Homo sapiens inhabited the whole planet, who suffered because of it, and whether apocalyptic predictions can turn into reality.
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There were relatively few people on our planet almost throughout the entire history of the human civilisation, and their number was growing very slowly. If we take roughly 10,000 years BC, over this period, the total number of people on our planet barely reached 5 million. However, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture acted as a powerful stimulus to form communities, and the numbers started to go up. When the Common Era dawned upon the humanity, there were possibly 200 million people in the world, while this number stood at around 750 million at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The global population reached the crucial milestone of 1 billion people between the 18th and the 19th centuries. It began multiplying at an unprecedented rate from that point on.

In 1925, the 2 billion mark was achieved. In 30 years’ time, it was already 3 billion. The 1960-1970s are defined by a demographic boom: scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs made it possible to cut down death rates, while the spread of the carbon industry and energy along with the green revolution supplied an ever-increasing number of people with food and other resources. In the mid-1960s, the population increase reached record-high levels and another billion people were added to the count already in 1974 (this time it only took 14 years). Each next billion took less and less time. And here we are, there are now 8 billion people in the world.

The global population continues to grow, albeit more slowly

Despite the fact that the number of people on the planet is still going up, the speed at which it’s happening is slowing down globally. In the mid-1960s, the increase equaled 2.1% per year, a record-high number. Meanwhile, it dropped below 1% a year in 2021. In the 1950s and 1960s, the total fertility rate was 5 births per woman, and today it’s more than halved (2.4).

Why is it happening?

A demographic shift occurred in France and the UK starting with the late 18th century, meaning that the traditional reproduction model is substituted with the modern one: from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates. The demographic shift first took place in the industrially developed countries before moving on to the wider world.

The reduction of child mortality rates played a crucial role here: parents no longer needed to have a lot of kids in fears that not all of them would survive. Families started having fewer children.

However, the opposite effect comes into play first. The children from a populous generation reach reproductive age, and the population numbers soar. This is what was happening in Asia in the 1960s or the current situation in Africa. This trend is followed by a drop in population growth rates.

Nowadays, more and more countries report longer lifespans and improved standards of living, which exacts a natural birth rate decrease. This means that we will see an even slower population growth and reductions globally in the future.

But the demographic situation in the world is not homogenous. Rich Western states experience lower birth rates, mostly due to women obtaining better access to education, work, and contraception. Meanwhile, populations are still growing in poorer countries where women are still struggling with it. On top of that, the child death rate is very different in the world: in tropical Africa, it is 14 times higher than in Europe or North America.

In Africa, South and Central Asia, more than 220 million women give births more often than they would like to, while the UN Population Fund counted that almost half of all pregnancies in 2022 were unplanned. It all provokes a thought that the birth limit policy should not by default enforce repressions against populations, as it happened with China’s one-child policy or India’s forced sterilisations in the 1970s. It is essential for all women around the world to have access to education, both traditional and sexual, contraceptives, and opportunities to plan family size.

Humankind will reach its peak population by the end of the 21st century

Scientists have no doubt that the demographic increase is subsiding, but the world population will continue to go up in the next few decades. However, there’s still no clear understanding when it will actually start shrinking.

The most recent UN forecasts show that the global population will be expanding throughout the whole of the 21st century and will hit 9.7 billion by 2050. Later, this number is expected to peak at around 10.5 billion in the 2080s and will remain at this level until the end of the century. At the same time, the UN believes that the highest population number that the planet can get by 2100 is 12.4 billion. Africa’s sub-Saharan states will contribute the most to this increase: the region will become the most populous in the world by the 2060s.

Despite the fact that the UN forecasts envision that the global population will start shrinking after 2100, some researchers consider it to be alarmist. Particularly because it does not factor in lower birth rates due to the ongoing urbanisation. Moreover, the UN model includes the possibility that birth rates in some countries would start going up again due to the improved financial situation.

There’s another forecast made by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in 2020. It says that the world population will continue to grow until 2064 and will reach 9.7 billion. It will then start shrinking and will have gone down to 8.8 billion by 2100. The authors of the research believe that the main factor behind this trend will be universal access to female education and to contraceptives, especially in Africa.

At the same time, both forecasts profess that the 21st century will be the last one when the population of our planet will grow. Nevertheless, overpopulation is still very much an issue in 2022.

What the global overpopulation leads to

Discussions about the fact that overpopulation puts a greater strain on nature first drew public attention during the demographic boom in the 1960s. Well, the discussion was not in the form of scientific publications, it was a tendentious book by American biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Having travelled to India and being shocked by swarms of people in the streets, they wrote a best-selling book titled The Population Bomb in 1968.

The Club of Rome was established the same year. It was an association of European intellectuals who sought to draw attention to global issues of the humanity. The first club report, the Limits to Growth, came out in 1974: it was focused on overpopulation and reaffirmed that a humanitarian catastrophe was unavoidable. The report was highly publicised: the UN declared the year it was published World Population Year and called the first global convention on this issue.

Did the Club of Rome predications come true?

One of the main ideas in the Limits to Growth was that if the world failed to take actions to limit births globally, the humanity would be very soon faced with an imminent collapse of ecosystems which in turn would bring about deficits of such non-renewable natural resources like water, food, and soil.

Just 1% of the water on Earth is potable and reachable for humans. The World Wide Fund for Nature reports that more than a billion people have no access to it, while similar issues can arise for 2/3 of the global population by 2025. As for food, 9% of the people on Earth are currently starved. And even though these forecasts did not materialise (food production per capita increased, on the contrary, while hunger-related deaths dropped), our prosperity comes at a price.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the global food production exceeds the current needs of the growing population. It happens due to agricultural expansion, which in turn is thanks to meddling in ecosystems. Earth has increasingly fewer places for wildlife. More species are under threat of extinction now than even before. Human activity has already transformed 77% of land and 87% of the ocean, which resulted in eradication of 83% of the wild mammal biomass and 40% of plants. At the moment, 96% of the mammals on earth are humans and cattle.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the UN ordered an overall assessment of the human impact on nature and learnt that we had affected ecosystems more quickly and strongly in the past 50 years than ever before. The humanity’s growing demand for food, water, wood, fibres, and fuel as well as water, air, and soil pollution have led to such widespread (and often irreversible) losses in our biodiversity that the ability of our planet to sustain future generations is in serious doubt. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a detailed report that confirmed that the population growth was one of the reasons behind the global biodiversity loss.

In 2021, the platform joined forces with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to issue a report which shows that in the past 150 years the excessive consumption of coal, gas, and oil as well as the growth of industries and power industry, interference in land and water landscapes caused climate change. For instance, the increase in greenhouse emissions is directly linked to the population growth: on average a 1% increase in population is associated with a 1.5% increase in global carbon emissions.

The more there are of us, the bigger is the demand to burn fossil fuel and produce, for example, cement, the more cars and exhaust fumes there are, and the weaker our ecosystems are that naturally absorb carbon gases.

At the same time, not all countries in the world are equally responsible for the impact on ecosystems and climate. Between 1990 and 2015, 3 billion of the least developed regions globally were exacting just 7% of the global greenhouse emissions, while the 1% of the richest people on the planet were bringing in twice as much (15%). Meanwhile, climate change consequences will affect everyone, including Russia, whose population is dropping.

In 2017, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries signed a Warning to Humanity. The document claims that the quick population growth is behind many modern ecological and public threats. In two years’ time, 11,000 scientists from 153 states again drew attention to it, calling to stabilise and preferably reduce the global population. Recent research, whose authors were comparing ways to reduce personal carbon footprints, identified that it is most effective to have fewer children.

By Anna Efremova

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