8 billion people: is population growth cause for hope or concern?

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“The 360” shows you various perspectives on the most important stories and debates of the day.

What is going on

The world’s population reached an estimated 8 billion people on Tuesday, according to United Nations estimates.

It took just 12 years for the world’s population to grow from 7 billion to 8 billion, a period of unprecedented growth made possible by advances in public health, nutrition and economic development that have increased children’s survival rates and enabled older generations to to live longer than in the past.

“The milestone is an opportunity to celebrate diversity and progress while considering humanity’s shared responsibility for the planet,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

The boom was not evenly distributed around the world. Countries across Asia account for most of the world’s growth since 2011. India alone added 180 million people and is expected to overtake China as the most populous country sometime next year. Growth rates in most of Europe and North America have stagnated, with some countries even seeing their populations shrink.

Despite the speed at which the world has added another billion people, demographers say the rate of population growth is actually slowing. The UN predicts that we will reach 9 billion people in 15 years and that the world population will eventually peak at about 10.4 billion by the 2080s.

Why there is discussion

The question of how many people the earth can support has been a source of heated debate for centuries. But our growing understanding of human-induced climate change has changed the stakes of that discussion in just a few short years.

In the eyes of many experts, reaching what the UN calls the “8 billion day” should be cause for great concern. They argue that a rapidly growing population will only make it more difficult to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level needed to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. More people will also put additional pressure on critical resources such as food and water, which will become scarcer amid extreme droughts and severe weather – especially in the parts of the world expected to experience the fastest growth in the coming years. Some add that the most effective steps to curbing population growth, namely greater economic stability and improved reproductive autonomy for women, are worthy goals in their own right.

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But others say these concerns are unfounded. They argue that focusing on population size obscures the real causes and possible solutions to climate change. The biggest driver of global emissions, they say, is consumption in rich countries — not the fact that low-income countries are adding more people. Some demographers also believe that a growing population should be celebrated because it will help developing countries thrive economically and create more opportunities for innovation, collaboration and prosperity.

Perspectives

Pessimists

There may not be enough resources to support so many people

“Rapid population growth also means more people are competing for scarce water resources and more families are facing hunger as climate change increasingly affects crop production in many parts of the world.” — Dan Ikpoyi and Chinedu Asadu, The Bharat Express News

Billions of extra people will put enormous pressure on the climate

“The hard fact is that in a time of climate crisis, human numbers matter. And the ecological impact of another 2-3 billion people will be immense.” — John Vidal, Guardian

A prosperous future is impossible without a sustainable population

“For if our stated goals to protect the environment and leave a better society for our children are truly sincere, then it is our duty to muster the courage to openly and unashamedly address the greatest threats to both: human overpopulation and overconsumption. – Robert P. Johnson, Santa Barbara Independent

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We can slow down population growth while promoting women’s rights

“What if we saw our population peak earlier than expected and never have to know if the planet can support 10 billion, 11 billion or 12 billion people? To achieve this, it is not necessary to invent new technology or make (relatively speaking) huge monetary investments. It would simply be necessary to make modern contraception available to anyone who wants it, so that people can decide for themselves whether and when they become pregnant and give birth.” – Nicole Martin, San Diego Union-Tribune

The world is not doing enough to prepare for all these extra people

“It doesn’t matter who wins the growth debate, we clearly don’t plan that growth particularly well.” – Howard V. Hendrix, San Francisco Chronicle

The most vulnerable places are also the least equipped to take care of a rapidly growing population

“Often the most vulnerable people in these countries face the greatest damage from climate change without having the resources to protect their health and the environment. Population growth can deepen these injustices.” — Maureen Lichtveld, Conversation MarketWatch

Optimists

Climate change is the result of overconsumption in rich countries, not a growing population

“The consumption of the resources that lead to carbon emissions is more important to climate change than population growth alone, and those resources are mainly consumed by a relatively small number of wealthy people around the world. Change those consumption patterns – through a mix of better efficiency and new technologies that don’t emit carbon – and there’s room enough to grow the population without cooking the planet.” —Bryan Walsh, Vox

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We already have the tools we need to support billions more people

“Decreasing biodiversity with an increasing number of people does not have to be a foregone conclusion. There are sustainable solutions for energy, agriculture and how we build things. It is simply a matter of changing perspectives, attitudes and policies.” -Lauren Leffer, Gizmodo

The rate of population growth is just as important as size itself

“When economists think about it, a large population is great for many different outcomes, but do you get to that large population in 10 years or 100 years or 1,000 years? The longer it takes to get there, you can put the right structures in the system that will support that population.” — Alex Ezeh, global health expert, to the TBEN

More people equals more opportunities

“Every new human being comes into the world not only with an empty stomach, but also with a pair of hands and, more importantly, with a brain capable of intelligent thinking and the creation of new knowledge. In the process of economic development, humans cause a lot of environmental damage, but the new wealth and knowledge we create in that process also enables us to become better stewards of the planet.” — Marian Tupy, The Hill

Prosperity is always worth celebrating

“No one gets through life without sorrow, struggle and disappointment, but there is no doubt that life on earth is getting better and better. In general, people have never been healthier, richer, safer, better fed or better educated than they are today.” —Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

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Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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