By Donella Meadows
–October 30, 1986–
The world’s population problem is over. That’s what one would gather from the silence on the subject in the media, in politics, in academic forums.
There never was and never will be a population problem. That is the official position of the Reagan administration.
Population growth is an enormous and worrisome force in the world. That’s what I conclude every time I look at the statistics.
The Population Reference Bureau puts out each year a poster-size sheet of population statistics for all the world’s nations. This year’s sheet contains an especially shocking set of columns — the number of people added during the past 35 years, and the number likely to be added (according to United Nations projections) over the next 35 years.
For example, here are the population data for the last and the next 35 years in the United States:
1950 population: 143 million
- 86 million added
1985 population: 239 million
- 66 million added
2020 population: 305 million
These numbers amount to a population doubling over the lifetime of a child born in 1950. A profound change, with hundreds of impacts, good and bad, on the economy, on the landscape, on social relations, not just in the United States, but in the whole world.
Population growth of the same sort — roughly one doubling over 70 years — is expected for all the industrialized countries. For example:
1950 population: 179 million
- 99 million added
1985 population: 278 million
- 79 million added
2020 population: 357 million
In the world’s less-wealthy nations the population changes have been, and will be, much more dramatic, and in some cases simply unbelievable.
1950 population: 28 million
- 52 million added
1985 population: 80 million
- 67 million added
2020 population: 147 million
Mexico’s population will quadruple over these 70 years. No currently-rich country has ever had to handle population growth of that magnitude over such a short time. In 35 years Mexico’s population has already more than doubled, which explains much about that country’s poverty, chaos, and debt. Though the birth rate has come down rapidly during the past decade, the next 35 years will add even more people than the last 35.
1950 population: 549 million
- 493 million added
1985 population: 1042 million
- 368 million added
2020 population: 1410 million
Over the past 35 years China has accommodated a population increase equal to twice the current total population of the United States — with a land area about equal to that of the United States. It is a miracle of organization and determination that all those people are literate, employed, and properly fed. China is now undertaking heroic (some would say draconian) measures to slow her population growth, but the next 35 years will still bring an enormous additional population to a resource base and economy already stretched very thin.
1950 population: 29 million
- 62 million added
1985 population: 91 million
- 207 million added
2020 population: 298 million
I doubt whether anyone, even in Nigeria, believes that 207 million additional people can or should be accommodated in that already-crowded country over the next 35 years. They would add up to a ten-fold population multiplication over 70 years.
The African continent as a whole added 331 million people over the past 35 years — more than a doubling — and is expected to add 913 million over the next 35.
Africa is an enormous, richly-endowed continent, but population increases so huge, over such short periods, are unimaginable. All other scenarios are also unimaginable — a sudden dropping of the birth rate, a vast out-migration, or so much ecological devastation and political instability that death rates rise. The only acceptable future I can picture for Africa under these population increases is an emergence of the kind of organization and discipline displayed by the Chinese.
The world as a whole had a population of 2500 million in 1950. It is projected to have a population of 7800 million in 2020. Ninety percent of that increase will take place in the poorer countries. Population changes like these have never been seen in history. They imply burdens on the environment and shifts in economic and political power that will shake the world.
Population growth, like the advance of a glacier, is too slow and gradual to make news. The worst possible response to it is not to notice, not to consider it a problem. It is already a problem and will become a worse one, unless we meet it with all the skills, wisdom, and compassion we can muster.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011