"World on the Edge is brilliant. Author Lester Brown is one of humanity's greatest voices for the environment. In this volume, he presents the reader with a clear prescription for restoring sanity to our relationship with the biosphere. Highest recommendation." —Geoffrey Holland, The Hydrogen Age
During 2004, 133 million people were born and 57 million died, expanding world population by 76 million. This excess of births over deaths was concentrated in the developing countries, which added 73 million people compared with only 3 million in the industrial countries. World population, growing by 1.2 percent annually, is projected to reach 6.4 billion in 2005. (See data.)
Just over 1 billion of the earth’s inhabitants live in the industrial countries of Europe, North America, Oceania, and Japan, where populations are growing on average 0.25 percent a year. Meanwhile, the other 5.2 billion people live in the less developed countries, where populations are growing at 1.5 percent annually—six times as fast.
Six countries account for half the annual increase in population, and all of these but the United States are in the developing world. India accounts for 21 percent of this growth, China 12 percent, Pakistan 5 percent, and Bangladesh, Nigeria, and the United States 4 percent each.
China—long the world’s most populous country—is likely to cede its top position to India by 2035. In 1968 China’s annual growth rate peaked at 2.7 percent; by 2004 it had slowed to 0.7 percent. Its population, now at 1.3 billion, is projected to peak in 2031 at 1.45 billion. India’s population, which is growing by 1.5 percent annually, is not projected to peak until 2065 at 1.56 billion people.
It took from the beginning of human existence until early in the nineteenth century for our ranks to grow to 1 billion. We reached the second billion 123 years later, in 1927. Since then, however, the milestones of each new billion have arrived much quicker: world population hit 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, and 6 billion in 1999. We will likely hit 7 billion by 2013.
As population grows, the land and water available per person shrinks. For the human population to stabilize, family size needs to fall to an average of two children per couple, known as replacement-level fertility. In 1950, women around the world had on average five children during their lifetimes. Today women in industrial countries give birth to one or two children on average, while those in developing countries have more than three. (See data.)
There are 17 countries where women bear an average of six or more children. All but two of them, Afghanistan and Yemen, are in Africa. Women in Niger, Somalia, Angola, Uganda, Yemen, and Mali have on average seven or more children. At this rate, each of these poverty-stricken countries faces another doubling of population within the next quarter century.
On the other end of the spectrum is Europe, where women have an average of 1.4 births. Worldwide, there are more than 60 countries with fertility at or below replacement level. The smallest families today are in the Eastern European countries, Spain and Italy, where women have just one child on average. Populations in these countries are already declining or are set to decline by the end of this decade.
The number of children a woman bears is largely determined by her education, access to family planning information and services, economic status, and cultural environment. Nearly 61 percent of the world’s married women use some method of family planning to prevent or to control the timing or spacing of their pregnancies. Unfortunately, some 201 million women worldwide want to limit their family size but lack access to a choice of effective contraception.
The year 2004 was the tenth anniversary of the landmark International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, when delegates from 179 countries agreed to work toward universal access to family planning and reproductive health services by 2015. The participating countries pledged to invest a combined $17 billion a year by the turn of the century, with annual donations to increase to $22 billion. The developing countries promised to put up two thirds of the total investment, while the more affluent donor nations agreed to provide the rest.
Although we are now halfway to 2015, neither developing nor industrial countries have fulfilled their pledges. Developing countries have at least met 80 percent of their promised contributions, but the wealthier donor countries have given only half. Very few countries have actually paid their bill in full.
Meeting the needs of the 201 million women without access to a range of effective family planning services would cost an estimated $3.9 billion a year. This annual funding could avert some 52 million pregnancies, of which some 22 million are ended by induced abortions. It is rare for such a modest expenditure to have the potential to achieve such gains.
Not only is meeting these needs a humanitarian concern, it is also an opportunity for a large economic dividend. In Bangladesh, for example, the estimated $62 that the government spends to prevent an unwanted pregnancy is one tenth what it would otherwise spend on social services for mother and child. Educating girls can also reap big payoffs, as added years in school consistently lead to progressively smaller families, higher wages, and faster economic growth.
The latest population projections from the United Nations show somewhat lower population growth than previously expected, reflecting lower fertility as well as higher mortality rates related to AIDS. HIV/AIDS is responsible for lowering life expectancy in a number of African countries to nearly medieval levels. In Botswana, where one out of every three adults is HIV-positive, life expectancy is 40 years. Without AIDS, it would be 68. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the AIDS epidemic has reversed life expectancy to 46 years. (See data.)
While some progress has been made in developing maternal and child health programs, an infant born in Africa is 13 times more likely to die before its first birthday than one born in Europe or North America. A global comparison of the poorest and richest fifths of the population shows that the poorest children are twice as likely to die before the age of five and that the poorest women are twice as likely to be malnourished.
As people continue to seek better livelihoods, international migration will remain high in the coming decades, with about 2 million people moving to the more developed regions each year. The United States is the principal destination, with an annual net average of 1.1 million immigrants. By 2050, this will add up to 55 million people for the half century—nearly equal to the population of France.
Populations in cities are growing about twice as fast as those in the countryside, and in 2007, for the first time ever, urban residents will outnumber rural populations. The group of city dwellers is likely to swell to 5 billion by 2030, while rural numbers are projected to change little. Indeed, most of the population growth of the next several decades will come in cities in developing countries.
U.N. projections of world population growth show several potential trajectories. The low-fertility scenario has population peaking at 7.5 billion by 2040 and then falling to 7.4 billion in 2050. The medium-growth scenario has the world hitting 8.9 billion by mid-century, with growth slowing until population peaks at 9.2 billion around 2075. The high-growth variant brings us to 10.6 billion by 2050 and 14 billion by the end of the century. (See data.)
With water and land in limited supply, whether we move toward the higher or lower number may have more influence on future environmental and social stability than anything else we do. The most humane way to achieve the low-level projections is to improve health and social conditions to promote population stabilization through reduced birth rates, not to allow death rates to climb as a result of negligence.
Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute