Home / Opinion / Views /  World population hits 8 billion: 3 reasons not to worry

The world population grew to 8 billion today. We should celebrate this on two counts: species surviv​​al success and development success even in the poorest parts of the world. This might come as a surprise to worrywarts conditioned to see population growth as a giant problem. We will explain why such worry is misplaced.

Is survival and numerical growth of the human species a big deal? Is survival not the rule, rather than the exception? Well, just ask the Dodo, the woolly mammoth, the Tasmanian tiger and the Golden toad, if not Tyrannosaurus Rex. That, of course, is in a manner of speaking: you can’t ask them because they are extinct, and even if they were alive, they could not speak or, in some cases, they would much rather eat you.

Human beings could have been wiped out by pandemics, droughts that created mass starvation, their tendency to kill one another for tangible, physical possessions or territory or myriad other triggers. Humans could have been wiped out by a meteor strike large enough to throw up enough dust to occlude the sun for months, killing most life on the planet. None of these things happened.

Or humanity could have been wiped out by its own unrestrained reproduction, producing more individuals than could be supported by available food or other resources on the planet. That also did not happen, because human ingenuity created the wherewithal to raise productivity of food, to find new sources for materials, to make more with less, to develop cures for disease, even to share the fruits of development to those without direct access to them, via the spread of knowledge and production systems, backed up with investment to create production structures and institutions, and, further, with things like food aid, peacekeepers, vaccine and drug donations, and so on. In other words, development has worked its magic to spread access to the things that keep people alive to every part of the world.

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If you are the kind who needs a good excuse to celebrate on a weekday, the mere fact of human survival is as good as any.

What are the reasons to not worry about over-population? For one, better people have beaten you to such handwringing, most famously, Thomas Malthus, English intellectual born in the year of the American Revolution, who forecast that people would multiply at a pace that would outgrow food production, leading to starvation and death. For another, human ingenuity has produced ways to increase the output of food and other requirements of a decent life, on a scale that results in uneconomic surpluses.

A second reason is that population growth rate has been slowing. It took nearly 2.5 million years for the first apelike creatures that could make crude stone tools to evolve and grow into modern humans of a sizeable population. The total human population in 1800 was 1 billion. It grew rapidly thereafter, as the ability to produce the food and goods that humans needed to survive, including medicines, vaccines and hospitals grew and spread across the world, to touch 6 billion by 1999, 7 billion by 2011 and 8 billion now

But the pace of growth has been coming down. The growth rate of population had been 2% a year 50 years ago; it is now 1%. The growth rate is falling sharply in most parts of the world. China, the most populous country as of 2022, is slated to experience a population decline next year, when India will overtake China as the most populous country. Japan and most of Western Europe have been going through population decline for several years.

The reason is that when social development progresses beyond a point, people stop seeing any point in having many children. Population growth is the total number of births minus the number of deaths. Advances in healthcare progressively depresses the death rate. You would think this is a recipe for rapid increase in the population, and so it has been in several parts of the world over 1850-2000. But, when social development becomes widespread, and women gain agency over their lives, the number of additional births falls. The total fertility rate (TFR) is the crucial variable in determining total births. TFR is the total number of children a woman can be expected to have over her lifetime. If a woman has two children over her lifetime, these two would replace one man and one woman, when they die, and keep the population stable. A higher TFR would expand the population. However, to take into account the likelihood of some children not surviving to adulthood, the TFR that would create a stable population is put slightly above 2, at 2.1.

Most part of the developed world, regardless of religion and ethnicity, have a TFR below 2.1. The more underdeveloped a country, the higher its TFR. For India as a whole, the TFR is now estimated to be 2, below the replacement level. Bangladesh crossed that mark several years ago. Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other states with low levels of social development still have TFRs above 2.1. But the TFR has been steadily declining across India.

The population does not start declining immediately after hitting a TFR of 2.1. The children already born will grow to adulthood, and procreate, making the population grow for some more time. Only when this addition turns smaller than the number of those dying would the population start declining.

In a country like Pakistan, the TFR is significantly higher than 2.1. Their population would continue to grow, although at a steadily lower rate, as the TFR comes down over the years.

Just eight countries — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United Republic of Tanzania — will be home to more than half the addition to world population by 2050.

The third reason not to worry about a population explosion is that a child born is not just a mouth to feed, but also two hands to work, a mind to create new knowledge. If the child is educated properly, it would grow into an adult capable of producing far more than is required for its own survival.

The problem would come when there are not enough young people to renew the workforce. This is what worries China, persuading its policymakers to move rapidly from a one-child policy to now asking people to have three children. There are few takers for this generous offer, though.

Our focus should be not on how the population is growing, but on how to educate the young right, and create conditions for their productive employment. The US, Germany and the UK, apart from others, right now face an acute shortage of workers, ratcheting up wages and hindering efforts to contain inflation, and increasing dependence on automation and artificial intelligence. Generous doses of immigration could cure this problem, but immigration creates troubled politics.

This shows us what to worry over, when it comes to population growth. It is just not about the total numbers.

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