Amid the myriad challenges facing the modern world, soaring population growth is one of the most concerning. The number of people on the planet will hit seven billion for the first time on 31 October, according to UN estimates. And if the headline figure looks alarming, that is nothing compared with the implications of the accelerating pace of expansion.
Although the world population did not reach one billion until the early 1800s, and it took another century to add a billion more, subsequent milestones have been passed ever more quickly. It has taken a mere 13 years to add the latest billion to the global total, and there is little expectation that the rate will slow appreciably in the near future. Indeed, the UN estimates the global population could reach as much as 10 billion by the 2080s.
The potential consequences are worrying in every regard. Of all the world's wealthy countries, the US alone can expect to see its population rise, and then only thanks to immigration. Elsewhere in the developed world, birth rates are low and populations ageing. Meanwhile, it is regions that are already struggling with poverty that are seeing the fastest rise in birth rates. An overwhelming 95 per cent of population growth is to come from the developing world – in particular sub-Saharan Africa – over the coming years. And with as many as a billion people already living in slum conditions, often without access to basic sanitation or clean water, further pressure on scarce resources raises real fears of famine, social unrest, even war.
For all the Malthusian doom-mongering, the situation is far from hopeless. Technological improvements and more careful management of natural resources can help support more people with less. Efforts to address systemic problems such as corruption, political breakdown and the global reliance on fossil fuels are also central to breaking the poverty cycle. But the single biggest advance would be the empowerment of women in developing countries. Study after study confirms that girls offered an education tend to marry later and have fewer children. That must be the focus, both for the women themselves and for us all.
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