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About the Author

Jodi Bush
PhD Student (Herts, United Kingdom)

I've had a longstanding interest in human rights, socio-economic development and the environment, and am currently undertaking my PhD in politics at the London School of Economics.


Too many people

Published 02nd April 2010 - 16 comments - 3383 views -

According to the US Census Bureau as of 8.09 UTC on the 2nd of April 2010 the world's population reached six billion, eight hundred and twelve million, two-hundred thousand.
To put that in perspective, in 1950 the population was less than 3 billion, and by 2050 it is estimated rise to over 9 billion.

If something is going to make the hair rise on the back of your neck - that should.

Every single one of the Millennium Development Goals is fundamentally impacted by population levels. Access to food, water, sanitation, education, environmental sustainability - the more there are of us, the more stress it places on access to and distribution of resources.

Interestingly, the level of births has actually leveled out at 134 million per year since the 1990's, but the absolute number of people keeps going up because only around 54 million people per year die.

The major reason for this is because the world's population is aging. A report released by the US Census Bureau, An Ageing Population, predicts that within 10 years the number of people over 65 will surpass the number of children. Over the next thirty years the number of old people will double, from 506 million in 2008 to 1.3 billion.

Two main factors are behind this increase:

1) the delayed effect of higher fertility levels after WW2

2) improvements in health.

The first of these is now a mute point since fertility levels have now decreased. The second point however, poses some complex moral challenges. It is very clear that over-population poses one of the most serious and most complex challenges to global development. Yet how do you reduce the number of people on this planet without infringing on their human rights?

- enforce a world-wide one child policy?

- make people use contraception whether it's against their values or not?

- introduce sterilisation?

- stop providing life-saving medical care?

- let disease and famine do its work?

- stop aid and intervention after natural disasters?

Clearly, it's a fraught subject. On one hand we're trying to save lives through improved sanitation, health care, access to water and better food distribution. On the other, by intervening to prevent deaths we're adding to population increases which in turn complicate the provision of these same things.

Assessment of over-population, and an action plan for managing growth needs to be a central part of achieving the MDGs in both the short-term and long-term. Education of women, access to contraception, improved life-chances are all important to reducing family size, but with an aging population it goes far beyond reducing the number of births. As long as fewer people die than are born the world's population will inevitably increase - yet how are we ever going to justify a knowing increase in the number of deaths?


Category: Crisis | Tags: population, aging, over-population,


  • Jodi Bush on 02nd April 2010:

    An additional note - population is not even one of the blog categories available on Th!ink3. It really does need to be given greater priority.

  • Ian Sullivan on 02nd April 2010:

    So kill old people in Western countries? They live longer and use far more of the world’s resources….

  • Tomas Moe SkjĂžlsvold on 02nd April 2010:

    Jodi, nice post on a difficult topic. Let’s hope this is a point where history can provide some pointers. I mean, in the ‘developed’ world birth-rates were high a few generations ago as well, while many european countries today struggle to increase birth-rates in order to sustain a decent population. In countries where many infants die, where life-expectancy is short and circumstances are unstable there is a “need” for many children, as a safetynet of sorts. It’s a non-sustainable solution, but definently rational in most cases. So hopefully development in other areas will eliminate this need - allthough this isn’t in any way given..

  • Bart Knols on 02nd April 2010:

    Hi Jodi - an important issue. In my opinion population growth can only be halted if health improves. This may sound contradictory, but it is not. It is only when people get say two children and can be fairly confident that they will reach adulthood, that they will start having fewer children. This phenomenon is being seen in the middle classes residing in African capitals. Better health, less need for many children, better education for the two that remain, less mouths to feed etc etc. It is all intertwined, but as Tomas rightly points out, it is the guarantee that those you get will survive that matters. Nice post, with provocative thoughts, thank you.

  • Jodi Bush on 02nd April 2010:

    Thanks for the positive feedback…

    @ Ian - considering euthanasia or mercy killings are pretty much a no-no I think your strategy might meet with opposition! But yes, you’re right. It’s a problem that affect the developed world as much as (if not more than) the developing world and there aren’t quick fix solutions.

    @ Tomas and Bart - I’m not sure I agree on good health/ life expectancy being the major problem, though undoubtedly it plays a part. As does a culture of having big families. Or not wanting male children. I read an article on a 17 year old single mum in london and even though she had nothing, and could give little to her child, she’d had a baby because it gave her something to love. Some purpose.

    From my perspective, I think that a major issue is education, and particularly women’s education. Studies have shown that if a woman finishes secondary school she is more likely to focus on “quality” rather than “quantity"of children. They are also more educated about family planning, more likely to have a career, and it’s no coincidence that population has decreased in developed countries as women have become more highly educated.

  • Jodi Bush on 02nd April 2010:

    @ Tomas and Bart - you know what… after I read your points I went and looked around a bit more and I came across this video which essentially argues your point. It’s really very good, you should take a look. Essentially, he argues that we have to increase life expectancy and reduce the size of families - and the two are inter-linked.

  • Maria Kuecken on 02nd April 2010:

    Wow, I didn’t know the size of the population projections.  Thanks for pointing that out, Jodi!  I also enjoyed the Hans Rosling video.

    I think Tomas and Bart touch on a vital point.  It may not be immediately intuitive, but reductions in family size will come from from changing the incentive structure for having children, be it health, life expectancy, higher income, or family planning resources.  Great discussion.

  • Sholpan Gabbassova on 02nd April 2010:

    Great post and the video is very interesting! The population of Kazakhstan is very small for its size, our government encourages people to have more children, and I never thought about population growth problem in global terms. This post turned over my consciousness smile

  • Clare Herbert on 02nd April 2010:

    Nice post. Academic/intellectual debate on population is very valid and worthwhile, but I fear that the sound concerns you’ve raised Jodi, would rapidly get drowned out by populist ranting in both developed and developing countries if it were to become central to policy development. Who wants to be the one to tell women they can’t have more kids? Women’s rights and autonomy of their bodies is an incredibly touchy subject, and rightly so. But, you’re dead right. Population is a central issue for all inhabitants of this earth.

  • Andy Yee on 02nd April 2010:

    It’s a difficult topic. Birth control may be the short-term solution, but is an infringement on freedom and human rights. I believe education should be the long-term solution: teach people about the impacts of having more children on themselves, the country and the wider world, and let them decide.

  • Bart Knols on 03rd April 2010:

    @Andee. I don’t think that birth control and family planning should be looked at in the same way. Nor is this an infringment on freedom and human rights. If life-expectancy through better health increases, than family size drops automatically - this is not the result of some law or something, it is a natural phenomenon that kicks in and seems to fit with perhaps the ‘idea’ family size from a homo sapiens perspective.

  • Jodi Bush on 03rd April 2010:

    @ Clare -  You’re right. The problem is that while we can agree that over-population is an issue, having children and growing old are immutable rights. The idea of telling people they can’t have children, or that they won’t be given life saving treatment after a certain age is simply not something people would ever accept. I certainly wouldn’t.

    From what I can tell success in this area is going to rely primarily on a combination of improving women’s education and increasing life expectancy.

  • Anca Gheorghica on 03rd April 2010:

    It’s not a question of how many we are, but how wealth is distributed among nations and people. There are clear evidences (see Footprint Network, for instance) that the life supporting systems of the Earth can stand more people. The high populated countries consume far less than the rich ones…we are not too many people…only that about 25% of us consume about 80 % of the resources.

  • Jodi Bush on 03rd April 2010:

    @ Anca - I think that’s a valid point, and in an ideal world we’d all cut our consumption and live simpler lives. And those who already consume little would stay that way. Realistically that’s not going to happen. The thing with development is that it’s simply pushing developing countries down a similar path to the one we’ve already trodden. If you provide people with better education, better health care, better infrastructure, better communication systems do you think they are going to be content living without? No, they’re going to seek to gain better housing, better food, more money, travel abroad etc. etc. etc. I think it would be naive to think that in improving the standing of those in developing countries that they won’t start to consume more. Look at the burgeoning middle classes in Africa, India or China. While I absolutely agree that we need to consume less, I doubt we’ll realistically ever be able to reduce consumption by the level needed to support an ever increasing population. At some point it needs to level out, or decrease. Perhaps however, with better education and better life chances this will happen naturally over time. Which makes achieving the MDG’s even more important.

  • Clare Herbert on 04th April 2010:

    Interesting debate guys.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 10th April 2010:

    The Catholic Church in the Philippines should read this. It has always been against contraception and has put pressure on government officials not to push forward with it as well.

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