Peak Human Population and the Global Environment

David P. Turner / September 11, 2020

Introduction

A key pursuit in the field of Earth System Science is measuring and monitoring global scale structures and processes.  These measurements have led to the concept of the “Great Acceleration”, a name given to the period since around 1950 during which many global scale attributes related to the human enterprise (the technosphere) began rising in an exponential fashion.  The increase in global population is the iconic example.

Intuitively, it seems unlikely that this level of population increase and associated resource consumption could continue indefinitely on a finite planet.  Practically speaking, problems have begun to arise both with resource shortages and environmental degradation from excess waste production (e.g. global warming and ocean acidification from massive fossil fuel combustion).

Humanity clearly must transition to a more sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system.  The way forward lies in bending those exponentially rising Great Acceleration curves for population and resources use, hitting the peaks, and engineering declines.

As noted by ecologists long ago, total resource use (Impact) is a function of the number of people (Population), their per capita use (Affluence), and the efficiency with which raw resources are converted to useful products (Technology).

Resource use per person obviously varies tremendously, hinting at the special responsibility of the more developed countries to limit population growth (the net effect of births minus deaths and immigration minus emigration).  But all humans consume natural resources.  Thus, the high projected population growth rates in less developed countries must also be brought down.  The sooner global population peaks, the less natural capital (e.g. biodiversity) will be degraded, the less likely that competition for resources will lead to human conflict, and the less likely that climate change will trigger tipping points in the Earth system that precipitate extreme impacts on humans.

Past, Present, and Future Global Population

The global population size doubled between 1927 and 1974 and has nearly doubled again since 1979.  It is now 7.8 billion.

However, the rate of annual global population growth has fallen in recent decades (from > 2% per year to 1.05% per year), mostly associated with a decreasing trend in fertility (children born per woman during her reproductive lifetime).

Family planning programs by governmental and nongovernment organizations have significantly impacted the trend towards lower fertility rates.

Projections by demographers of peak global population range widely.  The median estimate from the United Nations Population Division is for a population of 10.9 billion in 2100.  Most of the increase from the present is in Africa.

However, recent research points toward lower values, possibly a peak of 9.7 billion around 2064 and a decline to 8.8 billion by 2100. 

Factors Influencing Demographic Projections

Projections of peak global population have significant policy implications.  Relatively low estimates may have the effect that national commitments to stabilize population are downgraded and that overhyped media accounts of depopulation sap political will to continue family planning programs.  Relatively high estimates for peak global population foster the impression that humanity it doomed to an overcrowded and overheated planet, hence favoring lifeboat ethics.

Despite the critical implications of their results, the models used to predict peak population are very sensitive to the assumptions made about trends in fertility. 

The recent lower estimates for peak global population rely on continued or increasing reductions in fertility in the high fertility countries.  But demographers in the past have sometimes overestimated declines in fertility, and may be doing so now as well.  Historic trends of declining fertility have stalled in some high fertility countries, possibly related to falling support for family planning.  The Catholic Church still formally prohibits artificial birth control. 

Nevertheless, several emerging trends may support lower projected peaks in global population. 

One is that efforts to shift cultural norms favoring large family size increasingly include family planning messaging in popular media (e.g. serial dramas), which are having significant success with both genders

Another is that the incidence of unplanned pregnancy is declining globally (1990-2014), probably as a function of improving access to family planning resources.

The Covid-19 pandemic could push birth rates down (at least in the more developed countries) because financial insecurity will dispose women in developed and developing countries to postpone or forgo having children.  

Mortality rates may also be higher than expected.  Life expectancy has generally increased in recent decades throughout the world.  Much of that increase is associated with reduced child mortality but increasing longevity is also a factor.  However, life expectancy in the U.S. went down from 2014 to 2017 because of increasing fatal drug overdoses and suicides.  Climate change is expected to bring an increase in extreme weather events causing mortality directly (as in flooding), and indirectly by way of impacts on agriculture and possibly the incidence of war.

Implications Beyond Absolute Population Size

A leading concern about a rapid peak and then decline in national populations is the associated increase in the ratio of older retired people to younger working people.  As the population ages, the number of active workers available to support each elderly person tends to decline.  Hence, taxes may have to be increased to provide income and health care to the elderly.  Various mitigating factors include the improving health of elderly people, significant intergenerational transfers of wealth, increases in labor force participation by the elderly, and volunteer efforts by the elderly.

Also, a larger proportion of elderly people generally means decreased per capita demand for resources and a more peaceful society.

A decline in the number of children per family can have many beneficial side effects including: 1) more resources (parental attention and ability to finance education) per child, 2) improved quality of life for parents (less stress and more free time), and 3) rising per capita income.

Conclusion

The sooner global population peaks and begins to decline, the greater the possibilities for achieving global sustainability.  Since about 40% of pregnancies globally are still unplanned, a primary tool for insuring children are born into a welcoming and opportunity-rich environment is continued and improved provision of family planning support in both the developing and developed world.  More political will and contributions to NGOs are needed.  At this point in human history, the local and global challenges (environmental, economic, and social) that arise from a stable or declining population are likely more manageable than those arising from high rates of population growth.

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