No, we are NOT all doomed!

Since an early age I have heard – and said myself innumerable times – that the biggest environmental problem faced by this planet is the huge and expanding human population. But it turns out the whole story I had on the topic was wrong.

Here’s the kind of population chart that I have seen a hundred times, often in school textbooks:

Image result for human population graph

This is what most of us learnt at school, and what most teachers today probably learnt when they were at school. This concept of a population explosion is often supplemented with stories such as this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 13.50.58

This headline was one of many from the end of summer 2017 that were reported widely via the Press Association, following a survey featured a few days earlier in the Times Higher Education supplement (THE). The researchers asked 50 people who had received Nobel prizes (N.B. over 600 people have received these prizes since 1901) to select what they considered the greatest threats to mankind from a list. This is a summary of the results:

What is the biggest threat to humankind?
“What are the greatest threats to mankind?” Responses from 50 Nobel Laureates, as reported in the Times Higher Education supplement

I hope you can see immediately how the headline from The Times, above, is misleading. “Population rise / environmental degradation” is not by any stretch identical to “Overpopulation.” But of course, the headline fits with the narrative.

This is an example of what Arlie Hochschlid calls our Deep Story*.

Like many of you reading this, I have carried this particular Deep Story for most of my life: the number of humans has risen so fast, and is still rising so fast, that there is no way the planet can sustain us all, so there is inevitably some global disaster awaiting us in future.

There are many reasons why this story endures. Our Deep Story is influenced by what we hear: from friends and family, from teachers, from songs we listen to, from the news, from films and TV shows, from what we read, and what we see online. The story of catastrophic overpopulation permeates all of these domains. It is a piece of accepted wisdom that seems to be part of the collective narrative of our age.

At the age of 32, while working at a school in Twickenham, I began to see the holes in this story. I can thank one person in particular, who sadly died this year, for helping me change my perspective. Hans Rosling taught me to stop panicking. He helped me to see the truth about human population, and also to see why most of us remain ignorant of the good news.

I can’t remember how I first found out that the rate of population growth is slowing down.  There is a good chance it was after watching one of Hans Rosling’s talks online. Whatever the reason, I decided to print this graph and stick it on my classroom wall to remind me:

population growth chart

It turns out that population growth isn’t just slowing down. It has been slowing down for a long time. This goes totally against the story I had been carrying around of continuing “exponential” population growth. “Exponential” means something is increasing at an increasing rate. And yet, as I finally learnt four years ago, the rate of population growth has been dropping since the 1960s! And this has been known for decades, including throughout my time at school.

Why is this fact so little-known?

Firstly, by the 1960s the population was growing so fast that it has been hard to see the slowdown. Like watching an aeroplane from the ground, it doesn’t appear to be particularly slow when landing or taking off, but its speed at those times will be less than half was while cruising,

Secondly, the Deep Story of exponential and unsustainable population growth is so well-ingrained that we are unable to hear anything that contradicts it. Like so many examples of received wisdom that turn out to be wrong, it will take time and effort to correct. And like all Deep Stories, this one will probably never completely go away. But we can all help to reduce its influence. If I can help you to see another way, perhaps you will share that insight with a few more people, and maybe they will do the same.

Why has the rate of population growth been slowing down?

Once you know the rate has been slowing, the question is, “Why?” The population explosion over the last two centuries was driven by the increasing industrialisation across the world, which brought improved medicine, urbanisation and infrastructure, leading to higher fertility rates and lower infant mortality. This started with the industrial revolution in Britain, which then spread throughout Europe and then the rest of the world. Although population growth slowed in Europe by the 1900s, the numbers of people in other regions of the world continued to grow rapidly throughout the twentieth century as every nation went through their transitions to industrialised economies.

By the early twentieth century, health outcomes had improved massively in Britain, as a result of better sanitation and other public health improvements, along with new medical treatments. Furthermore, as girls and women gained more equal access to education, they were able to take more control of their own fertility. As a result, infant mortality dropped and birth rates decreased, so the population stabilised. This explains why the population of the UK has not skyrocketed, but rather has increased slowly and steadily, at around 1% per year, for the last two hundred years.

Why does girls’ health and education reduce population growth?

Better health and education for women have historically always led to decreases in population growth. Two centuries ago the average woman on Earth had five children, and each one had a 50/50 chance of surviving to their fifth birthday. By 1950, the average woman still had five children, but 80% of them were likely to live longer than five years.

The drops in child mortality are continuing worldwide today, yet are regularly missed in the news. The number of children dying in infancy is still too high. But in 1990 that number was 7.6 million per year. By 2013 this had dropped to 3.7 million. On average that means 455 fewer children worldwide died, every day, for 23 years.

And now an average of 2.5 babies are born per woman worldwide: a huge and rapid drop in fertility rates. Finally, after thousands of years of human history, women are no longer seen solely as machines for producing more workers. Thanks to better education and access to family planning the female half of humanity has been able to take more control over their own lives and reproductive systems.

Iran serves as an example of this: over a period of just 10 years the fertility rate halved from over 6 to just 3 babies per woman. This is the most rapid drop in fertility seen in any country in history. A number of factors contributed to the rapid decline. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the new government introduced universal access to primary education as well as prioritising health care for the poor. Over the coming decades continual improvements to Iran’s renowned education system opened it up at all levels to girls and women. In 1989 most restrictions on women entering higher education were lifted, and today 60% of undergraduates in Iran are female (this figure is closer to 55% in the UK).

On the health front, in 1985 a healthcare system was established in which frontline staff were stationed in small “health houses,” each serving just one or two villages. Along with their other prevention and treatment roles, these health houses supplied condoms and oral contraceptives, as well as leading local education about family planning. The fertility rate in 1986 was just over 6 babies per woman. By 1998 that had dropped to 2.5. This chart illustrates just how rapid this drop was in comparison with other countries:

fertility drop chart

As it is in Iran, so it is across the world: when girls are educated and family planning is made available to everyone, girls grow up into women who are in control of their fertility.

“But girls still get much less education than boys around the world, right?”

Not quite. It is still true that girls, on average, have fewer years in school than boys. But the gap is closing. Girls across the world complete an average of 7 years at school, compared to 8 for boys. This is another example of good news about which most people remain ignorant. As part of his Ignorance Project, Hans Rosling found this was one of many examples where the majority of people surveyed believe the situation is far worse than it really is. I recommend watching any of his films about this, such as Don’t Panic: the Facts About Population.

If I was forced to come up with one global action that would save the planet it would be this: educate girls!

So what is happening to the number of humans?

There is one key fact that might help you get over the Deep Story of impending overpopulation catastrophe:

The number of children in the world has stopped growing

Well, nearly: there is currently a very gradual increase, but projections show the number of people aged 0-14 is likely to remain around 2 billion into the next century and beyond. We have reached the period of time when the number of children is no longer growing.

Here are the past and projected numbers of humans under the age of 15:

Billions of humans aged 0-14

Source: UN Population Division

Hans Rosling describes this as entering the era of “peak child.” This doesn’t mean the population has stopped growing. But it does mean that the population will stop growing. For a beautifully simple demonstration of why this is true, watch his film Don’t Panic. You can skip to 19 min 12 sec if you don’t want to watch the whole film. In a nutshell, the young people alive today will continue to live longer for several decades, so the remaining population growth will be due to people not dying as young, not because of more people being born! This report from Our World In Data is also worth reading, if you want more detail on these historical and projected future trends.

The UN Population Division estimates that the human population will level off around mid-century at 11 to 12 billion.

So that takes out one leg of the overpopulation catastrophe monster. The number of humans is not increasing exponentially, and in fact is likely to stop increasing within my lifetime. I will take aim at some of the monster’s other limbs another time.

For now, take solace in the fact that the world population is growing at a slower and slower rate. And if the number of children has stopped growing, then the number of humans can’t keep increasing. So it will not be a global catastrophe that stops the human population from growing. Rather, it is an inevitable outcome of what has already happened. Thanks to the improvements to health, education and infrastructure across the globe over the last two centuries, and those improvements happening today, and that are inevitable in the future, our population will likely peak in the lifetimes of today’s schoolchildren.

If we can challenge our Deep Story about population growth, we can begin to build a more optimistic view of the future, and take actions based on hope,  not fear.


[*Here is the link to the episode of the Hidden Brain podcast in which Arlie Hochschlid discusses with Shankar Vedantamthe Deep Story she uncovered in the Deep South while engaging with conservative voters in the US, and how this influences how they make their choices in the ballot box]

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