How to handle 9.3 billion people
Commuters and shoppers make their way along a crowded street on the eve the world population day, in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) on 10 July 2003. (Getty Images)
August 17th, 2011
04:00 PM ET

How to handle 9.3 billion people

Editor's Note: David E. Bloom is Professor of Economics and Demography at the Harvard School of Public Health. For more from Bloom, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By David Bloom – Project Syndicate

CAMBRIDGE – The world is in the midst of the greatest demographic upheaval in human history. Although the human race took perhaps one million years to reach one billion people (around the year 1800), we have been adding successive billions every 10-20 years since 1960. The world’s population now stands at seven billion and is projected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050.

In other words, between now and 2050, the world is likely to add to its population almost as many people as populated the entire planet in 1950. Or think of it as adding another China and another India. Feeding, clothing, housing, and otherwise providing for this massive net addition to the global population is one of the main challenges facing humankind.

If we use as our guide average material progress over the course of centuries, it might seem that necessity will again serve as the mother of invention, and that we will meet the population challenge, just as we have met previous challenges, through technological and institutional innovation.

But long-term averages can mask significant volatility over time and variation across countries. We know for certain that there is great risk in the population growth that lies ahead, as nearly all of it will occur in the world’s most economically, politically, socially, and environmentally fragile countries.

A failure to absorb large numbers of people into productive employment could lead to mass suffering and myriad catastrophes. The continuation of extreme cross-country income inequality could deter international cooperation, stalling or even reversing globalization, despite its potential to improve everyone’s standard of living. Rapid population growth also tends to accelerate the depletion of environmental resources both locally and globally, and can permanently undermine the prospects for their recovery.

Some developing countries have addressed these population challenges well. For example, the East Asian “Tigers” cut their birth rates precipitously in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and used the resulting demographic breathing room to stunning advantage through judicious education and health policies, sound macroeconomic management, and careful regional and global economic engagement.

At the other end of the spectrum, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have fared much worse developmentally, in no small measure due to their inability to escape the crushing burden of rapid population growth and youth dependency.

Although developing countries are the primary sites of the world’s most threatening population problems, the wealthy industrial countries face some rather vexing problems of their own. From a purely demographic perspective, the advanced economies’ productive capacity has reached a plateau of slightly more than two working-age people per dependent. But that indicator is projected to plummet to 1.36 by 2050, posing a threat to the sizable demographic dividend that these countries have enjoyed in recent decades.

Read: Why more migration makes sense

Moreover, the rich countries can expect a massive expansion in the proportion of elderly people in their populations, owing to increased longevity, continued low fertility, and the progression of baby-boom cohorts through the population pyramid. Although economic performance in the context of population aging is substantially uncharted territory, it is not hard to understand fears about the fiscal integrity of pay-as-you-go pension and health-care systems, and about growth slowdowns in the face of contracting workforces.

There are many policy suggestions to address fiscal sustainability and workforce shortages already under consideration, including higher retirement ages and mandatory contributions, together with lower benefits. Liberalizing international migration could be another response, though it would be unlikely to offer appreciable relief, owing to social and political opposition to increased immigration in most developed countries.

We can, however, count on rising rates of female labor-force participation (spurred by continued low fertility), increased levels of effective labor as educational attainment continues to rise, and higher savings rates in anticipation of greater longevity and longer retirements.

In the end, it is unlikely that the worst fears associated with our graying populations will be realized. But a great deal of analysis, debate, behavioral adaptation, and policy reform – in both the public and private spheres – will have to take place before we can be sure.

Although the issues immediately confronting developing countries are different from those facing the rich countries, in our globalized world, demographic challenges anywhere are demographic challenges everywhere. And, while the challenges posed by population change are formidable, they are most likely surmountable. It would be irresponsible to neglect those challenges and submit humankind, unnecessarily, to the great perils that we can already reliably foresee.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of David Bloom. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.


soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Hopefully there wouldn't be a World War III!

    August 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Reply
    • Eric

      You're wrong. The world now needs more world wars than peace. The world should being experiencing WW 15 by now but instead we are still waiting for WW 3. People around the world must forgo their love affair with peace in order to make room for future generations to prosper. This planet can not accommodate all these people, yet there is always talk of "saving the planet". In order to save the planet, humanity needs to be downs-sized. In the movie "The Matrix", a character defined humanity as a virus because humanity consumes everything in its surrounding, whereas mammals find an equilibrium with its environment.

      August 20, 2011 at 11:43 am | Reply
      • jay

        How weird/strange are you? why not you just shoot yourself in the head to reduce? The rest of us can just use contraception to intelligently manage our numbers.
        We need more wars.... what a moron.

        August 22, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  2. Burton Mac-Holmes

    the facts and projections offered here are well known. short-term thinkers with selfish aims are making the decisions that can lead us to a humane sustainable global society. hard to see that happening. (we will never see 9 billion)

    August 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  3. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    GOP solution: Turn the Old, Sick, Poor, Unemployed, and Gay people into slaves. Then whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, Employed, and Straight. Or until they are dead. Then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military. That's how!

    August 18, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • mxp5769

      ummmm.. yeah... what planet are you from??

      August 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply
      • GOPisGreedOverPeople

        Just a greedy planet controlled by the rich. That means Earth.

        August 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  4. don't know a thing

    I have A Modest Proposal for how to handle the booming population....

    August 18, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  5. prophet

    i dont know about a world war 3 but everytime theres a war people tend to develop more technology quicker than before although at the cost of millions of lives...... Am i right? :p

    August 18, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  6. Solution Maker

    My solution is fairly simplistic. The United Nations, State Departments, and charitable organizations should not feed and house famine victims in the Horn of Africa or provide food to the Indian people living in slums unless they voluntarily undergo birth control implementation for a minimal of five years. Salt peter should be added to the adult male food source. Females of childbearing age should be given food, water, and shelter from relief agencies only if these women agree to a Norplant device underneath their skin which will effectively reduce childbirth for around 5 years. This will give the effective regions enough time to recover from drought & overpopulation. If they choose not to participate, they (adults) get no free food or water. Sounds harsh. Some will cry racism and Nazism. However, Western societies cannot continue to save the world while letting third world countries overpopulate and turn our big blue globe into a big brown wasteland. That's what overpopulation will end up doing. Our planet cannot effectively support 7 billion people let alone 9 billion people by the projected year 2050. We need solutions now and fast!

    August 19, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply
    • BBoy705

      I think you have the right idea. The notion that we should be trying to feed these hungry masses is really quite ridiculous. I'm not a heartless ba$stard just a realist!

      August 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Reply
      • Really

        Don't sell yourself short! You're a tremendous heartless, selfish, ba$stard! Most likely GOP right?

        August 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Sarah

      AGREE

      August 21, 2011 at 4:32 am | Reply
  7. Shion.H

    We will simply "eat each-other up", if we continue to multiply without changing our interrelationship from egoistic to altruistic based one. Today's social system is in no way capable to sustaining 9.3billion people on this planet. And even with today's population, there are crisis happening on all levels of the society, as evident from various crisis which pop-up almost on a weekly basis now. But the solution is rather simple, at least in its theory- to create global society which values altruism, and rejects egoism. You can easily imagine that If people start to relate to each other in a way in which they reciprocally cared for other's needs above their own, everything will work out. This may sound Utopian and fairly-tale like, but take a look at Tobacco for example, in a few-short years of extensive anti-tobacco campaign, it is now looked at with repulsion by the majority. In a same manner, if global movement against Egoism could be initiated, through the powerful weapon called Mass-Media, together with restructuring our society, we can see the possibility of future for humanity, even with 93billion of them under the same roof!

    August 19, 2011 at 7:11 am | Reply
    • Hugh

      don't worry, there are a few of us who get it! get ready, the shift has already started!

      August 21, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Reply
    • DebP

      With expanding population, and all the current global problems, this does seem to be the only way to make it work. Its from the basic principles which we used to try to teach our kids in kindergarten – sharing, take turns, care about the other. Except this time we need to drop the hypocrisy and really mean it.

      August 25, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  8. Food4thought

    The average population growth rate for the world is 1.17%. It is clear that ever more people equates to lower overall quality of life for the average person and greater overall environmental harm. Simply burying our collective heads in the sand and waiting for the population to level out is clearly not working fast enough and will simply add several more billion people and trigger more conflicts over resources. The most effective solution is to impose a 2 child per person limit over a lifetime on all human beings. After all, this is a species wide problem and in fairness it requires a species wide response. Once you reach your second child, you must be spayed or neutered! This will lead to steady and manageable decline in human population.

    August 19, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
  9. BBoy705

    Here is what will happen in the next 100 years, in no particular order. Dead zones in the oceans will grow because of the continuing over use of man made fertilizes, used to increase food production and bio fuel production. Fish stocks will collapse due to over fishing causing famine to be wide spread in countries that rely on seafood for protein. Genetically modified food will become common but will be plagued by diseases they have no resistance to causing further food shortages. Rising sea levels will reduce arable land area causing wide spread mass migrations of people stressing population all ready hungry and malnourished. These masses of hungry, malnourished people will spread diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. Global climate change will further disrupting food supplies. There will be wars and plagues and the human population will be reduced to sustainable number and there will be a huge change in the way we live on this tiny planet. If our technology survives all of this there will be a new era of enlightenment and humanity and Mother Earth will be better off for it. So in the end... it will all work out for the better!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • preman

      All true...except...by the time equilibrium is reached, countless species will have gone extinct and the natural environment will be degraded to the point that it will take thousands of years to recover. So it will be too late for them...

      August 21, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  10. Godfrey

    Ask Fareed Kakaraia; he knows everything.

    August 19, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  11. 7billion

    Thats 7 Billion 'ASS HOLES" living on this planet, thats 7 Billion too many Ass holes all ready. We cant afford to even have 1 more pollute this planet. God help us.

    August 19, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  12. timtowdi

    The world needs to let the Bill Gates Foundation continue with its population control programs in peace. This is the only organization with the money to make a dent in this huge issue, but continued opposition from religious groups are making this impossible.

    August 20, 2011 at 12:50 am | Reply
  13. Asterisk

    Birth Control

    August 20, 2011 at 3:45 am | Reply
  14. Vjay

    Blame islam ,

    August 20, 2011 at 4:43 am | Reply
    • josh

      you right islam is the problem

      August 20, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  15. michael

    The UN is set a terrible precedent in Bosnia, when it essentially decided that because the Bosnians were able to outbreed the Serbs, the region was rightfully theirs. The Serbs didn't help by their poor behavior, but I'm not convinced that they had much choice... they were being outbred and run out of their own country. Until the world can find a method to protect the interests of those who limit their population against those who do not, population control will remain a culturally dangerous decision.

    August 20, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
    • michael

      oops, typo

      The UN set ...(remove the "is")

      August 20, 2011 at 11:53 am | Reply
  16. josh

    blame islam

    August 20, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  17. Dr.A.Jagadeesh

    Good Post. To handle Population explosion the way out is increased food production and creating awareness in developing countries on SMALL FAMILY NORMS,conserving Energy and Water Resources.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

    August 21, 2011 at 10:00 am | Reply
    • sundownr

      Good thought so long as these numbers are accurate but when planning the needs of large populations I would not trust these numbers.

      August 21, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  18. Pert ner Suppertime

    I think we need another big world war that isn't nuclear, so we can thin out the world population and get our war industry humming again producing jobs. Got it, the North America and Europe vs China Russia Africa Iran. Naval battles only. one in the North Atlantic ocean and one in the North Pacific Ocean. The start of the War could be over some Islands and the warships that are sunk could become food and homes for marine life

    August 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  19. sundownr

    I was under the impression mankind has had an average 1.7 percent growth rate over many centuries. If this were true then the world population could be over 13 billion by 2050; but no matter whose figures are right the would is facing a severe water shortage already (and thus food shortage)which will undoubtedly restrict human growth in years to come.

    August 21, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  20. sundownr

    Human Population
    Year In Billions

    2011 7.000000000
    2020 8.146791776
    2030 9.642644274
    2040 11.41315393
    2050 13.50875123
    2060 15.98912631
    2070 18.92492916
    2080 22.39978200
    2090 26.51266113
    2100 31.38071612

    * based on 1.7% annual growth

    August 21, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Reply

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