by Kat Kelley
Having recently reached 7 billion, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100. However, shifts in population and fertility trends can drastically alter these numbers. If expected fertility rates were to increase by merely half a child per woman within the next century, global population would reach 10.1 billion in 2050 and 15.8 billion in 2100. Conversely, if global fertility rates were to decrease throughout the 21st century by half a child per woman, the world’s population would reach 8.1 billion in 2050, and would decline to 6.2 billion in 2100.
Total fertility rates (TFR)- or the expected number of children born to a woman, are not uniform, and the highest levels correspond to impoverished, developing countries. Even within countries, TFR often varies by region, with the poorest having the highest TFR. These are countries that already can’t adequately provide for their populations. These are countries without educational or economic opportunities for their youth, with depleted resources, often short on water, food, and arable land. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but our world is only marginally successful at sharing its wealth. Actually, I’d say we do a shoddy job of effectively helping other nations- and thus we are certainly not equipped to handle current population projections.
Most developed countries saw gradual (as in- over multiple centuries) increases in life expectancy, matched with gradual decreases in total fertility rates, however most developing countries have seen rapidly increasing life expectancies, paired with much slower decreases in fertility rate. Desired family size, is a complex societal construct that doesn’t change as fast as modern medicine.
Many nations undergoing this demographic transition find themselves with a “youth bulge,” or a very young population- and a rapidly growing population of young adults. This aggravates unemployment, and consequently social frustration, and many argue that countries experiencing youth bulges are ripe for conflict and terrorism. A recent study conducted by the International Peace Research Institute indicated that countries with youth bulges were 150% more likely to undergo civil unrest during the second half of the 20th century. Between 1970 and 1999, 80% of civil conflicts occurred in countries with very young age structures.
Rapid population growth exacerbates poverty. And not just on a national level- as governments and aid organizations are struggling to address current poverty rates- but also on families. TFR, education, employment opportunities, and income are entirely intertwined. Smaller family size decreases the economic burden of children on a family, allowing for greater investment in the health and education of individual children. Additionally, women that have smaller families, and are able to delay and plan their childrearing, have greater educational and economic opportunities, and thus contribute more to household income.
Curbing population growth is essential to preventing further environmental degradation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, “GDP/capita and population growth were the main drivers of the increase in global emissions during the last three decades of the 20th century.” Our impact on the environment is directly proportional to the size of human population. And as population growth is greatest in countries already facing shortages, the time to act is now.
Population policy is not inherently unethical. In fact, population policies that focus on empowering women and increasing access to voluntary, accessible, and affordable family planning measures are more effective than coercive programs. Population policies should be about investing in the futures of your current population, of expanding, not restricting human rights. For example, while TFR declined from 2.9 to 1.74 between 1979 and 2004 in China under the one child policy, the most significant and drastic decreases occurred between 1970 and 1979 under the “late, long, few” policy. During just one decade, TFR fell from 5.9 to 2.9, due to policies which encouraged a delay in childbearing, birth spacing, and smaller family size.
So what do effective population policies look like?
First, women in developing countries should delay the age at first pregnancy. Thus, we need to fight child marriage. Each year, there are 14 million brides under the age of 18. Additionally, maternal and infant mortality rates are exponentially higher for adolescent mothers. We need policies that prevent child marriage, and we need to encourage families to abandon the practice by providing women with greater opportunities for secondary and advanced education and accessible and affordable family planning options.
Second, women should be able to intentionally plan and space their pregnancies. However, there are currently 222 million women with an unmet need for family planning- in other words they would like to delay or space their pregnancies, but cannot. Additionally, educated women naturally have smaller, and thus healthier and more educated families. Once again, the message is clear- we need to provide women with greater opportunities for secondary and advanced education and accessible and affordable family planning options.
Contraceptives matter, because population, or rather, people matter.