In 1800 the world population was about 1 billion (that is 1000 million) people. The 2 billion population mark was reached in about 1920, a population doubling time of about 120 years. The rate of population growth accelerated significantly after World War 2, with the 4 billion mark being reached by about 1970, a population doubling time of only 50 years. By the year 2000, the world population had increased to 6 billion, doubling this time in only 40 years. With this population growth rate acceleration in mind, the UN predicts the world population will reach 8 billion by 2020 and, if the growth curve is unchanged, a staggering 13 billion by 2080.
This is obviously of great concern for many reasons. The recent rapid increase in human population over the past two centuries has raised concerns that humans are beginning to overpopulate the Earth, and that the planet may not be able to sustain present or larger numbers of inhabitants. Many environmental problems, such as rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, global warming, and pollution, are aggravated by this unprecedented population expansion. As the global population continues to grow, human populations will place greater and greater demands on the resources of our planet, including mineral and energy resources, open space, water, and plant and animal resources. The structure of the world's ecosystems changed more rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in recorded human history, and virtually all of Earth's ecosystems have now been significantly transformed through human actions. Fresh water supplies, on which agriculture depends, are running low worldwide. This water crisis is only expected to worsen as the population increases.
With all these doom and gloom predictions, some local environmental lobby groups have taken the opportunity to push for "an ecologically sustainable population" in Australia, and no doubt other ideologically-aligned lobby groups are pushing for the same population control measures in other Western and developed nations. But the unpopular, and usually unstated, truth amongst the handwringing of these environmental lobby groups, and many media commentators, is that rates of population growth, birth rates and population density are not evenly distributed across the globe. Population growth rates are highest in countries in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with the UN stating that the 49 least developed countries have the fastest population growth rates, averaging 2.3 per cent per year.
The top ten countries with the highest birth rates are all clustered around the sub-Saharan region of North Africa – a region also associated with the highest rates of poverty and poorest quality infrastructure. In contrast, the lowest birth rates occur in the most developed countries in Europe, East Asia and Australasia. More than half of these developing countries have policies to lower fertility. However, contraceptive use remains low in countries with high fertility, most of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Population density as expressed by people per square km is also unevenly distributed, with the greatest population densities occurring in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and West Africa. Urban density is highest in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
With regards to our local situation, Australia's annual population growth rate slowed to 1.4% for the year ending March 2011, according to preliminary figures released in September by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). This is equal to the average annual population growth rate for the past 30 years and has been going down over the last couple of years. Of this, 54% of our population growth was from net overseas migration with the remaining 46% due to natural increase (births minus deaths). Australia's birth rate is well and truly in the lowest third of all countries in the world.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) confirms that high fertility and poverty have been strongly correlated, and the world's poorest countries also have the highest fertility and population growth rates. As most developing countries recognize, committed and focused policies and programmes are urgently needed to moderate population growth as quickly as possible, thus enhancing economic growth and easing demands on social services. Because population growth and poverty go hand in hand, interventions should attempt to address both issues simultaneously.
With all this in mind, and despite it possibly being politically incorrect to point out, it has to be said that if we should all be concerned about the world's burgeoning human population and it's adverse consequences on our planet (and we obviously should), we need to concentrate our efforts at controlling population growth in the places that contribute most to the planet's current population explosion. If there is going to be any suggestions of curbing birth rates, we need to concentrate on curbing birth rates in those countries who, quite logically, have the highest birth rates. As it happens, these tend statistically to also be the countries that are least developed and least able to properly support their high birth rates and soaring population growth.
It simply makes no sense to apply a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to population control in all regions around the globe. It is also ironic that the countries in the developed world who are contributing least to the growth in the world's human population are also the very countries that possess the scientific knowledge and technological prowess to help control the world's population growth and avert future ecological and social disasters associated with overpopulation. It seems to me that population growth and birth rates should be maintained at current levels in these developed countries for this very reason, while simultaneously working to reduce birth rates and population growth in the countries currently contributing most to global population growth, and the associated adverse global consequences. A rather unpopular, even ghastly, suggestion I suspect in the world of political correctness, but the logic of the argument seems sound enough to me. With compassion as our major motivator, this targeted approach to population control, rather than a blanket across-the-board approach, seems a vital component to any sensible future action on this issue.
Roger Morris is a health professional in Queensland. He has a blog called "Faith Interface" (www.faithinterface.com.au/) which explores the interaction of Christianity with science, philosophy and culture.
Roger's archive of articles published in Christian Today may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/roger-morris.html