Global population has hit 8 billion

The world population has hit 8 billion, a milestone which has been widely discussed in the media. In this article originally published by The Hill, William Ryerson of the Population Media Center and Kathleen Mogelgaard of the Population Institute reflect on the economic and environmental effects of this milestone.

By William Ryerson and Kathleen Mogelgaard

A busy street in Istanbul, Turkey

On Nov. 15, the world’s population passed 8 billion people. Global population is growing by over 70 million per year, with 80 percent of that growth concentrated in the poorest countries least equipped to feed, educate or employ these additional people. This growth contributes to widespread poverty and environmental degradation. Slowing it would have widespread economic and environmental benefits.

Around the world, 700 million people live in extreme poverty, with the highest concentration in Africa, which has 23 of the world’s poorest 28 countries. Not coincidentally, Africa has the highest fertility rates and population growth in the world. It also suffers from climate instability, water shortages and floods, and food insecurity, with inflation and rising fuel costs making life even harder. A new report predicts sub-Saharan Africa will be unsustainable by 2050. Rapid population growth is a key threat to it and other poor high-growth countries.

Some economists like to argue that endless population growth is a good thing because it drives up gross economic output. They also claim that population growth tracks with technological growth, so that some of the problems caused by a larger population will be solved by the technological innovations that come with it.

But try telling that to someone living on the edge of starvation. The pro-growth school of economic thought is faulty in many ways. The economy is a subsidiary of the environment, and not the reverse. If population growth and economic activity leads to environmental degradation and climate change, which leads to human suffering and death, higher average incomes cannot justify further degradation.

The theory that population growth is good is derived from global or national averages. But these can be deceiving because they hide details that argue otherwise. Increasing incomes of the top 1 percent may raise average incomes while the poorest do not benefit. In many countries, economic growth continues while growing wealth inequality leaves more and more people trapped in poverty. There is little evidence that population growth has improved economic situations at the family level.

However, slowing population growth does benefit families and populations as a whole. We have known for decades about the “demographic dividend,” whereby countries that undergo rapid fertility decline benefit from increased savings, strengthening their capital markets, enabling businesses to borrow and expand, raising employment rates and wages, and developing a middle class. This allows governments to tax the rising incomes, build needed infrastructure like roads and schools, and increased economic productivity. In many countries, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, small middle classes are leveraging such benefits while high-fertility populations remain in poverty.

The good news is that slower population growth is one of myriad benefits that often result from investments that focus on expanding opportunities, services, and rights for women and girls. The lower fertility rates that accompany such scenarios are key to reducing poverty and economic disparity. “Asian tigers” like South Korea and Thailand successfully expanded services and choices regarding family size as a way of raising the economic prospects of their entire populations. That’s a model worth emulating today. Yet in many countries, policy choices favor increasing the wealth of the top 1 percent, widening the gap between them and the rest of the population.

This has profound environmental as well as economic effects, threatening the web of life that makes the planet habitable. A United Nations Environment Programme report on the extinction crisis found that expanding human habitation and human farming are the top drivers of species extinction. They in turn are driven by population growth.

Conversely, lowering fertility rates shrinks our footprint. This is why increasing girls’ education in the developing world and promoting use of family planning to enable individuals and couples to delay childbearing and avoid unintended pregnancy were found to be the most impactful way to fight climate change, according to Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown.” Yet in many poor countries with high fertility rates, girls are denied education and can’t exercise reproductive choice.

Two young mothers learning to write in a literacy class conducted by Literacy House at a village near Lucknow, India, 1979. Literacy House is a voluntary organization providing literacy classes and education about family planning to rural and urban areas. Photo: UN Photo/C. Srinivasan

To be sure, global uptake of family planning methods over the last several decades is a success story. In 1960, about 9 percent of adult couples used modern methods of contraception, while today about 59 percent do. Most people around the world now know about contraception and where to get it. It’s one of the greatest advances in public health in history.

But a billion people still don’t take advantage of it. In countries with high population growth, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, contraceptive use is especially low. Those who do not wish to become pregnant continue to face too many barriers to family planning, including misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of family planning, plus social, educational, physical, and legal barriers.

We need to do better than that. If we shrug at population growth and don’t work concertedly to dismantle barriers to family planning to expand people’s choices in poor countries with high population growth, we’re effectively turning a blind eye to widening inequity and worsening environmental degradation.

We know that educating girls, stopping child marriage and other forms of violence against women, and making family planning information and services widely available can slow population growth, boost economic development, shrink our environmental footprint, and fight climate change. It’s one of the most effective strategies we have for achieving shared, sustainable prosperity. As global population passes the 8 billion mark, it should be a wake-up call that it’s time to take this issue seriously.


William Ryerson is president of the Population Media Center, an organisation that promotes societal change in family planning through storytelling. Kathleen Mogelgaard is president of the Population Institute which promotes universal access to family planning information, education, and services.

This article was originally published on the 31st of October by The Hill, and slightly updated in a couple of places in this republication.

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18 thoughts on “Global population has hit 8 billion

  1. I seem to have seen this same article when we hit five billion … when we hit six billion ,,, when we hit seven billion … This essentially spineless plea for action is beyond sad. We need to identify the major global players who are fighting or hindering the needed talk about overpopulation. The ones who have an interest in an increased human population. That is, the major corporations of the West, especially the oil corporations. And the major corporate religions, especially the Catholic Church. We need to vocally confront them. And to write about them. Their behavior is cruelly destroying our planet and our fellow species … and us.

    1. Well, the powers I focus on (in the U.S. and the media they own throughout the world) is Big 6 Media, who have made it clear that those worried about another billion every few years are just “extremists.” They hypocritically headline climate change and pretend we can address that even as the world adds 80 million more people A YEAR, never mind that 17,000 climate scientists disagree with them.

      People are, as Dr. Al Bartlett used to say, “innumerate,” or ignorant about numbers, especially when it comes to population and that is particularly true in the United States.

      We’re absolute population DUFUSES! Most Americans are unaware that we’re one of the world’s fastest growing nations–because, gosh, media TELL us we aren’t growing because our birthrate is falling, even though, due to momentum, even with that, we’ll grow for decades. And, never mind that births haven’t been the primary growth driver in this country since the 1960s, exactly when Congress decided to remove previous cautious immigration policies. And, remember, our numbers explode in ours the highest PER-CAPITA CARBON NATION by MILLIONS A YEAR, part of why we’re a near-carbon-equivalent to China!

      But I agree with this post. I write (just had a thing published by NPG on the “modern megadrought,” population, water and the Southwest, partly my effort to erase the LIES from Big 6 Media, although I’ll hasten to add that activism is very hard right now, because Big 6 is making sure that venues to be heard (letters to editors, commentaries, the right to rebut broadcasters that once existed UNDER LAW) are disappearing.

      But I don’t think we should be blaming the Catholic Church. After all, Catholic Italy, Ireland, Spain and other predominately Catholic nations have below-replacement-level birthrates, with Mexico and other nations heading that way too–I’ll hasten very much due to efforts like those of POPULATION MEDIA.

      I’d say one of the most valuable things we need to do is to, as population activists, get more informed ourselves and then, in turn, inform others. Such as how many of you know what the U.S.’s current (excluding Biden’s EXPLOSION at the southern border) .5 percent per-annum growth rate means? If you listen to Wall Street, we’re turning into a ghost nation. And yet, that “low” growth rate will nonetheless DOUBLE THE U.S. POPULATION in less than 100 years, and add in Biden’s MILLIONS via ILLEGAL immigration, and we’re EXPLODING, like to be well over 400 million by 2060 or, thank you Biden, LONG BEFORE!

      1. I did read NPG paper and shared it with my daughter who lives in S. Calif. In the late 90’s the Seattle ZPG put up a kiosk display at the Woodland Park (Seattle) Zoo. It had three parts, a counter which counted net population growth (3 per second) along with an estimate of natural lands lost. There was a video from such as Bill Nye and Walter Cronkite on population and the environment.The last part was about numbers and it was presented as a series of thought games.If you are 1 million seconds old how old are you (11.5 days). If you are 1 billion seconds old how old are you (31.5 years). If one takes 26 linear steps one crosses a wide highway. If one takes 26 exponential steps one would circumnavigate the world. The idea of numbers and growth rates could be covered in a couple of middle-school math sessions. When presenting these numbers to others most don’t believe they are real so we have carried that ignorance into adulthood and this is a major part of the problem. Thank you for your work. I am enviable. BTW, that Kiosk stood for years.

  2. Most people think that Anything Goes, Numbers Don’t Matter, The More the Merrier, No Limits!
    In order to believe otherwise, you have to Read, and most people aren’t Reading!

    1. This article doesn’t say that the majority of countries are in fact having only 2.2 kids and all European, North American and some South American and far Eastern countries as well as Australia and New Zealand have a fertility rate under 2.2…without immigration those countries will be loosing millions of people yearly. Japan’s population will be at it’s 1970’s level by 2100. And South Korea’s population is set to half! That’s terrible news. Population growth should only be lowered where necessary, like in Africa where people have upwards of 10 kids and no way of feeding them.

      1. Population decline in low-fertility countries is actually pretty slow, and a very good thing. Fighting it by increasing immigration is the stupidest thing we could do.
        And it’s not about “paying pensions”: in Italy for example only about a third of the population is actually employed. So we don’t need more people, we need to find a way to get a job to those that don’t have or want one.

        (What’s wrong with Japan going back to its 1970s population levels? Japan is INSANELY overpopulated, and even with declining population has a very high standard of living, they’re fine)

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  3. We should seize Elon Musk’s fortune and give it to organizations that actually help people and society, like Population Action International.

    It’s the least Musk can do to make up for his blatant lies about a “population crash.” In reality, he just wants more poor, uneducated and desperate workers to exploit.

  4. Gaia pointed out in comments on February 14th last, that “One fascinating thing about humans, and possibly other creatures, is that often the most dire the situation, the greater the desire to live and breed. Suicide rates in Nazi concentration camps were very low. High suicide rates and low fertility are commonly associated with wealthy and safe countries such as the ones in Northern Europe or East Asia.” She gave a link to an article about the population explosion amongst the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar. The open prison of modern Palestine has also seen an astonishing population explosion – which would be even larger but for mass emigration. No doubt there are many other examples, from the past as well as the present day.
    She came to no conclusion – but for me, this is why I say that the matter is completely outside human control. I have recently discovered Schopenhauer (on youtube), and of course he provides a possible or probable reason for this.
    The Will to Live (German: Wille zum Leben) is a concept developed by him, representing an irrational “blind incessant impulse without knowledge” that drives instinctive behaviors, causing an endless insatiable striving in human existence, without which the rest of the natural world could not exist either – because each organism however tiny has this Will to Live. At its simplest, it is why bacteria become resistant to anti-biotics, and so on.
    Humans have no conscious control over their own Will to Live, though external forces can weaken or strengthen it, and of course a stronger human can snuff it out, as in Abortion. Euthanasia, by contrast, is freely chosen – at the moment – though it is an external pressure like incurable illness that has prompted the “choice”. Neither will have much impact on the billions who retain the Will to Live. There are some stunning photos at the moment of bewildered-looking babies being pulled out of earthquake ruins after 6 days or more. As the camera stares in close-up into the baby’s eyes, there is the elemental Will to Live staring right back, with the same determination as the mechanical camera. It is the most beautiful look in the world – the Look of Life, and within that the Look of Love (and Hate).
    Schopenhauer remarked that what we call Love is an integral part of the human Will to Live, an immensely powerful force that lies unseen within man’s psyche, guaranteeing the survival of the human race: This is why all talk of rational, controlled methods of reducing human population is a waste of space and time. Only a huge exterior force or forces could negate each human’s Will to Live (and to Love – no way are humans going to give up on Love, in all its forms, as it is an inseparable part of the Will to Live – and of course so is Hate, I am afraid). Other species simply collapse under their own weight of numbers if they become too numerous for their sources of nourishment – and that is probably what will happen to us, in the end, in spite of our superior ability to Love and Hate which doubly ensures our survival as a species. It won’t be pretty.
    As Gaia pointed out, Tragedy and Crisis often strengthen the Will to Live. There is little that can weaken it for long – though War, Plague, Drought, Famine, and latterly all-encompassing Pollution of air, soil, and water can dent it, but it always bounces back (though maybe not from the level of Pollution we now have?). One possible form of conscious control or subjugation of the Will to Live would be an ascetic life, according to Schopenhauer – but most humans are not going to choose to be Ascetics, as he readily admitted. Nevertheless it is true that when medieval European nations far exceeded available natural resources, at least one third of all adults went routinely into monasteries or convents. But that was when other continents still had huge untapped resources and small populations – and more importantly, before the Industrial Revolution gave humans the ability to reach 8 billion and rising. Still …. it might help, if it really was one third of 9 billion leaving only 6 billion with the Will to Live ….. hmmm, 6 billion is still unsustainable, but it might make things easier in the run-up to the great population crash..

    1. I don’t think that any ultimate conclusive statement can be made about human nature as a whole (though I’ve probably made them myself, as most of us have). We are able to change our behaviours greatly in response to circumstances. The range of our experiences and worldviews is also amazingly wide.
      Yes, survival is a very strong human instinct, which we share with all living things. But sometimes we still choose death, for a variety of reasons.
      And I think there’s a difference between the will to live and the will to breed. You can enjoy your own life and still not wish to pass it on. And even the will to breed is shaped by circumstances – some people really want to be parents, but stop at one and pour all their love into that one person.

      Israel and Palestine are an interesting example because they’re basically trying to out-breed each other. It’s a very… Biblical situation. Primordial, almost. Alan Weisman has a chapter on it in his wonderful book “Countdown”.

      I think that low fertility rates are our best chance. There’s no other way to reduce human and environmental suffering that causes less pain than a low birth rate, no matter what the pundits say.

    2. Parts of this idea I have heard and promoted. When one loses a belief in a god one often feels there’s no meaning to life. I have found that idea extremely anthropocentric as the meaning on LIFE (writ large to include all species) is to evolve and evolution takes place through survival but mostly reproducing. We humans evolve through knowledge and knowledge is acquired through learning. One item I had learned was that during the last major depression the fertility rate in the U.S went down. People didn’t have enough to feed themselves (starvation often brings about a lowered fertility) and having offspring simply means more mouths to feed. A researcher, Dr. Virginia D. Abernathy wrote a book “Population Politics” and showed how people living in a developing country often have a higher fertility as they feel more kids will increase the chances that one will make it to a developed country (especially if it is close by) and send home money. I just read a horrific report in the ‘National Geographic’: “Life Goes on” which is about the conditions in Lebanon. Many of the destitute families are supported by family members in wealthier countries, sending money home.

      1. Lebanon has an insanely high population density of over 600 people/sq km, while fertility is at replacement.
        You’d think they would mention this when they talk about the Lebanese not having money, not having food, struggling… but you’d be wrong.

  5. Whoever wants depopulation, should back up what they say and start with themselves if you are indeed truthful ,

    1. If you’re talking about people killing themselves, that’s not what it’s about. If you’re talking about number of children, you get to have between 0 and 2 and the population will decline if everyone else does as well.

  6. Congratulations on such a well written, thoughtful, measured and persuasive article. The authors’ admirable proposal is to spread education and contraceptive use amongst women in the Poor South and rely on them to dial back on the unsustainable rate of human reproduction. However I wonder whether we are already too late to prevent this human reproductive tsunami, which has gained almost unstoppable momentum during my lifetime (since 1950), from creating the next Great Extinction event in the lifetime of this planet. The economic and cultural development that enables women in the Rich North, including the Asian Tigers, to decide for themselves, invariably in the face of government, corporate and media opposition, to reduce their Total Fertility Rate to less than 2.1 does not obtain in the Poor South . . . and may never be achieved, before we reach a global population of 11 billion. But then, perhaps the first battle is the propaganda war to convince the global elite, whether corrupt, nepotistic politicians, short-sighted, greedy business people or self-admiring media celebrities of the error of their particular world view. Do the authors, or other subscribers to The Overpopulation Project, have a professionally designed and adequately funded Communication Strategy, which will ensure that evidence of the existential threat, posed by human overpopulation, to our planet, our own species and all other species, is recognised in national and international forums, in particular at the United Nations, G7 and G20, and finally acted upon by world leaders in the political, business, scientific and cultural spheres ?

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