In the year 1900, Belgium and the Philippines had
more or less the same population, around 7 million
people. By the year 2000, the population of the
Western European monarchy had grown to 10 million citizens, while the South East Asian republic at
the turn of the century already counted 76 million
citizens. The population of Belgium has since then
exceeded 11 million citizens, but it is unlikely that
this number will rise to 12 million by the year 2050.
The population of the Philippines on the other hand
will continue to grow to a staggering 127 million
citizens by 2050, according to the demographic projections of the United Nations (UN 2013).
The demographic growth rate of the Philippines
around the turn of the century (2% a year) has
already created enormous challenges and is clearly
unsustainable in the long term: such growth implies
a doubling of the population every 35 years as a
consequence of which there would be 152 million
people by 2035, 304 million by 2070, and so on.
Nobody expects such a growth to actually occur.
This contribution will discuss the more realistic
scenarios for the future.
Even the rather modest Belgian demographic
growth rate around the turn of this century (0.46%)
is not sustainable in the long term. In any case, it
exceeds by far the average growth rate of the human
species (homo sapiens sapiens) that arose in Africa
some 200.000 years ago. Today, earth is inhabited
by some 7 billion people. To achieve this number in
200.000 years, the average yearly growth rate over
this term should have been around 0.011% annually
(so 11 extra human beings per 1.000 human beings
already living on earth). The current Belgian growth
rate would imply that our country would have grown
to 7 billion in less than 1500 years.
The point of this story is that the current growth
numbers are historically very exceptional and untenable in the long term. The demographic growth
rates are indeed on the decline worldwide and this
The world population explosion: causes, backgrounds and
projections for the future
J. Van Bavel
Centre for Sociological Research / Family & Population Studies (FaPOS), Faculty of Social Sciences, University of
Leuven, Parkstraat 45 bus 3601, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
Correspondence at: [email protected]
FVV in ObGyn, 2013, 5 (4): 281-291 Viewpoint
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the total world population crossed the threshold of 1 billion people for
the first time in the history of the homo sapiens sapiens. Since then, growth rates have been increasing exponentially,
reaching staggeringly high peaks in the 20th century and slowing down a bit thereafter. Total world population
reached 7 billion just after 2010 and is expected to count 9 billion by 2045. This paper first charts the differences in
population growth between the world regions. Next, the mechanisms behind unprecedented population growth are
explained and plausible scenarios for future developments are discussed. Crucial for the long term trend will be the
rate of decline of the number of births per woman, called total fertility. Improvements in education, reproductive
health and child survival will be needed to speed up the decline of total fertility, particularly in Africa. But in all
scenarios, world population will continue to grow for some time due to population momentum. Finally, the paper
outlines the debate about the consequences of the population explosion, involving poverty and food security, the
impact on the natural environment, and migration flows.
Key words: Fertility, family planning, world population, population growth, demographic transition, urbanization,
population momentum, population projections.
282 FVV in ObGyn
the population there had started to grow at a historically unseen rate. More specifically the proletariat
had grown immensely and that worried the intellectuals and the elite. Year after year, new demographic growth records were recorded.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the number
of 1 billion people was exceeded for the first time in
history. Subsequently growth accelerated and the
number of 2 billion people was already surpassed
around 1920. By 1960, another billion had been
added, in 40 instead of 120 years time. And it continued to go even faster: 4 billion by 1974, 5 billion
by 1987, 6 billion by 1999 and 7 billion in 2011
This will certainly not stop at the current 7 billion. According to the most recent projections by
the United Nations, the number of 8 billion will
probably be exceeded by 2025, and around 2045
there will be more than 9 billion people1
. The further
paper will attempt to explain some of the mechanisms behind that process. That doesnâ€™t change the
fact, however, that the growth remains extraordinarily high and the decline in some regions very
slow. This is especially the case in Sub Saharan Africa. In absolute numbers, the world population will
continue to grow anyway for quite some time as a
result of demographic inertia. This too will be further clarified in this paper.
The evolution of the world population in numbers
In order to be sustainable, the long term growth rate
of the population should not differ much from 0%.
That is because a growth rate exceeding 0% has exponential implications. In simple terms: if a combination of birth and growth figures only appears to
cause a modest population growth initially, then this
seems to imply an explosive growth in the longer
Thomas R. Malthus already acquired this point of
view by the end of the 18th century. In his famous
â€œEssay on the Principle of Populationâ€ (first edition
in 1789), Malthus argues justly that in time the
growth of the population will inevitably slow down,
either by an increase of the death rate or by a decrease of the birth rate. On a local scale, migration
also plays an important role.
It is no coincidence that Malthusâ€™ essay appeared
in England at the end of the 18th century. After all,
Source: Livi-Bacci (2001, p. 27) and UN World Population data.
Fig. 1. â€” Historical growth of the world population since year 0
(1) Unless otherwise specified, all figures in this paragraph
are based on the United Nations World Population Prospects,
the 2012 Revision, http://esa.un.org/wpp/. Concerning projections for the future, I reported the results of the Medium Variant. Apart from this variant, there are also high and low variants
(those relying on scenarios implying respectively an extremely
high and extremely low growth of the population) and a variant
in which the fertility rates are fixed at the current levels. It is
expected that the actual number will be somewhere between the
highest and lowest variant and will be closest to the medium
variant. Thatâ€™s why I only report this latter value.
THE WORLD POPULATION EXPLOSION â€“ VAN BAVEL 283
2.2 billion inhabitants in 2050 or 24% of the world
population. The proportion of Europe, on the other
hand, is evolving in the opposite direction: from
22% of the world population in 1950, over 11% in
2010 to an expected mere 8% in 2050. The population of Latin America has grown and is growing
rapidly in absolute terms, but because of the strong
growth in Asia and especially Africa, the relative
proportion of the Latin American population is
hardly increasing (at most from 6 to 8%). The proportion of the population in North America, finally,
has decreased slightly from 7 to 5% of the world
What these figures mainly come down to in practice is that the population size in especially the poor
countries is increasing at an unprecedented rate. At
the moment, more than 5.7 billion people, or more
than 80% of humanity, are living in what the UN
categorise as a developing country. By 2050, that
number would â€“ according to the projections â€“ have
increased to 8 billion people or 86% of the world
population. Within this group of developing countries, the group of least developed countries, the
poorest countries so to speak, is growing strongly:
from 830 million now, up to an expected 1.7 billion
in 2050. This comprises very poor countries such as
Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Niger or Togo in Africa;
one looks into the future, the more uncertain these
figures become, and with demography on a world
scale one must always take into account a margin of
error of a couple of tens of millions. But according
to all plausible scenarios, the number of 9 billion
will be exceeded by 2050.
Demographic growth was and is not equally distributed around the globe. The population explosion
first occurred on a small scale and with a relatively
moderate intensity in Europe and America, more or
less between 1750 and 1950. From 1950 on, a much
more substantial and intensive population explosion
started to take place in Asia, Latin America and
Africa (Fig. 2). Asia already represented over 55%
of the world population in 1950 with its 1.4 billion
citizens and by the year 2010 this had increased to
4.2 billion people or 60%. Of those people, more
than 1.3 billion live in China and 1.2 billion in India, together accounting for more than one third of
the world population.
In the future, the proportion of Asia will come
down and that of Africa will increase. Africa was
populated by some 230 million people around 1950,
or 9% of the world population. In 2010 there were
already more than 1 billion Africans or 15% of the
world population. According to UN projections, Africa will continue to grow at a spectacular rate up to
Source: UN World Population Prospects, the 2012 Revision; the data after 2010, with dotted line in the figure, are Median Variant
Fig. 2. â€” Evolution of the population size by continent, 1950-2050*
284 FVV in ObGyn
failed harvests and famine, or a combination of
both. As a consequence of better hygiene and a better transportation infrastructure (for one, the canals
and roads constructed by Austria in the 18th century), amongst other reasons, crisis mortality became
less and less frequent. Later on in the 19th century,
child survival began to improve. Vaccination
against smallpox for example led to an eradication
of the disease, with the last European smallpox pandemic dating from 1871. This way, not only the
years of crisis mortality became less frequent, but
also the average death rate decreased, from an average 30 deaths per 1000 inhabitants in the beginning
of the 19th century to around 15 deaths per 1000
citizens by the beginning of the 20th century. In the
meantime, the birth rate however stayed at its previous, high level of 30-35 births per 1000 inhabitants.
The death rate went down but the birth rate still
didnâ€™t: this caused a large growth in population. It
was only near the end of the nineteenth century (a
bit earlier in some countries, later in others) that
married couples in large numbers started to reduce
their number of children. By the middle of the 20th
century, the middle class ideal of a two children
household had gained enormous popularity and influence. The reaction by the Church, for example in
the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), came much
too late to bring this evolution to a halt.
As a consequence of widespread family planning
â€“ made even easier in the sixties by modern hormonal contraceptives â€“ the birth rate started declining as well and the population tended back towards
zero growth. Nowadays the end of this transition
process has been more than achieved in all European countries, because the fertility has been below
replacement level for several decades (the replacement level is the fertility level that would in the long
Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Myanmar in Asia; and
Haiti in the Caribbean.
The growth of the world population goes hand in
hand with global urbanisation: while around the
year 1950 less than 30% of people lived in the cities, this proportion has increased to more than 50%.
It is expected that this proportion will continue to
grow to two thirds around 2050. Latin America is
the most urbanised continent (84%), closely followed by North America (82%) and at a distance by
Europe (73%). The population density has increased
intensely especially in the poorest countries: from 9
people per square km in 1950 to 40 people per
square km in 2010 (an increase by 330%) in the
poorest countries, while this figure in the rich countries increased from 15 to 23 people per square km
(a 50% growth). In Belgium, population density is
358 people per square km and in the Netherlands
400 people per square km; in Rwanda this number
is 411, in the Palestinian regions 666 and in Bangladesh an astonishing 1050.
Although the world population will continue to
grow in absolute figures for some time â€“ a following
paragraph will explain why â€“ the growth rate in percentages in all large world regions is decreasing. In
the richer countries, the yearly growth rate has already declined to below 0.3%. On a global scale, the
yearly growth rate of more than 2% at the peak
around 1965 decreased to around 1% now. A further decline to less than 0.5% by 2050 is expected.
In the worldâ€™s poorest countries, the demographic
growth is still largest: at present around 2.2%. For
these countries, a considerable decrease is expected,
but the projected growth rate would not fall below
1.5% before 2050. This means, as mentioned above,
a massive growth of the population in absolute figures in the worldâ€™s poorest countries.
Causes of the explosion: the demographic transition
The cause of, first, the acceleration and, then, the
deceleration in population growth is the modern demographic transition: an increasingly growing
group of countries has experienced a transition from
relatively high to low birth and death rates, or is still
in the process of experiencing this. It is this transition that is causing the modern population explosion. Figure 3 is a schematic and strongly simplified
representation of the modern demographic transition.
In Europe, the modern demographic transition
started to take place in the middle of the 18th century. Until then, years of extremely high death rates
were quite frequent. Extremely high crisis mortality
could be the consequence of epidemic diseases or
Fig. 3. â€” Schematic representation of the modern demographic
THE WORLD POPULATION EXPLOSION â€“ VAN BAVEL 285
rate (the average number of children per woman) in
the first place and population momentum in the second. The latter is a concept I will later on discuss in
more detail. The role of the population momentum
is usually overlooked in the popular debates, but is
of utmost importance in understanding the further
evolution of the world population. Population momentum is the reason why we are as good as certain
that the world population will continue to grow for
a while. The other factor, the evolution of the fertility rate, is much more uncertain but of critical importance in the long term. The rate at which the further growth of the world population can be slowed
down is primarily dependent on the extent to which
the fertility rates will continue to decline. I will further elaborate on this notion in the next paragraph.
After that, I will clarify the notion of population
Fertility is going down everywhere in the world, but
itâ€™s going down particularly slowly in Africa. A further decline remains uncertain there. Figure 4 shows
the evolution per world region between 1950 and
2010, plus the projected evolution until 2050. The
numbers before 2010 illustrate three things. First of
all, on all continents there is a decline going on.
Secondly, this decline is not equal everywhere. And
thirdly: the differences between the continents remain large in some cases. Asia and Latin America
have seen a similar decline in fertility: from 5.9
children per woman in 1950 to 2.5 at the start of the
21st century. Europe and North America had already
gone through the largest part of their demographic
transition by the 1950â€™s. Their fertility level has
been below replacement levels for years. Africa has
indeed seen a global decrease of fertility, but the average number of children is still at an alarmingly
high level: the fertility merely decreased from 6.7 to
5.1 children per woman.
These continental averages hide a huge underlying diversity in fertility paths. Figure 5 attempts to
illustrate this for a number of countries. Firstly let
us consider two African countries: the Congo and
Niger. As was often the case in Europe in the
19th century, fertility was first on the rise before it
started declining. In the Congo this decrease was
more extensive, from around 6 children in 1980 to
4 children per woman today, and a further decline to
term lead to a birth rate identical to the death rate, if
there would be no migration)2
That the population explosion in the developing
countries since the second half of the 20th century
was so much more intense and massive, is a consequence of the fact that in those countries, the process of demographic transition occurred to a much
more extreme extent and on a much larger scale. On
the one hand, mortality decreased faster than in Europe. After all, in Europe the decline in mortality
was the result of a gradual understanding of the importance of hygiene and afterwards the development of new medical insights. These insights of
course already existed at the start of the demographic transitions in Asian, Latin American and African
regions, whereby the life expectancy in these regions could grow faster. On the other hand, the total
fertility â€“ the average number of children per woman â€“ at the start of the transition was a lot higher in
many poor regions than it initially was in Europe.
For South Korea, Brasil and the Congo, for example, the total fertility rate shortly after the Second
World War (at the start of their demographic transition) is estimated to be 6 children per woman. In
Belgium this number was close to 4.5 children per
woman by the middle of the nineteenth century. In
some developing regions, the fertility and birth rate
decreased moderately to very fast, but in other regions this decline took off at an exceptionally sluggish pace â€“ this will be further explained later on.
As a consequence of these combinations of factors,
in most of these countries the population explosion
was much larger than it had been in most European
Scenarios for the future
Nonetheless, the process of demographic transition
has reached its second phase in almost all countries
in the world, namely the phase of declining fertility
and birth rates. In a lot of Asian and Latin American
countries, the entire transition has taken place and
the fertility level is around or below the replacement
level. South Korea for example is currently at 1.2
children per woman and is one of the countries with
the lowest fertility levels in the world. In Iran and
Brasil the fertility level is currently more or less
equal to Belgiumâ€™s, that is 1.8 to 1.9 children per
Crucial to the future evolution of the population
is the further evolution of the birth rate. Scenarios
for the future evolution of the size and age of the
population differ according to the hypotheses concerning the further evolution of the birth rate. The
evolution of the birth rate is in turn dependent on
two things: the further evolution of the total fertility
(2) In demography, the term Â« fertility Â» refers to the actual
number of live births per women. By contrast, the term fecundity refers to reproductive capacity (irrespective of actual childbearing), see Habbema et al. (2004).
286 FVV in ObGyn
countries have the same total fertility, below the replacement level.
Child mortality, education and family planning
Which factors cause the average number of children
to go down? The literature concerning explanations
for the decrease in fertility is vast and complex, but
two factors emerge as crucial in this process: education and child survival.
Considering child survival first: countries combining intensive birth control with very high child
mortality are simply non-existent. The statistical association between the level of child mortality and
fertility is very tight and strong: in countries with
high child mortality, fertility is high, and vice versa.
This statistical correlation is very strong because
the causal relation goes in both directions; with
quick succession of children and therefore a lot of
children to take care for, the chances of survival for
the infants are lower than in those families with
only a limited number of children to take care of â€“
this is a fortiori the case where infrastructure for
health care is lacking. A high fertility level thus
contributes to a high child mortality. And in the
other direction: where survival chances of children
improve, the fertility will go down because even
those households with a lower number of children
just below three is expected in the next thirty years.
Niger is the country where the fertility level remains
highest: from 7 it first rose to an average of just below 8 children per woman in the middle of the
1980â€™s, before decreasing to just above 6.5 today.
For the next decades a decline to 4 children per
woman is expected. But that is not at all certain: it is
dependent on circumstances that will be further explained in a moment. The demographic transition is
after all not a law of nature but the result of human
actions and human institutions.
Around 1950, Pakistan and Iran had more or less
the same fertility level as Niger, but both countries
have seen a considerable decline in the meantime.
In Pakistan the level decreased slowly to the current
level of 3 children per woman. In Iran the fertility
decreased more abruptly, faster and deeper to below
the replacement level â€“ Iran today has one of the
lowest fertility levels in the world, and a further decline is expected. The Iranian Revolution of 1978
played a crucial role in the history of Iran (AbassiShavazi et al., 2009): it brought better education and
health care, two essential ingredients for birth control.
Brasil was also one of the countries with very
high fertility in the 1950â€™s â€“ higher than the Congo,
for example. The decrease started earlier than in
Iran but happened more gradually. Today both
Source: UN World Population Prospects, the 2012 Revision; the data after 2010, with dotted lines, are medium variant projections.
Fig. 4. â€” Evolution of the total fertility rate by world region: 1950-2050
THE WORLD POPULATION EXPLOSION â€“ VAN BAVEL 287
tomorrow, next week and next month, instead of
living for the day. This attitude is necessary for effective birth control. Thirdly, education also increases the potential for effective contraception,
because birth control doesnâ€™t just happen, especially
not when efficient family planning facilities are not
or hardly accessible or when there are opposing cultural or family values.
The influence of education on birth control has
been demonstrated in a vast number of studies
(James et al., 2012). It starts with primary education, but an even larger effect can be attained by
investment in secondary education (Cohen, 2008).
In a country like Niger, for example, women who
didnâ€™t finish primary school have on average 7.8
children. Women who did finish primary school
have on average 6.7 children, while women who
finished secondary school â€œonlyâ€ have 4.6 children
(Fig. 6). The fertility of Niger would be a lot lower
if more women could benefit from education. The
tragedy of that country is that too many people fall
in the category of those without a degree of primary
school, with all its demographic consequences.
One achieves with education therefore a plural
beneficial demographic effect on top of the important objective of human emancipation in itself. All
this is of course not always true but depends on
which form of â€œeducationâ€; I assume that weâ€™re
talking about education that teaches people the
have increasing confidence in having descendants
in the long term.
It is crucial to understand that the decline in child
mortality in the demographic transition always precedes the decline in fertility. Men, women and families cannot be convinced of the benefits of birth
control if they donâ€™t have confidence in the survival
chances of their children. Better health care is therefore essential, and a lack of good health care is one
of the reasons for a persistently high fertility in a
country like Niger.
Education is another factor that can cause a decline in fertility. This is probably the most important factor, not just because education is an important humanitarian goal in itself (apart from the
demographic effects), but also because with education one can kill two birds with one stone: education
causes more birth control but also better child survival (recently clearly demonstrated by SmithGreenaway (2013), which in its turn will lead to better birth control. The statistical correlation between
level of education and level of fertility is therefore
Firstly, education enhances the motivation for
birth control: if parents invest in the education of
their children, they will have fewer children, as has
been demonstrated. Secondly, education promotes a
more forward-looking lifestyle: it will lead people
to think on a somewhat longer term, to think about
Source: UN World Population Prospects, the 2012 Revision; the data after 2010, with dotted lines, are medium variant projections.
Fig. 5. â€” Evolution of the total fertility rate in some countries between 1950 and 2010, and projected evolution until 2050
288 FVV in ObGyn
is therefore essential, and education can play an important role in that process as well.
Even if all the people would suddenly practice birth
control much more than is currently considered possible, the world population would still continue to
grow for a while. This is the consequence of population momentum, a notion that refers to the phenomenon of demographic inertia, comparable to the
phenomenon of momentum and inertia in the field
of physics. Demographic growth is like a moving
train: even when you turn off the engine, the movement will continue for a little while.
The power and direction of population momentum
is dependent on the age structure of the population.
Compare the population pyramids of Egypt and
Germany (Fig. 7). The one for Egypt has a pyramidal
shape indeed, but the one for Germany looks more
like an onion. As a consequence of high birth rates
in the previous decades, the largest groups of Egyptians are to be found below the age of forty; the
younger, the more voluminous the generation. Even
if the current and future generations of Egyptians
would limit their fertility strongly (as is indeed the
case), the birth rate in Egypt would still continue to
knowledge and skills to better take control of their
It is one thing to get people motivated to practice
birth control but obtaining actual effective contraception is quite another matter. Information concerning the efficient use of contraceptives and increasing the accessibility and affordability of
contraceptives can therefore play an important role.
There are an estimated 215 million women who
would want to have contraception but donâ€™t have
the means (UNFPA, 2011). Investments in services
to help with family planning are absolutely necessary and could already have great results in this
group of women. But itâ€™s no use to put the cart before the horse: if there is no intention to practice
birth control, propaganda for and accessibility of
contraception will hardly have any effect, as was
demonstrated in the past. In Europe the lionâ€™s share
of the decline in fertility was realized with traditional methods, before the introduction of hormonal
contraception in the sixties. There is often a problem of lack of motivation for birth control on the
one hand, as a result of high child mortality and low
schooling rates, and a lack of power in women who
may be motivated to limit fertility but are confronted with male resistance on the other (Blanc, 2011;
Do and Kurimoto, 2012). Empowerment of women
Source: Cohen 2008.
Fig. 6. â€” Association between level of education and total fertility rate in some poor countries
THE WORLD POPULATION EXPLOSION â€“ VAN BAVEL 289
Poverty and famine
The Malthusian line of thought continues to leave
an important mark on the debate regarding the
association between population growth and poverty:
Malthus saw an excessive population growth as an
important cause of poverty and famine. Rightfully
this Malthusian vision has been criticized a lot. One
must after all take the reverse causal relation into
account as well: poverty and the related social
circumstances (like a lack of education and good
health care for children) contribute to high population growth as well.
Concerning famine: the production of food has
grown faster since 1960 than the world population
has, so nowadays the amount of food produced per
person exceeds that which existed before the
population explosion (Lam, 2011). The problem of
famine isnâ€™t as much an insufficient food production as it is a lack of fair distribution (and a lack of
sustainable production, but thatâ€™s another issue).
Often regions with famine have ecological conditions
permitting sufficient production of food, provided
the necessary investments in human resources and
technology are made. The most important cause of
famine is therefore not the population explosion.
Famine is primarily a consequence of unequal
distribution of food, which in turn is caused by
social-economic inequality, lack of democracy and
Poverty and famine usually have mainly political
and institutional causes, not demographic ones. The
Malthusian vision, that sees the population explosion as the root of all evil, therefore has to be corrected (Fig. 8). Rapid population growth can indeed
hinder economical development and can thus pave
the way for poverty. But this is only part of the
rise for quite some time, just because year after year
more and more potential mothers and fathers reach
the fertile ages. Egypt therefore clearly has a growth
Germany on the other hand has a negative or
shrinking momentum: even if the younger generations of Germans would have a larger num ber of
children than the generation of their own parents,
the birth rate in Germany would still continue to decrease because fewer and fewer potential mothers
and fathers reach the fertile ages.
The population momentum on a global scale is
positive: even if fertility would decrease overnight
to the replacement level, the world population
would continue to grow with 40% (from 7 billion to
9.8 billion). Only the rich countries have a shrinking
momentum, that is -3%. For Europe the momentum
is -7%. The population momentum for the poorest
countries in the world is +44%, that of Sub Saharan
Africa +46% (Espenshade et al., 2011).
Consequences of the population explosion
The concerns about the consequences of population
explosion started in the sixties. Milestone publications were the 1968 book The Population bomb by
biologist Paul Ehrlich, the report of the Club of
Rome from 1972 (The Limits to Growth) and the
first World Population Plan of Action of the UN in
1974 among others.
In the world population debate, the general concerns involve mainly three interconnected consequences of the population explosion: 1) the growing
poverty in the world and famine; 2) the exhaustion
and pollution of natural resources essential to human survival; and 3) the migration pressure from
the poor South to the rich North (Van Bavel, 2004).
Source: US Census Bureau, international database.
Fig. 7. â€” Population pyramids of Egypt (left) and Germany (right)
290 FVV in ObGyn
and North America together, over 1 billion. But
the total ecological footprint of Europeans and
Americans is many times higher than that of Africans
(Ewing et al., 2010). Less than 18% of the world
population is responsible for over 50% of the global
carbon dioxide emission (Chakravarty et al., 2009).
If we are therefore concerned about the impact of
the world population on the environment, we can do
something about it immediately by tackling our
own overconsumption: itâ€™s something we can control and it has an immediate effect. In contrast, we
know of the population growth that it will continue
for some time anyhow, even if people in poor countries would practice much more birth control than
we consider possible at present.
The population explosion has created an increasing
migration pressure from the South to the North â€“
and there is also important migration within and between countries in the South. But here as well the
message is: the main responsibility doesnâ€™t lie with
the population growth but with economic inequality.
The primary motive for migration was and is
economic disparity: people migrate from regions
with no or badly paid labour and a low standard of
living to other regions, where one hopes to find
work and a higher standard of living (Massey et al.,
1993; Hooghe et al., 2008; IMO, 2013). Given the
permanent population growth and economical
inequality, a further increasing migration pressure is
to be expected, irrespective of the national policies
It is sometimes expected that economic growth
and increasing incomes in the South will slow down
the migration pressure, but that remains to be seen.
After all, it isnâ€™t usually the poorest citizens in
developing countries that migrate to rich countries.
It is rather the affluent middle class in poor countries that have the means to send their sons and
daughters to the North â€“ an investment that can raise
a lot of money via remittances to the families in the
country of origin (IMO, 2013). There is after all a
considerable cost attached to migration, in terms of
money and human capital. Not everyone can bear
those costs: to migrate you need brains, guts and
money. With growing economic development in
poor countries, an initial increase in migration
pressure from those countries would be expected;
the association between social-economic development
story. As mentioned, poverty is also an underlying
cause of rapid population growth. Social factors are
at the base of both poverty and population growth.
Itâ€™s those social factors that require our intervention: via investments in education and (reproductive) health care.
Impact on the environment
The impact of the population explosion on the environment is unquestionably high, but the size of the
population represents only one aspect of this. In this
regard it can be useful to keep in mind the simple
I=PAT scheme: the ecological footprint or impact
on the environment (I) can be regarded as the product of the size of the population (P), the prosperity
or consumption level (A for affluence) and the technology used (T). The relationship between each of
these factors is more complex than the I=PAT
scheme suggests, but in any case the footprint I of a
population of 1000 people is for example dependent
on how many of those people drive a car instead of
a bike, and of the emission per car of the vehicle
The ecological footprint of the world population
has increased tremendously the past decades and the
growth of the world population has obviously
played an important role in this. The other factors in
the I=PAT scheme have however played a relatively bigger role than the demographic factor P. The
considerable increase in the Chinese ecological
footprint of the past decades for example, is more a
consequence of the increased consumption of meat
than of population growth (Peters et al., 2007; Liu et
al., 2008). The carbon dioxide emission of China
grew by 82% between 1990 and 2003, while the
population only increased by 11% in that same period. A similar story exists for India: the population
grew by less than 23% between 1990 and 2003,
while the emission of carbon dioxide increased by
more than 83% (Chakravarty et al., 2009). The
consumption of water and meat in the world is
increasing more rapidly than the population3
consumption of water per person is for example
threefold higher in the US than in China (Hoekstra
and Chapagain, 2007). The African continent has at
present the same number of inhabitants as Europe
Fig. 8. â€” Connections between social factors, poverty and
(3) See http://www.unwater.org/water-cooperation-2013/
THE WORLD POPULATION EXPLOSION â€“ VAN BAVEL 291
Blanc AK. 2001. The effect of power in sexual relationships on
sexual and reproductive health: an examination of the evidence. Stud Fam Plan. 2001;32:189-213.
Chakravarty S, Chikkatur A, de Coninck H et al. Sharing global
CO2 emission reductions among one billion high emitters.
Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2009;106;11884-8.
Cohen JE. Make secondary education universal, Nature.
De Haas H. International migration, remittances and development: myths and facts. Third World Quarterly. 2007;26:1269-
Do M, Kurimoto N. Womenâ€™s Empowerment and Choice of
Contraceptive Methods in Selected African Countries. Int
Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2012;38:23-33.
Espenshade TJ, Olgiati AS, Levin S. On nonstable and stable
population momentum. Demography. 2011;48:1581-99.
Ewing B, Moore D, Goldfinger S, Oursler et al. Ecological
Footprint Atlas 2010. Oakland, CA: Global Footprint Network.
Habbema JDF, Collins J, Leridon H et al. 2004. Towards less
confusing terminology in reproductive medicine: a proposal. Hum Reprod. 2004;19:1497-1501.
Hoekstra AY, Chapagain AK. Water footprints of nations:
Water use by people as a function of their consumption
pattern. Water Resources Management. 2007;21:35-48.
Hooghe M, Trappers A, Meuleman B et al. Migration to European countries: A structural explanation of patterns, 1980-
2004, International Migration Review. 2008;42:476-504.
IMO. World Migration Report 2013. GenÃ¨ve, CH: International Organization for Migration, 2013.
James KS, Skirbekk V, Van Bavel J. Education and the global
fertility transition, Vienna Yearbook of Population Research.
Lam D. How the world survived the population bomb: lessons
from 50 years of extraordinary demographic history.
Liu J, Yang H, Savenije HHG. Chinaâ€™s move to higher-meat
diet hits water security. Nature. 2008;454:397.
Livi-Bacci M. A Concise History of World Population. 3rd ed.
Cambridge (Mass.): Blackwell, 2001.
Massey, DS, Arango J, Hugo G et al. Theories of international
migration: a review and appraisal, Population and Development Review. 1993;19:431-66.
Peters GP, Weber CL, Guan D et al. Chinaâ€™s Growing CO2
Emissions – A Race between Increasing Consumption and
Efficiency Gains. Environ Sci Technol. 2007;41:5939-44.
Smith-Greenaway E. Maternal reading skills and child mortality
in Nigeria: a reassessment of why education matters.
UNFPA. The State of World Population 2011. People and
Possibilities in a World of 7 Billion. New York: United
UN. World Population Prospects. The 2012 Revision. Volume
I : Comprehensive Tables. New York, United Nations, 2013.
Van Bavel, J. De wereldbevolkingsexplosie en duurzame
ontwikkeling: een veldoverzicht, Tijdschrift voor Sociologie. 2004;25:227-45.
and emigration is not linearly negative but follows
the shape of a J turned upside down: more emigration
at the start of economic development and a decline
in emigration only with further development (De
7 Billion and countingâ€¦ What is to be done?
A world population that needed some millennia
before reaching the number of 1 billion people, but
then added some billions more after 1920 in less
than a century: the social, cultural, economic and
ecological consequences of such an evolution are so
complex that they can lead to fear and indifference
at the same time. What kind of constructive reaction
is possible and productive in view of such an
First of all: we need to invest in education and
health care in Africa and elsewhere, not just as a
humanitarian target per se but also because it will
encourage the spread of birth control. Secondly, we
need to encourage and support the empowerment of
women, not just via education but also via services
for reproductive health. This has triple desirable results for demographics: it will lead to more and
more effective birth control, which in itself has a
positive effect on the survival of children, which in
turn again facilitates birth control.
Thirdly: because of the positive population
momentum, the world population will certainly
continue to grow in absolute figures, even though
the yearly growth rate in percentages is already on
the decline for several years. The biggest contribution we could make therefore, with an immediate
favourable impact for ourselves and the rest of the
world, is to change our consumption pattern and
deal with the structural overconsumption of the
worldâ€™s richest countries.
Abbasi-Shavazi MJ, McDonald P, Hosseini-Chavoshi M. The
Fertility Transition in Iran. Revolution and Reproduction.
2009, Dordrecht: Springer.
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