December 4, 2022

According to the latest estimates, eight billion people live on this planet today. The last billion came in just 12 years. Traditionally, each billion increase has been greeted with shouts of protest at the looming Malthusian collapse and mass starvation as resources are overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

But from the subtext of the latest data, even assuming that climate change will have major negative impacts on food production, there is a much bigger problem than sheer numbers. The underlying fact is that the world’s population has increased tenfold since it hit the one billion mark around 1800. There were famines, but relatively localized ones due to wars, natural disasters, or (as in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China) the reorganization of society for ideological reasons. Obesity is now perhaps a bigger problem than malnutrition, with high rates not only in some developed countries and highest in some less affluent countries like Egypt and Mexico.

It is also evident that the world could already start eating less on a global scale, through less waste and a widespread shift to less meat-intensive diets. These alone could largely offset any losses from climate change – not per se clear, as some countries will become more productive with warmer temperatures and more rain, while others will suffer from rising sea levels and the more frequent storms and floods that are forecast.

Also, the total number of people will not be the main issue. The huge increase in world population over the past two centuries is primarily due to far fewer children dying, even in the poorest countries, thanks to advances in science and healthcare. The increase in the age of death among adults was only a secondary cause of the increase in overpopulation. Mankind has adapted to this remarkable improvement by lowering fertility rates. The world average is now 2.3, compared with 5.0 in 1950, and the decline is continuing, albeit at a slower pace than in the 1970-2000 period.

Based on these trends, demographers generally appear to see a world population peak between 9.3 and 11.00 billion between 2050 and 2100. With continued increases in agricultural productivity and diversification of food sources, this alone seems doable.

The problems lie elsewhere – in the extreme differences between the regions of the world. These show in particular the very low fertility rates for most of East Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe, where the range is between 0.8 and 1.3, and almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the norm is between 4.00 and 5. 00 lies. The former faces the question of how to deal with an aging and shrinking population and without immigration, which may be impossible for political and cultural reasons.

Nigeria alone has a population of 220 million and will double in 20 years at the current rate. Migration pressures from countries where the labor force is growing at least as fast as job opportunities will continue to increase. Between them and a wealthy but aging southern Europe lies the not very far Mediterranean Sea and a group of middle-income North African countries who are struggling to stop arrivals and are lucky enough to find their way to a Europe that their manpower needs but is limited in capacity.

The US has some migratory pressures on its southern border, which is also politically important, but US absorption capacity has long been exceptional and potential numbers from its Latin neighbors to the south are small compared to potential ones from Africa to the north.

China is in a better but opposite position – like it or not, it has no significant source of immigration. Korea and Japan may be just small enough to find sources of immigration that make an economic difference, but for them, as for the Chinese, ethnocentrism is a powerful barrier to accepting brown, let alone black, skin color from South Asia or Africa.

The failure of most of Africa to follow most of Asia and Latin America in a rapid downward trend in fertility has several interconnected causes, but these clearly begin with poor governance and include religious and cultural practices. Women in particular have had to contend with a lack of education and raising large numbers of children, not to mention the unwillingness of male-dominated structures to focus on family planning as a key component to improved health and food security.

But if this global divide is not to lead to conflict, the answer lies in better balancing fertility rates around the world. History is littered with examples of wealthy regions being overwhelmed by demographic explosions among those on the periphery previously thought of as “barbarians”.

This is not just a global problem either. At least one country has an internal division that could eventually tear it apart. Very populous northern and eastern states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh not only have a per capita income of only about 25 percent of the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, but also birth rates that are at least 50 percent percent higher than in the South, where they have fallen below 2.0. The same could be said about education.

So the gaps are growing due to demographics and contributing to more inequality. They are a minority in another way too – Dravidian languages. India’s failure to better allocate its impressive overall decline in fertility – from 3.6 to 2.0 in just 30 years – is reflected in the fact that per capita income in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (combined 300 million inhabitants) is now half that of Bangladesh itself has overtaken West Bengal.

None of these demographic issues, whether national or regional, can be ignored by governments and societies, whether local, regional or global. But they must first be recognized for what they are and how fundamental to the global order.