Population Is a Hidden Factor in the News

A recent University of Washington study indicated that world population may peak sooner than most forecasts project, and at a lower level. Of course, all projections are suspect, including this one.

The report triggered the usual round of comments from some quarters that population growth is an issue of the past. What rubbish!

To understand why, here is a simple thought experiment: Just imagine that, instead of growing by some 80 million people annually, world population somehow suddenly stabilized right now, today.

Now look at the news. For openers, look at the story out of Bangladesh where fully 25% of its landmass is presently flooded, leaving millions in a state of utter desperation. Yet Bangladesh is now just below “replacement rate” in terms of its fertility rate, at 2.07 children per woman. Given the real world in which those struggling millions are seeking to survive (not some imaginary world where everything just sorts itself out), Bangladesh faces severe population problems, even with its success in reducing family size.

Unless you believe in fairy tales and other miracles, the population growth factor is going to continue to weigh heavily on our small planet for generations. We can act to improve the picture in various ways, notably by increased investment in international family planning.

But every time you see a story about families struggling to deal with COVID-19 or about a fragile ecosystem under direct threat or a government in chaos, keep in mind that population growth, which began to explode two centuries ago, is a major part of every one of those stories—even if reporters fail to mention it.

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