Academic journal article Geography

Population and the Future

Academic journal article Geography

Population and the Future

Article excerpt

In this article I argue that it is vitally important to understand the various ways in which demography will influence the future of our planet. Without such an understanding, however limited in terms of likely accuracy, it is impossible to plan for the future whether in the short or longer term. Understanding the consequences of a particular set of birth and death rates contributes to the development of policies to mitigate the effects of either population growth or decline as well as changing population structures. Demography will help to shape the future in many ways: socially, economically and, not least, in our use of the Earth's resources and in a range of environmental impacts, in particular, global warming.

There have been many discussions about population and the future since Malthus's first essay ('The Principle of Population') in 1798. Commentators are generally either pessimistic about the future - following in Malthus's footsteps - or optimistic. The best known of recent pessimists, Paul Ehrlich, has written about the dangers of population growth from his first publication, The Population Bomb (1968), onwards. Colin Clark (1967), drawing on the work of Ester Boserup (1965) gave an early optimistic view of the benefits of population growth, while Julian Simon (1981,1996) is one of the best known of more recent optimists about the future of the planet. Danny Dorling (2013) has written on why there is no need to worry about future population numbers, while Stephen Emmott discusses in much less detail what he describes as 'the unprecedented planetary emergency we've created' (2013, p. 1)

This article begins by examining the contemporary population situation before looking at recent projections and what they suggest might be the future in terms of population size, distribution and structure. This provides the context for the final section, which offers a brief consideration to the challenges posed by these changes.

The contemporary population situation

The 20th century saw unprecedented rates of world population growth. For almost all of world history, population growth was generally slow, albeit with some periods of more rapid growth associated with technological and social breakthroughs, particularly the Neolithic revolution and the development of agriculture and urban living. There have also been periods of decline, some very dramatic such as the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century or the depopulation of the Americas following the Spanish Conquest in 1492 (Livi Bacci, 2008, 2010).

A world population of one billion people was reached early in the 19th century (Figure 1), the second billion was not added until the 1920s, and the third occurred around 1960. After the Second World War, population growth rates increased and by the mid-1960s had reached 2.1% a year, the fastest rate ever recorded. This rate of growth represents a doubling time of 35 years - and indeed, world population reached 6 billion in 1999. By this date, rates of increase had slowed, but now the population total was so large that even small rates of increase yielded huge increases in absolute numbers.

In 2011, 7 billion was reached, and by 2013 the population total was estimated at 7.2 billion. Growth rates of 1.2% a year are considerably lower now than their peak in the 20th century: nonetheless, population growth is likely to continue for much if not most of this century.

Population growth has taken place in the context of rapidly-improving life expectancy (particularly after 1945) almost everywhere in the world such that today world life expectancy is 70 years (Population Reference Bureau (PRB), 2013) (Figure 2) compared with an estimated 53 years in 1965-70 (UN, 1973). The reasons for the decline in mortality continue to be debated and there is no single explanatory model.1 To simplify, however, the spread of knowledge about disease control, better public health and medical developments have all contributed to improvements in health and longer life expectancy. …

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