Humanity reached the milestone of eight billion, a psychological threshold, on 15 November 2022.
The planet’s population is ominously growing, which is not positive for either the ecosystem or humanity; with the most optimistic mindset, we can call the situation an ambivalent development. But the real question is what the future holds: when will we reach the next billion, and which region will be the most overpopulated? What can humanity ultimately expect?
„This milestone is an opportunity to celebrate diversity and progress while considering humanity’s shared responsibility for the planet,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Although he deemed the event a cause for celebration, he also stressed its gravity: there is no doubt that eight billion people living on Earth raises some questions. In 1950, five years after World War II's end and the United Nations' establishment, the planet's population reached 2.6 billion. Then it reached four billion in 1975, five billion in ’87, six billion in ’99, seven billion in 2011, and eight billion about eleven years later. So, the world population doubled in 47 years. The ironic aspect is that humanity seemed to be more fearful of the future in the 1960s than today: In 1967, university professors predicted peaking global starvation by 1975, leading to inevitable and mandatory birth control. Potential extinction was also discussed; in short, we anticipated hell on earth.
The next milestone will come a little more slowly: we are expected to reach nine billion in 16 years, in 2038, and more than twenty years later, in 2059, the magic ten billion. So, there will be increasingly longer intervals between the milestones of billions, and after reaching the point of ten billion humans, it is no coincidence that stagnation will begin. Birth rates are falling steadily in developed countries, societies are aging, and the older generations will inevitably pass away in the coming decades. In the European Union, the total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime) in 2020 was only 1.5, but it is not surprising to anyone who knows the EU member states’ demographic context. The causes of the low figure are complex, including the emancipation of women, increased use of contraception, sex education, and the rising cost of raising a child. So, the one-child family model is increasingly dominant in the EU. On the other hand, life expectancy is rising; in 2020, it was 80.4 years in the EU. Western societies are certainly aging, but this is not the case in all parts of the world.
Despite the developed countries’ low fertility rate figures, the world population is still growing, albeit slower and slower. The developing, low-income countries still have relatively high fertility rates, which balances out the developed countries’ low figures: the global total fertility rate was 2.3 in 2021, well above the EU average. The figure is expected to fall to 2.1 by 2050, meaning the world population will eventually start declining. Humanity will reach ten billion probably in the late 2050s, although this date is far from certain: miscalculation is possible or unpredictable disasters might even stop the growth. Eventually, slowing growth will turn into a slow decline around 2086, when 10.4 billion humans will live on Earth.
Reaching the milestone of ten billion will be the „merit” of only a few states. We must mention the two most populous countries, China and India, both with already more than 1.4 billion people. China has been the most populous country for a long time, but in 2023 India will finally overtake the top spot. Eight key countries will be decisive in the world population growth of the coming few decades: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. For example, DR Congo's population can jump from 97 million today to a shocking 215 million by 2050. Still, the population growth figures of the list’s other states are not far behind either: In Ethiopia, the population is expected to grow from 122 million now to 213 million, and in Nigeria, it will jump from the present-day 216 million to 375 million. The situation is clear: the developed, Western world’s population is slowly declining, while the population of developing countries with many problems is growing exponentially due to the lack of sex education and contraception, among other factors. But the overpopulation of the Global South is also an issue for the Global North.
The inequality gap between the Global North and South is shockingly wide and still increasing. We must see migration through completely different lenses: we should look for solutions that consider all groups’ interests instead of demonizing immigrants. There is already a debate on such issues in Europe and other developed parts of the world, and the discussion is likely to be intensified. In light of the demographic context, it is not beneficial to rigidly refuse the option to live in a multicultural world with people from different cultural backgrounds, as, most probably, this will be inevitable in the future. Moreover, developed countries need and will need human capital and must look for alternative solutions if there are simply not enough people in the country. So, the root cause of the problems is not the number of people but the inequalities and very different circumstances between the Global North and South: while the population in developed, wealthy states is steadily falling, the population of developing countries, where many people are unable to meet their basic needs, is growing. The enormous inequalities are much more frightening than how many people are in the world.
Graphics: Roland Molnár