In November 2022, the United Nations announced that the world’s population is now estimated to have reached 8 billion — up from 7 billion as recently as 2011. This latest milestone has seen renewed alarmism from those who believe that the planet is already overpopulated. Indeed, many observers believe that some action is needed to prevent future population growth to avoid resource scarcity and ecological disaster.
But is population growth really such a threat to humanity? There are many reasons to believe that, quite the opposite, population growth actually amplifies opportunities for tackling humanity’s greatest challenges.
Consider this: since the 1960s, the global population has almost doubled. During the same period, thanks to improvements in agricultural technology, global food production has more than tripled while agricultural land use has increased by only 15 percent. There is no reason to believe that innovation and progress in this field have reached an end either.
Yet, in the 1960s and 1970s, concern about population growth was rising, with many believing that a global population such as today’s eight billion would be impossible to sustain and have catastrophic consequences. Obviously, such alarmism proved to be misguided as human ingenuity has continued to provide ever more efficient solutions to sustaining a growing and increasingly prosperous world.
Instead, those societies where the fear of population growth was taken to extremes have seen different catastrophic consequences. In the 1970s, communist China introduced a range of family planning policies aimed at curbing population growth, culminating in the drastic one-child policy imposed from 1980 to 2015.
Such ill-founded policies were successful only in ensuring that China is now facing a serious demographic problem that will have a lasting detrimental impact on the country’s development — a classic case of the failings of central planning.
For the foreseeable future, a large, aging population will depend on a proportionately far smaller working-age population. Countries such as Japan and Italy face the same issue as their populations are expected to shrink over the course of the 21st century. Germany is faced with a similar problem, although it compensates for this by being comparatively more open to immigration.
On the ecological front, greater awareness and innovation in recent decades have allowed for the increase in carbon emissions to be proportionally far smaller than the rate of population growth. In a constantly evolving world, thanks to innovation and new technologies, more humans do not necessarily have to correlate with more carbon emissions. Indeed, in more prosperous regions, carbon emissions have been in decline for more than a generation.
In the United States, it is often said that the country is “full,” and that it would be reckless to allow more immigration due to pressures on job markets and resources. But this is untrue on multiple fronts.
To begin with, the U.S. is far less densely populated than many other prosperous nations that nonetheless contain plenty of wilderness. The U.S. has a population density of just 36 inhabitants per square kilometer compared with 119 in France or even 240 in Germany. While a lower density is to be expected in a country containing deserts, there is still plenty of room overall for population growth in the United States.
Ultimately, more people means a larger and more dynamic economy. Think more businesses, more wealth creation, and crucially, more minds working to solve problems and improve the world. While it does look likely to slow down or even reverse course during this century, population growth is an opportunity for humanity rather than a threat.
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