By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman
Food and water are the basics of life and their availability is of great importance. That availability is also a great challenge, as noted by the UN, because of growing world population, consumption patterns, and thoughtless use of resources, especially in rich countries. The challenges are aggravated by the ongoing effects of climate change.
Every two years the UN updates its projections about the size and composition of the world’s population. Women are having fewer children and people are living longer. The consequences of these facts are profound. Within a little more than a decade, projections say, world population—at 7.7 billion people today—is likely to be around 8.5 billion people; by 2050, almost 10 billion. Projections also say the world’s human population may stop growing by 2100, stabilizing at around 11 billion.
For most of our existence, the human population has grown very slowly, kept in check by disease. For most of human history, most people did not live past 50 years. It took until about the year 1800 for us to reach 1 billion people. Since then, continuing improvements in nutrition, medicine, and public health have seen our population increase rapidly.
The impact of so many people on resources—land, food, water, fossil fuels, and minerals—is considerable. We have consumed more resources in the last 50 years than the whole of humanity before us.
The engine of demographic change is the fertility rate; for populations to stabilize, the fertility rate must fall below the “replacement rate” of two. Since the 1950s fertility rates have dropped dramatically all over the world. However, the fertility rate remains relatively high in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the fastest-growing countries are the poorest countries and they will have difficulty coping.
In Europe, the fertility rate is well below the replacement rate and countries are losing population. In fact, currently 46 countries around the world, including Japan, Russia, and China, have shrinking populations. That will be the case in 67 countries by 2040.
Among the significant findings in the UN world population projections of 2019:
- The world’s population is growing older, with persons over age 65 the fastest-growing group. The number aged 80 years or more is also projected to triple by 2050.
- The falling proportion of working-age people will put serious fiscal pressure on social systems such as health care and pensions.
The key to stabilizing the world’s population is the status of women. Presently, millions of women want and need contraception but lack access to family-planning services. Providing such access is the moral and practical thing to do.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, International Humanist and Ethical Union Representative to the United Nations, and Dr. Reba Goodman are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.