New research suggests that the global peak may be lower than expected. But the challenges will still be immense. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrung his hands as he contemplated the growing mass of humanity, warning: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
A few years after he wrote that essay, the global population hit 1 billion. Now, thanks to the exponential growth which he described; it is closing in on 8 billion. The scholar’s direst warnings, echoed by others through the years, have not come to pass. But his concerns about the strain on resources have been multiplied by the climate crisis, with greenhouse gas emissions rising, and global heating in turn causing land loss and deterioration.
Now, a new report released this month suggests that the world’s population could stand at 2 billion less than United Nations projections by the end of the century. The research, led by the University of Washington and published in the Lancet, suggests that the earth’s population will peak at 9.6 billion in 2064 – rather than 11.2 billion in 2100, as the UN forecasts – thanks mostly to improved education for women and greater access to contraception. Though the UN has an impressive track record in its forecasts to date, others too have suggested that fertility will fall more sharply than it predicts.
This may look like good news. But even on the lower population estimates, the strain on resources would be immense. Nor would the reduction save us from climate catastrophe. Action must be taken now, not by future generations. And emissions are heavily dependent on economic circumstances, policy and personal choices: what matters most is not how many people there are in the world, nor even where they live, but what they do.
The projections in the study also suggest that some existing challenges will be sharpened, with immense cultural, social and political effects to match their material impact. The number of old people will overtake the young; by 2100, there could be 2.4 billion people over the age of 65, compared with 1.7 billion under the age of 20. Developed countries are facing the problems of ageing and declining populations first; the paper predicts that Japan’s population will halve, while Nigeria’s will almost quadruple. Many societies will face dying communities and younger workers may struggle to support large numbers of retirees.
The worst-case scenario, as the report’s lead author notes, could see countries reducing access to birth control in a peculiar mirror image of the Malthus-inspired sterilisation campaigns and eugenics movements designed to head off growth. In contrast, planned and humane population movement – avoiding the creation of permanent underclasses – could benefit both growing and shrinking countries.
Yet migration policies alone will not be enough. At present, countries seem to be turning away from cooperation. But in a crowded world, where national populations are on vastly diverging trajectories, we will – more than ever – need international solutions.