Population is Not the Problem

The “population bomb” narrative is problematic for sustainable development professionals and advocates. We should not put ourselves in the unpopular, misanthropic, and unwinnable business of shaming parents. Instead, we have a much more optimistic, hopeful, and inspiring mission: we are in the business of development, which, it turns out, is the most effective way to slow population growth (see below). Humanity’s biggest challenge is not exploding population growth as the bomb narrative implies; it is, instead, dealing with the prosperity that comes with ending poverty, which is a good problem to have. Humanity must navigate the real and present dangers of climate, energy, water, linear economy, food, and related challenges as we welcome billions into the global middle class.

Why shouldn’t we prioritize the population bomb? Mostly because it’s been defused. The technical details of this argument can be found in scholarly papers about the “demographic transition.” Bottom line: globally, we passed peak child. Over the last few decades, fertility has declined in virtually all areas of the world. As a result, the rate of population growth, which peaked in 1970 at 2.06 percent per year, was 1.18 percent in 2015. The declining birthrates are caused by improving health care that reduces infant mortality, raising material standards of living so income and retirement don’t depend on children as laborers, and, most importantly, educating and empowering women to have more control over their lives and opportunities beyond being mothers and beasts of burden. That is, as “development” occurs, parents make fewer babies. China’s coercive one-child policy illustrates misdirected population bomb thinking: it did not slow population growth more than did the “development” occurring in neighboring Taiwan and Thailand but it did create lots of other problems.

A more ominous critique of the West’s 1960’s population bomb paranoia carries disturbing echoes of eugenics, racism, and cold war nationalism: the “wrong” people were making babies, diluting the gene pool, and increasing the “others” who threaten national security. Hence, the foreign policy of many western nations targeted slowing down the population growth in other countries, which just so happened to dovetail with the environmentalist alarmism of a population bomb. Another reason to discard the bomb rhetoric is that its dire predictions of collapse proved wrong. Rather than running out of food, exploding poverty, and skyrocketing misery, as the population bomb prognosticators predicted, we have instead reduced poverty, improved health, and spread education as we have added billions of people to the planet. As Julian Simon famously said, the ultimate resources is not soil or oil but human creativity to extend and replace earth’s finite bounty or as Nobel Laurent Angus Deaton says: with every new mouth comes a pair of hands to feed it.

Of course, the story is more complicated and nuanced than the above. Massive “population momentum” will add 3 billion by 2100 as those already born mature into baby making age. But baring something horrible, 10-12 billion will pretty much be the peak, and the peak might occur earlier and lower if we work hard at promoting the development that ends poverty and lowers birthrates. Moreover, even if every mouth comes with hands to feed it and thus expand earth’s carrying capacity far beyond what population bomb advocates thought possible, the cumulative impact of all those hands is disrupting the civilization-nurturing environmental conditions of the Holocene. So, yes, there still is important and necessary population stabilization work to do.

In summary: Population growth is not THE issue, rather THE issue is dealing with prosperity. Sustainable development advocates alienate others and lose influence when their message shames parents and does not promise a better future for children, which is the unfortunate take-home from population bomb environmental preservation rhetoric. We need a more hopeful message. We need a bigger tent. We need more advocates for sustainable development.



  • The most accessible account of this topic is by Hans Rosling: https://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-the-facts-about-population/
  • A more thorough but still accessible treatment would be by Nobel laureate Deaton, from whom I borrow much of my thinking: Deaton, A. 2013. The great escape: health, wealth, and the origins of inequality. Princeton University Press.
  • Lam, D. 2011. How the world survived the population bomb: lessons from 50 years of extraordinary demographic history. Demography 48:1232-1262.

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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability http://cligs.vt.edu/
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