You don’t have to be a demographer to understand the fundamentals of human population growth. In fact, everyone must come to understand these issues if we’re going to ensure a positive quality of life for generations to come. So, to dispel common misconceptions, as well as to enhance and refine what you may already know, Population Connection has carefully researched and prepared answers to some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
How many people can Earth support?
Nobody knows how many people Earth can support because this depends on so many different factors, especially those related to lifestyle and consumption habits. At Population Connection, we focus on quality, not quantity of life.
Maybe the question we should be asking is, “How many people can’t the Earth support?” For example, at present the Earth can’t support the 5.4 million children under five who die every year, mostly from preventable causes. The Earth can’t support the 2.1 billion people who lack safely managed drinking water. The Earth can’t support the 4.5 billion people who lack safely managed sanitation services. The Earth can’t support the 821 million people—11% of the global population—who are chronically hungry. While each of these challenges can be addressed in a variety of ways, the fact remains that population pressures contribute to much suffering.
More important than trying to figure out how much our Earth can endure, we must ask: Do people have access to food and water? Are they healthy? Safe? Educated? Content? In short, what is the quality of life for people around the world, including for those who are the most marginalized? It is within this last question that Population Connection finds its mission.
But isn’t it true that the entire population of the world could fit inside Texas?
Yes, and you might fit 30 people in an office elevator, but how comfortable do you think they would be? It’s one thing to “fit” into an area, and it is an entirely different issue for people to live and thrive in that same space. The “Population in Texas” fact is often cited by people who do not understand the concept of carrying capacity.
Carrying capacity estimates the number of people a certain area of land can sustain without compromising its long-term viability. The carrying capacity of Texas’s 167,187,840 acres can’t even come close to accommodating the world’s population of 7.7 billion.
In fact, if the entire population of the world actually lived within the Lone Star borders, each person would have just 0.02 acres of land on which to grow food, live, work, shop, go to school, and dispose of waste. The truth is that people need much more than just the land they are standing on. In order to be healthy and safe, they need space that far exceeds the 0.02 acres that Texas would offer. And remember, we’re not the only species on this planet.
Why should we be concerned about population growth rates of 1% or 2% a year? Doesn’t that mean the population is growing very slowly?
The current global population growth rate of 1.09% may not seem significant, but consider this: With a base of 7.7 billion people, a growth rate of 1.09% means that our population grows by 84 million people a year!
Doubling time is a useful way of observing the impact of a country or the world’s growth rate. For example, in the African country of Chad, the population is growing at a rate of 3.01%. At this rate the country’s population will double in just 23 years. That isn’t much time to build roads, houses, schools, and sanitation facilities to accommodate twice as many people. If the world’s present growth rate of 1.09% were to remain constant, the Earth’s population would double in 64 years.
- In order to calculate the approximate doubling time of a population, divide the annual growth rate into 70. For example: 70 divided by 1.09 (global growth rate) = 64 years
Is overpopulation a problem only in areas where population density is high?
No. High population density, as found in many urban areas, does not necessarily indicate overpopulation. To the contrary, urban areas offer hope for human development and protection of natural resources because they can support large numbers of people while limiting the impact on the natural environment. The expansion of cities is inevitable, offering many economic, social, and cultural benefits. Urban migration can be used to the advantage of the environment through reduced per capita consumption—of dwelling space, personal vehicles, and private outdoor space (yards).
Increasingly, cities develop “sprawl” whereby populations spread to the peripheral areas of a city, live in expansive spaces, and commute to city centers for employment and entertainment. These low-density, suburban areas can be particularly pernicious to the environment and our limited resources—they use up larger tracts of land, necessitate a high degree of automobile usage, and require more building materials, water lines, and roads than compact cities.
Why should Americans be concerned about population growth in other parts of the world?
The United States has a long history of involvement in the health and development of low-income countries around the world, through our foreign assistance and diplomatic relations. And hardly anything affects health and development more than the rate of growth of the population.
In addition, the environmental, economic, and social impacts of population growth do not recognize national boundaries. What occurs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has implications for the United States (and this is certainly true vice versa).
An example of the interconnectedness of our planet’s environment is the rapid destruction of tropical rainforests, which is exacerbated by human population growth. The “lungs of the Earth,” rainforests benefit everyone through their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. As population increases, so too does the demand on the wood and other goods rainforests provide. The demand on farmland and grazing land increases as well, and rainforests are often burned to the ground when cultivated land must expand to feed a growing population. This reduces the capacity of rainforests to help slow climate change, which affects us all, regardless of which country we call home.
What role does the U.S. play in population issues?
The U.S. plays a leading role in population stabilization efforts by providing funding and support for family planning initiatives, domestically and internationally. However, while there is a strong consensus that the U.S. government should fund and support family planning programs around the world, we are contributing much less through foreign assistance than is needed to eliminate the unmet need for family planning that exists in the developing world.
Recent calculations by the Guttmacher Institute show that fully meeting the need for modern contraceptive services in the developing world would cost $12.1 billion. The U.S. share of that is over $1 billion, an amount the U.S. has yet to meet in recent funding cycles.
If all women in developing regions who want to avoid a pregnancy used modern contraceptives, the benefits would be dramatic. According to the Guttmacher Institute, compared with the current situation:
- unintended pregnancies would decline from 89 million to 22 million,
- unplanned births would decline from 30 million to 7 million,
- induced abortions would decline from 48 million to 13 million, and
- 76,000 fewer women would die from maternal causes (from 308,000 down to 232,000).
Domestic support for low-income family planning programs (e.g. Title X) is also lacking, despite the fact that most Americans feel the government should provide voluntary family planning services as part of low-income women’s health care. We support an increase in Title X funding, which would help to reduce unintended pregnancy in the United States. Currently, nearly half (45%) of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended or unwanted.
Why are developing countries experiencing rapid population growth while developed countries are growing more slowly or not at all?
The differences in growth can be explained by different levels of development and varied social customs. A country’s birth rate is strongly linked to its degree of industrialization, economic development, and availability of quality medical care. Also, social customs pertaining to educational attainment, women’s status, and family size affect rates of population growth.
Beginning in the early 20th century, developed nations improved living conditions through advances in medicine, sanitation, and nutrition. These advancements led to declines in death rates, increases in life expectancies, and increases in infant and child survival rates. More people were surviving to their reproductive years than ever before. Birth rates remained high and the population swelled.
Along with increases in living standards came urbanization, which rendered large families less practical and more expensive. Machinery was used more frequently to plant and harvest food, reducing the need for rural families to have as many children to work on farms. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, birth rates dropped dramatically as people realized the advantages of having smaller families. Thus, the developed countries have completed the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates.
Developing regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America, are still home to large agrarian populations; therefore, real incentives for having larger families still exist. And without a social security system in place in most of the developing world, people have many children to ensure that there is someone to take care of them in their old age. There are also many barriers that prevent women and couples from avoiding unplanned pregnancies. While death rates have fallen in many developing regions due to advances in health, birth rates still remain high—these regions are in the middle of the demographic transition, which is the period during which populations grow the fastest.
Is the U.S. imposing its own values regarding reproductive health and family planning on other countries?
The U.S. generally provides assistance to other countries through two avenues: the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
UNFPA assists governments and organizations at the aid-receiving countries’ request. The agency maintains a democratically organized and implemented agenda, agreed upon by the 179 countries that took part in the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. UNFPA extends assistance to countries at their request and works in partnership with governments, all parts of the United Nations system, development banks, bilateral aid agencies, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. Under internationally agreed upon population and development goals, each country decides for itself what approach to take in order to meet the specific needs of its residents. At the Cairo conference, developing countries agreed to provide two-thirds of the funding needed to provide family planning to everyone who wants to use it in their countries, and the industrialized nations agreed to provide the remaining third of the funding.
USAID grants assistance to foreign organizations that apply for funding and technical assistance. There is no U.S. funding for family planning in any country where it is not specifically requested by either the government or a local organization.
Is religion an obstacle to population stabilization?
Certain religious institutions (namely, the Catholic Church) do condemn the use of artificial birth control, but a vast difference often exists between the official position of a religion’s organized leadership and the actual practices of its followers. Just consider the fact that Italy and Spain have among the lowest fertility rates in the world!
In the United States, 98% of Catholic women who have ever had sex report that they have used a modern form of contraception at some point in their lives.
However, this is not to say that organized religions’ leaders do not influence population matters. The Vatican has been successful in its lobbying efforts to curb contraceptive use in the U.S., and has succeeded in diverting funds from family planning programs. The Vatican has affected population matters abroad as well, such as in Africa where Catholic bishops have actively opposed condom use, an act with serious implications in the face of the AIDS pandemic. The rise of the right wing evangelical movement has also played a major role in blocking a variety of critical programs.
In Muslim communities, there are diverse views on family planning. The Islamic Republic of Iran implemented one of the most successful family planning programs in the history of the world, bringing the country’s fertility rate from 6.9 children per woman in the late 1960s to 1.6 today.
In the book World War III, Michael Tobias writes that many Muslims “insist that family planning is inherent to the Qur’an itself” and that birth control is approved of in Islamic religious texts. A more predictive factor of fertility rates appears to be the status of women—studies have shown that fertility rates are higher among Islamic countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, where education and jobs are less accessible to women, than they are in other Muslim nations, such as Tunisia and Turkey.
Although religion can play an important role in family planning decisions, urbanization, education levels, economic opportunities, and the availability of contraceptive services and supplies can have even more bearing.
How does improving the status of women affect population growth?
As girls and women gain access to education and employment, their health improves, their options expand, and they have smaller families than women who are denied access to education and employment.
The number of children a woman has is not determined by biology alone. Less tangible factors—health, religion, culture, and economic and social standing—are more influential. In many societies women are valued primarily for their role in reproduction, hold little or no political or economic power, and are provided with inadequate health care and education. Women in these societies tend to have higher fertility rates. But in areas where women have more autonomy, they generally have more power and resources to control their fertility, and birth rates go down. Elevating the status of women worldwide is vital to lowering fertility rates and, ultimately, ending global population growth.
The key to such empowerment is education, one of the strongest forces of lasting change. Educated women have increased opportunities and are more likely to enter the labor force before marriage, thus marrying later, delaying childbearing, and having fewer children overall. Additionally, educated women are usually more aware of and have better access to medical services, including family planning, and have greater confidence and ability to use them.
Kerala, India exemplifies the change education can proffer. Here, 92% of women are literate and they enjoy access to affordable health care (including family planning), and most of the same educational and economic opportunities men have. As a result, this economically poor area has a fertility rate as low as most industrialized nations (1.8 births per woman in 2016), including the U.S.
How does the HIV/AIDS epidemic affect global population?
There are an estimated 36.9 million people currently living with HIV, and each year another 1.8 million people become infected. About 35.4 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses worldwide since the disease was first recorded, including 950,000 in 2017 alone. This actually represents significant progress, however. Since 2010, AIDS-related deaths have declined by 34%.
Arguments about population “benefits” from the AIDS crisis should be met with staunch reproach. AIDS is not solving our population troubles; it is only exacerbating problems. Quality of life issues, already sensitive in many of the areas hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, are experiencing dramatic setbacks.
How does a growing population affect biodiversity?
Biodiversity refers to the wide variety of living organisms and their complex interdependency for survival. It is an important measure of the health of an environment because if one species—whether plant or animal—shows signs of stress, then entire life systems may be threatened. These systems ensure the continuation of the planet’s most critical functions, including conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen.
As the human population grows, and more people join the ranks of the middle class, we displace more and more wildlife species, putting them at risk for extinction. Researchers have found that humans are contributing to the extinction of species at a rate about 1,000 times faster than the background rate of extinction. More than 27% of assessed species are currently threatened by extinction.
There was a 60%-decline in the size of the vertebrate population between 1970 and 2014, and an 83%-decline in freshwater species. According to WWF, the main drivers of biodiversity decline are the overexploitation of species, agriculture, and land conversion. WWF writes, “Prior to the explosive population growth of the 20th century, humanity’s rate of consumption was much smaller than the Earth’s rate of renewal.” Of course, this has changed in the past century, and only about 25% of Earth’s land is free from human influence.
The adverse effects of human population growth and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources are especially significant in some of the most biologically rich countries of the developing world—known as biodiversity “hotspots.” Almost 20% of the Amazon Rainforest has disappeared in the last fifty years.
Around the world, disruptions in ecosystems could give rise to global warming, acid rain, increased sea levels, and destruction of the ozone layer. In addition, unfettered population growth can upset biological ecosystems that provide humans with medicines, nutrition, and fuel, as well as other recreational and commercial services.
What is the connection between population growth and climate change?
In our modern industrialized world, each of us plays a role in current unsustainable levels of global emissions of fossil fuels. World population is now 600% higher than it was some 200 years ago, and it’s growing every day. A 2010 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that by the end of the century, slower population growth could reduce total fossil fuel emissions by 37–41%. Yet the role played by population growth gets little or no attention in most climate discussions. We’re working to change that.
Won’t slowing population growth negatively affect our country’s economic, political, and social well-being?
A large population size does not necessarily produce a world power or a healthy economy. As Dr. Nafis Sadik, former Executive Director of the UNFPA, asks, “What society has bred itself into prosperity?”
Even with a fertility rate below replacement level, the U.S. is still one of the fastest-growing industrialized countries in the world, adding 3 million people to its population annually. Meanwhile, we are faced with air and water pollution, traffic-choked highways, crowded classrooms, and a shortage of affordable homes. Population stabilization is the first step toward achieving better lives for present and future generations. Adding sheer numbers to our population will not strengthen our nation. Instead, we need to focus on implementing policies that improve the quality of life for all people and promote sustainable growth. These include providing quality education, caring for the sick and the elderly, working to eradicate poverty, cleaning up the environment, and seeking alternative sources of energy.
If Americans choose to have fewer children, won’t this cause the demise of our Social Security system?
Problems with the Social Security system cannot be solved through population growth. Infants and children come with costs to our social programs as well—expenditures on schools, day cares, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), health care, etc. A society with slower population growth may need more retirement communities and gerontologists, but it will need fewer elementary schools and pediatricians. A healthy economy is the key to funding social programs. Smaller families can provide more resources to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be well-educated and productive.
Policies and programs must be adjusted to ensure that we can meet the needs of the elderly while maintaining a Social Security system that will be viable well into the future.
In this country is it a matter of the “wrong” people bearing children?
Theories maintaining that there are “right” or “wrong” people bearing children are misguided and will only serve to deter progress and cooperation in population awareness and education.
In fact, in terms of environmental impacts, affluent, conspicuous consumers could be considered the “wrong” people. Such people require far greater resources to maintain their lifestyles than those living on restricted incomes. This is not to suggest that maintaining poverty is the solution. The challenge remains in identifying and eliminating those patterns of wasteful overconsumption that compromise the needs of future generations.
Labeling people as “right” or “wrong” along demographic lines only diverts attention from the real problem: insufficient access to affordable family planning information and services for everyone. In recent years, stagnating levels of funding for low-income family planning programs in the U.S. have diminished access to crucial health services for men and women.
What is the most effective family planning policy?
Population Connection firmly believes that only voluntary family planning programs are effective and sustainable. Coercive measures, which include forced abortions, sterilizations, and sex selection, are always unethical, immoral, and unacceptable. The most effective family planning programs give people the freedom to choose whether and when to have children, completely on their own terms.
The disparities in reproductive patterns among particular regions in India, for example, result from differing approaches to family planning. Southern areas, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have drastically reduced fertility rates through voluntary and collaborative approaches. In contrast, some of their northern counterparts, including Punjab and Haryana, have high fertility rates and much lower levels of female education and general health care, despite (or perhaps due to) a tendency to use “heavy handed” family planning interventions, including coercion.
Family planning programs should be developed with respect for the fact that, quite often, people prefer to have fewer children, but simply lack the means to do so. Coercion is never acceptable.
Does supporting family planning mean you are anti-child?
Just the opposite, actually. Population Connection is concerned with improving people’s quality of life, including children’s. The most important way that children benefit from family planning is through increased survival rates. Family planning allows mothers to space births farther apart, which improves infant and child health outcomes. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the infant mortality rate is 117 per 1,000 live births when the birth interval is less than two years, 64 per 1,000 when births are spaced 2-3 years apart, and 47 per 1,000 when births are four or more years apart.
Family planning also allows women who are too young or too old to safely carry a pregnancy to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place. Physically immature adolescents are at higher risk of giving birth to premature and low-birth-weight babies, and they are also more likely to have obstructed labor because their birth canals are not large enough for their babies’ heads to pass through. Babies born to older women are also more likely to die, due to maternal anemia, malnutrition, and reproductive system damage from previous births. Reducing high-risk pregnancies to women outside of their optimal childbearing years is a very effective way of lowering infant mortality rates.
The socioeconomic benefits to children of lower fertility are many—increased nutrition and schooling perhaps being the most important.
Is Population Connection a pro-choice organization?
Proudly, yes. We believe the decision to carry a pregnancy to term is best left to each individual woman, with the input of her doctor and partner.
Safe, legal abortion should be available to all women. Of the estimated 56 million abortions that occur each year, approximately 25 million are unsafe—unsanitary, self-induced, or performed by poorly trained providers. These unsafe abortions result in the deaths of t least 22,800 women each year. Those women who survive often experience long-term health problems, ranging from chronic pelvic pain to infertility.
At the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), world leaders agreed that unsafe abortion is a major public health concern, and that governments should work to eliminate the practice.
What was the Cairo conference, and why is it important?
The UN-organized 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), called the “Cairo conference” or simply “Cairo,” brought together 179 countries to reaffirm the importance of slowing population growth for social and economic development. The Cairo Conference was the third UN Conference on Population (The United Nations previously held international conferences on population in Bucharest (1974) and Mexico City (1984)), and was the first to focus on meeting the needs of individuals, rather than simply achieving demographic targets.
The result of ICPD was the creation of the Program of Action, a 20-year plan promoting, among other things, universal access to quality and affordable reproductive health services; reductions in maternal, infant, and child mortality; and closing the “gender gap” in education. Cairo put an end to the concept of “population control.” It recognized that smaller families and slower population growth depend on free choice and the empowerment of women.
In acknowledging the importance of advancing women’s status worldwide, the Program of Action, underscores the “empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of their political, social, economic, and health status,” not only as an end in itself, but also as a vital part of achieving a sustainable population balance. Population Connection supports the Cairo consensus and urges the United States government and other world leaders to fully implement its agenda.
Where does Population Connection stand on U.S. immigration policy?
Population Connection believes that the United States government should view immigration in a global context, and focus its attention on the factors that compel people to leave their families and native homes in the first place.
Foremost among the root causes of international migration are population growth, economic stagnation, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, poverty, and political repression. Unless the United States successfully addresses these international issues, no domestic policy will effectively prevent people from seeking entry to the United States. Population Connection, therefore, calls on the United States to focus its foreign aid on these core issues and work cooperatively with other nations to address international migration.
What can one person do to help end population growth?
There are many things that individuals can do to help end population growth. Here are just a few:
- Write, email, or call your lawmakers—become a constituent voice for change! Urge your state legislators and U.S. members of Congress to increase funding for domestic and international family planning programs. Work with your local school board to bring school-based comprehensive sex education to your community’s students—teens who know how to effectively prevent pregnancy are usually more than happy to do so!
- Raise awareness of population issues in your community. Most people have never thought about how population growth affects the issues they care about—you can change that! Write a letter to your local paper, contact local radio and television stations, or volunteer to give a lecture or lead a discussion group on population issues at a local high school, church, or community center. Simply initiating a dialogue with your friends, coworkers, and neighbors is invaluable to instigating change.
- Think about your own desired family size and how to best achieve it—educate yourself about family planning methods and find the one that’s best for you and your particular situation (which may change over time). Your reproductive destiny is yours to decide—make the most of that freedom!
 Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2018, UNICEF, WHO, World Bank Group and United Nations, September 2018.
 Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, WHO, 2017.
 The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018. Building climate resilience for food security and nutrition. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2018. (Hunger data is from 2017, when the UN estimated the global population to be 7,550 million.)
 In 2017, the UN Population Division projected the 2019 global population to be 7.714 million (medium fertility scenario).
 World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision; 1.09% is the projected growth rate for 2015-2020.
 Adding It Up: Investing in Contraception and Maternal and Newborn Health, 2017
 Just the Numbers: The Impact of U.S. International Family Planning Assistance, 2018, Guttmacher Institute.
 Adding It Up: Investing in Contraception and Maternal and Newborn Health, 2017
 Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, Guttmacher Institute, 2016.
 Program of Action, ICPD, 1994, section 13.16, page 118
 Religion and Family Planning Tables, Guttmacher Institute, Unpublished tabulations of the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth.
 World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Total fertility tables.
 India Census 2011, https://www.census2011.co.in/census/state/kerala.html
 National Institution for Transforming India, Government of India, https://niti.gov.in/content/total-fertility-rate-tfr-birth-woman
 Global HIV & AIDS statistics — 2018 fact sheet, UNAIDS, http://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet
 Pimm et al, “The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection,” Science, May 30, 2014, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/344/6187/1246752
 IUCN 2018. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2018-2. http://www.iucnredlist.org.
 WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.
 “Family Planning Can Reduce High Infant Mortality Levels,” April 2002 Report, Guttmacher Institute, https://www.guttmacher.org/report/family-planning-can-reduce-high-infant-mortality-levels (more recent data on this measure doesn’t appear to be available).
 “Preventing unsafe abortion,” WHO, February 19, 2018, https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preventing-unsafe-abortion
 “Induced Abortion Worldwide,” Guttmacher Institute, March 2018, https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-worldwide