Today, as on every July 11th, the United Nations celebrates World Population Day, an occasion designated to “focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.”
Let’s take a look at some of those issues.
1. We’re not making much, if any, progress.
The first World Population Day was held in 1990, when the world population was about 5.3 billion.
That number has now soared to more than 7.5 billion.
And if you think things are crowded now, just wait a few years. A recent United Nations study calculates the world human population will hit 8 billion in 2023 and balloon to 9.8 billion by 2050.
Now, that increase is not universal. Some countries will actually see declines — all European nations, for example — but the UN found that half of the population growth will take place in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia. India will eclipse China as the world’s most populous country by about 2024, while Nigeria will pass the U.S. as the country with the third-biggest population by 2050.
2. It’s not about just the number of people, but also what they consume.
We have more people now, but our average impact is also growing. One recent study found that more than 10 percent of the world population classifies as medically obese. That’s obviously just one marker for overconsumption, but it serves as a pretty potent illustration of how much the human population drives the environmental impact of our food system alone. Add in carbon emissions, deforestation, species habitat loss and extinction and we’ve got a real mess on our hands.
3. It’s also about inequality.
Much of the population explosion boils down to gender inequality. Women around the world lack access to education, social status, jobs, family planning and medical care — which drives population growth. Solving these problems would not only help make society more equal; as Paul Hawken notes in his book “Drawdown,” it could also give us some of the tools we need to help tackle global warming.
And this is also about wealth inequality. The world’s five richest men now control more wealth than half of the world’s population. With extreme poverty affecting populations around the world, this top-heavy concentration of assets leaves little opportunity for anything to get better.
4. Population needs to be a priority.
I know this is a tough issue to talk about. No one wants to say “you should have fewer kids,” but really, the world needs to have fewer kids and we need to do more for the people we already have. Every other topic we cover here on The Revelator — climate change, pollution, clean water, overdevelopment and the extinction crisis — stems at least in part from the impact of the ever-increasing human population and the systemic inequality with which we all live.
This is unsustainable. We need to take population issues seriously, both for the billions of people already on this planet and for the billions of other species that share our home.