Population Explosion

Contrary to previous predictions that expected the world's population to stabilize around 9 billion around mid-century, a new report from the United Nations predicts continued growth through 2100. The world's population is expected to reach over 10.1 billion before stabilizing. The majority of population growth is expected to occur in Africa, the world's least developed region. Along with Asia, Africa will also be home to most of the world's people: of the 10.1 billion people expected 90 years from now, 8.17 are expected to live in Africa or Asia. This estimate has been revised upward because fertility rates have declined more slowly than expected in poorer countries and inched upwards in some wealthier ones such as the United States and United Kingdom. Even in the developing world, people live longer than ever before; the worldwide life expectancy is just shy of 70, and infant, child and maternal mortality are lower than ever. All of this is surely good, but birth rates in Africa especially have not come downward sufficiently to offset these trends.

So what does this mean? Can the world support 10 billion? Or will shortages of food and water or threats like climate change put a catastrophic brake on population growth? If there have been two constants over the last several hundred years, they have been a population explosion and unprecedented increases in living standards. A panel at the New York Times discusses what the future holds for a more populous planet and how we can continue to increase living standards in a more populous world. Joel Cohen points out that increased access to contraception and women's empowerment could slow population growth and that even if the UN report is correct, food shortages are unlikely to occur. According to Cohen, the world already produces plenty of food for 10 billion people, but distributes it unevenly. James Cascio, on the other hand, notes that while subsistence is possible, we will need new technology to allow 10 billion to aspire to the meat and energy intensive lifestyle of the West. Warren Sanderson and David Bloom underscore Cohen's call for efforts to control population, while Jason Clay worries that food production and distribution must be made far more efficient.


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