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Page added on March 16, 2018

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The Population Bomb Has Been Defused

Enviroment

Some of the most spectacularly wrong predictions in history have been made by those who claim that overpopulation is going to swamp the planet. Thomas Malthus, a British economist writing in the late 1700s, is the most famous of these. Extrapolating past trends into the future, he predicted that population growth would inevitably swamp available food resources, leading to mass starvation. That didn’t happen — we continued to develop new technologies that let us stay ahead of the reaper.

In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb,” warning that unchecked population growth would lead to mass starvation in the 1970s. He was just as wrong as Malthus. Global population did surge, but food production managed to keep up.

So far, the prophets of overpopulation have been defeated by technology. But human ingenuity alone can never deliver a final victory in the battle to feed the world — eventually, population growth will overwhelm the Earth’s ability to provide calories. That’s why in order to put Malthus and Ehrlich finally to rest, a second component is needed — lower fertility rates. To save both the environment and themselves, humans must have fewer kids.

Fortunately, this is happening. During the lifetimes of Malthus and Ehrlich, humans still tended to have large families, with each woman bearing an average of five children over her lifetime. But shortly after Ehrlich’s book, that began to change:

Malthus Didn’t See This One Coming

Total fertility rate, children per woman

Source: World Bank

The total fertility rate is just an estimate, based on the number of children women have been having. When the rate is lower than about 2.1, it means total population will eventually stabilize and decline.

The world is now approaching that magic level, thanks to a phenomenon known as the fertility transition. In most countries, total fertility falls from a high level of about six or seven children to two or below, and stays there. Once smaller families become the norm in a country or region, they very rarely go back up. There are a number of theories for why this happens. The shift from agriculture to urban life means less incentive for families to have kids to work on farms. Urban life also increases the cost of raising a kid. Higher education levels for women, freeing them from traditional gender norms, are probably a big factor as well. Importantly, none of these factors are temporary.

In other words, the fertility transition probably represents the ultimate, final victory over the Malthusian threat. The supergiant countries of China and India have been especially important in this process:

A Slowdown for the Giants

Total fertility rate, children per woman

Source: World Bank

Still, as overall world fertility has fallen, overpopulation concerns have shifted from global to regional. If some regions continue to have big families forever, they will eventually outgrow the regions with limited population growth, causing the overall world fertility rate to go back up. People who worry about overpopulation are now concerned that some cultures will simply always have more kids.

So far, those concerns seem to be unfounded. A decade ago, many believed that Muslim culture, with its emphasis on traditional gender roles, would defy the fertility transition. But then fertility rates in majority-Muslim countries plunged. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Indonesia have mostly completed their fertility transitions, while Egypt’s and Pakistan’s are underway:

Majority-Muslim Nations Follow Suit

Total fertility rate, children per woman

Source: World Bank

As an aside, it’s worth noting that these World Bank estimates of total fertility rates tend to err on the high side — the CIA, which also tracks fertility, places Pakistan’s number all the way down at 2.62.

So now the worry has shifted to sub-Saharan Africa. With a fertility rate of about five births per woman, it’s the only region of the globe that has not yet made the jump to small families. But even here, there are signs of change in a small but growing number of countries:

The Pattern Is Starting to Repeat Itself

Total fertility rate, children per woman

Source: World Bank

Countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo still have very high fertility rates. But if these last holdouts fall, the global triumph of small families will be complete.

Fortunately, there are two other patterns that suggest Africa will not buck the trend and overpopulate the world. First, there’s a strong association between fertility and income levels — once a country passes about $5,000 in per capita annual gross domestic product, it almost never has a high fertility rate. Rapid growth in a number of African countries means that this level will be in reach within a few decades. Also, the transition appears to be happening much faster than in the past — it took the U.K. 95 years to drop from a fertility rate of six children per woman to three, but it took Botswana only 24, Bangladesh 20 and Iran only 10.

Of course, it’s worth noting that lower fertility won’t immediately defuse the population bomb. The number of people in a country continues to rise for years after young people stop having lots of kids — a phenomenon known as population momentum. Thus, the United Nations continues to project that global population will rise from about 7.6 billion today to more than 11 billion by the end of the century:

That’s Still a Lot of People

World population estimate in billions

Source: United Nations, Population Division

Nor will lower global population growth mean the end of all demographic problems. Much of sub-Saharan Africa will be overflowing with people for decades to come, and many of those people will want to migrate to wealthy, aging countries in search of better economic opportunities, or to escape wars. That migration pressure will be a touchy subject for many nations, as the recent refugee wave in Europe has shown.

But it’s looking like the dire predictions of Malthus and Ehrlich will never come to pass. Unlike other animals, humanity has voluntarily limited its reproduction. The population bomb has probably been defused.

bloomberg



28 Comments on "The Population Bomb Has Been Defused"

  1. MASTERMIND on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 12:33 pm 

    It took humans 200k years of evolution to reach one billion people. Now we are doing it every 15 years. And the last law of nature says: that any creature that despoils and outbreeds its natural habitat will be culled to bring its numbers under control and restore a stable environment.
    https://imgur.com/a/OB1w6

  2. Davy on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 12:43 pm 

    “The world is now approaching that magic level, thanks to a phenomenon known as the fertility transition.”

    Yea, after we already destroyed the viability of the earth post fossil fuels and the associated complexity that comes with FF. The fertility transition is too slow. If you crunch the numbers we need on average 200MIL deaths over births for a generation to get world population down to a more sustainable 1BIL. The other issues is carrying capacity is dropping as affluence and population is still growing. Sooner or later a shock is coming that will be an eye opener. It is estimated that global food reserves are down to 74 days recently:
    https://tinyurl.com/yb5ugqcj

    The last thing we need to be doing is slapping ourselves on the back saying the bomb is defused.

  3. onlooker on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 1:32 pm 

    The bomb exploded as per statistics provided by MM and other comparable figures. Our population is like the Wily Coyote already off the cliff but no yet hitting ground. Hitting ground= die off.

  4. MASTERMIND on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 1:54 pm 

    Society is only nine meals away from Anarchy!

  5. Plantagenet on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 2:05 pm 

    The loons at Bloomberg have no concerns that the world’s population is on track to grow to 11 billion people.

    Someone should explain to them that climate change is going reduce the productivity of earth’s major agricultural regions at the same time the human population is set to expand.

    Cheers!

  6. Duncan Idaho on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 2:12 pm 

    Lets see, 7.7 billion, growing by 83 million annually, and we have stopped population growth?
    Totally clueless.
    Most of our 2-3 hundred thousand years of existence we have had 1-10 million (and just about went extinct 70,000 years ago).
    Of course we had a robust ecosystem- unlike the mass extinction we are currently experiencing.
    What are these clueless beings smoking?

  7. Cloggie on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 2:46 pm 

    It’s not easy to be a doomer these days.

    Are we spared nothing?

  8. kervennic on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 2:56 pm 

    When you get a regular paycheck at Bloomberg you do not see the problem.
    When an hungry pakistani with a family to feed take your seat for half your pay, you suddenly wake up.
    In the end the well off that populates the media sphere will feel the heat through violence. It is now spreading everywhere with gangs and drugs.

  9. MASTERMIND on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 3:30 pm 

    The End of the Human Race will be that it will Eventually Die of Civilization –Ralph W Emerson

    https://imgur.com/a/OB1w6

  10. Cloggie on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 3:35 pm 

    “The End of the Human Race will be that it will Eventually Die of Civilization –Ralph W Emerson”

    Fortunally we have you around, millimind, to spare us such a terrible fate.

  11. MASTERMIND on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 4:01 pm 

    Clogg; Your screams of denial sound like the squealing of a pig beginning delivered to the butchers shop. The volume of their protestations being directly proportional to the proximity of their inevitable fate….
    https://imgur.com/a/OB1w6

  12. Kat C on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 5:58 pm 

    “World Footprint
    The world’s ecological deficit is referred to as global ecological overshoot. Since the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot, with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. We use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester.”
    https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/
    Nope no problem with population, nothing to see here, move along folks
    Author forgot that even with 1 child policy China’s population grew quite a lot. Not something you would think would happen but for a variety of reasons that is exactly what happened. Malthus will be proven right in the end, but because new worlds, oil, fertilizers, green revolution, let the population grow so dramatically, the adjustment will be more catastrophic and will probably end the problem of human population forever.

  13. twocats on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 8:11 pm 

    I don’t know about Ehrlich but I think Malthus severely underestimated humans ability to “self-adjust” population through war.

    If you take the exponential population growth that was reduced by the roughly 80 million or so people that have died in wars since the 1700s, well – that’s a lot fewer mouths to feed. He probably did not anticipate the massive use of fossil fuels to generate food as well as the broad productive capacity of the New World. Both of these were one-time gifts that are now looking a bit strained.

    Lets see how long the Chinese can ship food out of Africa and Saudis ship cows out of the Southwest before things begin to break down.

  14. DMyers on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 8:25 pm 

    I’m sure glad they censored the numbers in this article. I would probably be very uncomfortable, or all my racial hatred and prejudice would be stirred, and I would be unable to force myself to look away. Thank God they are protecting us this way.

  15. Kat C on Fri, 16th Mar 2018 8:31 pm 

    Two Cats Of course Malthus underestimated humans ability to self adjust through war. He didn’t know about nuclear weapons. But since they carried the possibility of wiping out all humanity with nuclear winter and radiation and therefore will kill those who used them as well as those they were used on we got treaties and detente and the cold war. So massive wars like WWI and WWII were put on hold. And so now when we get WWIII it carries with it the liklihood of extinction of the human species which Malthus didn’t forsee. So he underestimated the ability of humans to stop major wars due to the type of weapons they developed and he underestimated the killing potential of those weapons if ever used. That is probably the only thing keeping Putin from doing a pre-emptive strike. However Russia has done extensive bomb shelter construction for the populace, not just the elite. I suspect he will do a pre-emptive if he becomes sure the west is getting ready to strike Russia. It doesn’t matter what any of us think of him, what matters is are the weapons he just revealed ready and can they do what is claimed. It doesn’t matter if he interfered in elections or not, it matters whether he has missiles we can’t shoot down, how many he has and what their payload is. As his spokeswoman said “you don’t give a 24 hour notice to a nuclear power” He represents a power to be reckoned with, not trifled with.
    Of course nature is waiting in the wings and may just say the hell with these humans and strike first.

  16. dave thompson on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 12:57 am 

    Keep your eyes on the arctic sea ice. When it goes away this year or next, the growing seasons will be so thrown out of whack, that the ability to grow food at scale will be over.

  17. GregT on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 2:10 am 

    “Keep your eyes on the arctic sea ice. When it goes away this year or next, the growing seasons will be so thrown out of whack, that the ability to grow food at scale will be over.”

    Add to that dwindling cheap energy resources, a recipe for disaster.

    Move away from areas of high population density, get involved at the local community level, get out of debt, and learn how to provide your own food.

  18. JH Wyoming on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 2:13 am 

    “Unlike other animals, humanity has voluntarily limited its reproduction. The population bomb has probably been defused.”

    The last chart shows overall population continuing to rise, so I don’t see how it’s been defused even if the rate of increase has slowed.

    There is no victory here, no spiking of the ball in the end zone.

  19. GregT on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 2:27 am 

    “There is no victory here, no spiking of the ball in the end zone.”

    Not for the humans.

  20. Sissyfuss on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 9:18 am 

    It’s just Bloomberg trying to keep the customers happy. And look, it worked on Cloguranus.

  21. Cloggie on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 10:21 am 

    Do you have any material to counter the Bloomberg data, Sissyfuss, or is it the usual sneer as an expression of your resentment that the world isn’t going down after all, as you had hoped for.

    Let’s face it, for a man above 50 there is nothing worse than be proven wrong. And since 2005 Sissyfuss has told anybody in his family and friend circle who wanted to listen that the world is going down. And now he has to backtrack.

    Oh ze loss of face.lol

    https://images.derstandard.at/2016/04/12/faux-pas.jpg

    P.S. I am not a customer of Bloomberg.

  22. Davy on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 10:58 am 

    Nothing worse than being proved wrong???

    Neder, you are constantly proved wrong and that is because of your extremism. Funny how you call out Bloomberg when it doesn’t fit your agenda but when it does they are great. Speak for yourself on “nothing worse”. Nothing worse than a loudmouth inbred braggart. I admire humility and honest wisdom something you never demonstrate

  23. Cloggie on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 11:22 am 

    Neder, you are constantly proved wrong and that is because of your extremism.

    Name me one topic I was “proven wrong”. I admit to being corrected on one important point and that was “peak oil supply”, by the Rockman by the end of 2012, when I realized the potential for a third carbon age.

    For the rest… name me one point. You can’t. I’m the broadcaster, you are the receiver.

    Funny how you call out Bloomberg when it doesn’t fit your agenda but when it does they are great.

    I’m a great fan of Bloomboig. Jeez, they admitted defeat, something you will still have to grasp!

    https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-09-27/america-s-new-world-order-is-officially-dead

    I admire humility

    No you don’t. You think you are entitled to own the world (or rather your 1-percenter owners, whom you want to suck up to). But you are going to find out soon that your time is over, USSR-style.

    A decade, max. Probably “The Break” will coincide with DJT leaving office. And then…

    #OperationEnduringEuropeanness

  24. Davy on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 11:39 am 

    If you need to ask me one topic you were proved wrong on then I am afraid you are a lost cause. People that are wrong or fail learn. Obviously you are very short on education and overflowing with self-advancement. Disgusting!

  25. Cloggie on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 11:50 am 

    If you need to ask me one topic you were proved wrong on then I am afraid you are a lost cause. People that are wrong or fail learn. Obviously you are very short on education and overflowing with self-advancement. Disgusting!

    Translation: meathead can’t name a single topic I was wrong about. All he can is virtue signaling and name calling.

    After 12 he stopped developing. He is still the schoolyard bully… surrounded by adults, intellectually one meter taller than him.lol

  26. Sissyfuss on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 12:21 pm 

    Meincloph, backtracking on the Sixth Mass Extinction ? The Keeling Curve? How bout Arctic Sea Ice Loss. No Clogdiferous, I’m just not hopping aboard the Renewable bullet train, the Seneca Zepher that is speeding towards the cliff with all the rest of humanitys ill conceived contraptions. Overshoot is a bitch and you’re its bitch. We are all digging our own graves now, ones that we can’t whistle past.

  27. Davy on Sat, 17th Mar 2018 12:34 pm 

    thanks siss, I am tired of talking to a wall.

  28. Davis Kat Cloghorn on Wed, 21st Mar 2018 12:55 pm 

    These prophecies of doom set the mood for self-destructive pessimism. Steep in it and eventually you will want to burn the world down just to get it over with.

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