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Is 7 billion too many for our overcrowded planet?

Video by Siobhán SILKE

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-10-31

The world’s burgeoning population has grown to seven times the number that so alarmed British demographer Thomas Malthus two centuries ago – and questions about its sustainability are still much the same.

Seven billion people now inhabit Earth, the United Nations has announced, reviving long-held fears about overpopulation on a planet with limited resources. “How did we become so many? How large a number can our Earth sustain?” the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) asked in its “State of the World Population 2011” report, which was released ahead of the headcount milestone.

Further fuelling concerns, estimates suggest the world will reach eight billion by 2025 and possibly ten billion by the end of the century. Within 38 years Asia and Africa will each add another 1 billion people to the planet, demographers have warned. Experts wonder how certain regions in those continents, which have been hit by famines and soaring food prices in recent years, can cope with an additional 2 billion mouths to feed.

“With an estimated 925 million hungry people in the world, 13.1 percent, or almost 1 in 7 people are hungry,” the World Food Program announced earlier this year. The UN organization said that overall the world was not making enough progress towards goals to reduce the number of undernourished people.

Worries have also arisen from calculations that show some of the globe’s regions will experience little or no growth, while a few, like Eastern Europe, will actually see their population shrink. According to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, Europe will shed 15 million people by mid-century.

Some demographers, like Oxford University scholar David Coleman, are scarcely alarmed by Europe’s predicted population decrease. “[Population growth] increases Gross Domestic Product, but that is a rather weak measure of welfare. What matters for a country’s welfare is GDP per head. There is no evidence that population growth in European countries increases GDP per head. What it does is increase congestion, overcrowding and, in my view, reduce the quality of life,” Coleman said.

In its report, the UNPFA urged global actors to take a step back from the awe-inspiring 7 billion figure. “When we look only at the big number, we risk being overwhelmed and losing sight of new opportunities to make life better for everyone in the future,” it stated.

An ageing problem

Alarm bells over exploding population growth have rung in the past. In 1798 the English thinker Thomas Malthus famously wrote that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." His warning, pronounced as the world's population reached the one billion mark, would nonetheless be followed by unprecedented population growth.

French demographer Gilles Pison says rapid population growth has not heralded the doom of mankind, as Malthus predicted. “Two hundred years ago a greater percentage of people died of hunger than they do today,” Pison pointed out.

“The challenge now is to make sure that 10 billion people will live better lives at the end of this century than us seven billion do today,” the demographer added. According to Pison, better distribution of food resources holds the keys to survival.

So is there a limit to the amount of people the world can contain? Faced with the question, demographers like Pison and Coleman bring the question back to correctly predicting figures in the long term.

While they can closely predict population trends over the next fifty years, they say it is fairly difficult to pin down anything after that. As Malthus could not have predicted the population boom and boon produced by the industrial revolution two hundred years ago, they say the next two centuries are equally unpredictable.



Date created : 2011-10-31


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