The Kenya Forum | Global population size: what are we going to do with 7 billion people? - The Kenya Forum

November 1, 2011


Global population size: what are we going to do with 7 billion people?

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Global population size: what are we going to do with 7 billion people?

Global population size: what are we going to do with 7 billion people?

According to the United Nations’ population division the world’s seven billionth living inhabitant was born on Sunday, October 30, 2011. As someone once said, “a billion here and a billion there and soon you’re talking serious money”. In the main people do not ‘get’, or comprehend ‘billions’. So just to clarify, seven billion is seven thousand, million people, or 7,000,000,000, and that figure is growing by some 10,000 per hour. That’s a lot of people and a large number of mouths to feed.

Not everyone agrees that Sunday marked this mammoth milestone in the world’s population. America’s Census Bureau says it won’t be until March 2012 before the seven billion figure is reached. Nor is there consensus among experts and commentators as to whether we should be relaxed about it all, deeply concerned, or even in a blind panic at the prospect of a world so full of people.

The Forum thinks it depends whether you adhere to the views of Malthus or Condorcet. Fear not, we will explain but that’s for later. First some more figures.


It took until about 1800, over 210 years ago, for the world to reach a population of one billion human beings; another 130 years to reach a population of two billion in 1930 but only another thirty years more to reach three billion (1960). The next thirty years saw another two billion added to the total of the world’s population to six billion by the year 2000 and the latest increase from six to seven billion has taken only 12 years.


Kenyans too are doing their bit to push up the population. At the time of the last official census in August 2009 there were estimated to be 39 million people in Kenya. That figure is now estimated to be 41.6 million just over two years later, not that surprising given that there are estimated to be one million babies born in Kenya every year.

You get the picture. The human race is breeding like rabbits and just as significantly, more humans are surviving into adulthood and we are generally living longer than our parents or grandparents.

With the increase in population, changing demographics and altered economic behaviour, humans are becoming more urban than rural dwellers. According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) entitled ‘The State of the World Population 2011: People and Possibilities in a World of 7 billion’, one in two people presently lives in a city but in 35 years two out of three people will be urban dwellers.


Interestingly, as the Western world’s birth rate declines and that of Africa continues to grow apace, this too will lead to a major flip in population distribution. In 1950, it is estimated, there were ‘three times as many Europeans as sub-Saharan Africans’. By 2010, ‘there were 16 per cent more sub-Saharan Africans than Europeans’. By 2100, according to the United Nations Population Division, ‘there will be nearly five sub-Saharan Africans for every European’.

So, should we be pessimistic or sanguine about the world’s rapidly expanding population? Can the human race cope and adapt, or will we be crushed by the sheer weight of numbers? Will it just be the tallest man with the biggest nose that survives?


200 years ago the British political theorist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834) was on the side of the pessimists. In fact he started the whole ‘population running out of control’ scare and gave his name to the theory – ‘Malthusian’.

Malthus taught that the growth of population tends to be more rapid than the increase in the supply of food, and that the growth of population must be limited either by preventative checks in the form of foresight on the part of parents or, if the pressure of population cannot be relieved by emigration or the opening up of new lands, by positive checks in the form of poverty, disease and war.

It has been a while since Malthus’s name has cropped up in the media but it has made resurgence in the last few days and his doom laden prophecies have gained new adherents.

Writing in The Star last Tuesday, Roger Martin, the chairman of the charity ‘Population Matters’ warned that ‘our population rises at the same time as the number of people can sustain shrinks’, as ‘high birth rates, compounded by resource depletion and environmental degradation actively hinder degradation.’

Mr Martin went on to quote Maurice Strong, secretary general of the 1992 Earth Summit: “Either we reduce our numbers voluntarily, or nature will do it for us brutally”. Now that’s Malthusian.

For Roger Martin and ‘Population Matters’ there needs to be a ‘culture shift in favour of smaller families’ and increased resources for ‘family planning and women’s empowerment’. He concluded, ‘The more we are, the less for each; fewer people means better lives.”


So that’s Malthus for you. What about Condorcet? “Who he?” we hear you ask.

The largely forgotten Marquis De Condorcet (1743-1794) was also a political theorist but hailing from France. He took an altogether more optimistic view of the population situation than that of Malthus, arguing that humankind and the Earth had the ability to produce sufficient subsistence for all. Condorcet held that science would increase the food supply or that reason would prevent excessive growth of population.

An article first published in the New York Times by a Mr Joel Cohen, author of ‘How Many People Can the Earth Support’, also appeared in The Star on Monday of this week (‘Can the planet support 10 billion people?’), which took a more Condorcet-like line.

Cohen described as ‘unjustified’ the ‘dire and discredited prophecies of Thomas Malthus and his followers, who believed that soaring populations must lead to mass starvation’. He pointed out that between 1820 and 2008, ‘economic output per person increased elevenfold’; that life expectancy in the last thousand years tripled to an average of nearly 70 years; that the ‘average number of children per woman fell worldwide to about 2.5 now from 5 in 1950’; and that ‘the world’s population is growing at 1.1 per cent per year, half the peak rate in the 1960’s’.

Joel Cohen did not argue that rising populations posed no problems, he cited water shortages as prime amongst these, but he did seem to more positive that by caring for our environment and for biological diversity, problems could be overcome.


So less to worry about than some thought? According to Jim Forsyth in today’s Business Daily the greater concern might be slower population growth not over-population.

‘For the first time ever, the, the human reproduction rate is slowing significantly’, he wrote, summarizing the views of a Dudley Poston, professor of sociology and demographics at Texas A&M University.

“Once you have fertility rates drop below two, it is very hard to get it to go back up again”, the good professor was quoted as saying. “We now have 75 countries in the world where the fertility rate is below two”, he continued, far below the rate of 2.2 to 2.3 children per woman deemed necessary to keep the population steady.

So who is right? Is the world’s population out of control and heading for an unsustainable tipping point followed by famine and pestilence? Or can we work our way out of the problem? And is there a problem in the first place?


Let us just put the whole world’s population in perspective. Given 30 centimeters square of land each (about 12 inches), every man, women and child on earth today could stand should to shoulder in Rome, Roanoke County in Virginia, USA, or indeed, in an area the size of Nairobi or Zanzibar.

The Forum is more with Condorcet than Malthus. As people get wealthier the evidence is that they have smaller families. As people, particularly women, become better educated and ‘empowered’, they opt for smaller families. Put the two together and the evidence suggests that with these developments a country’s population reaches a natural level of balance, it does not just keep growing inexorably.

Drought is made by nature or God (depending on your point of view); famine is made by man. Let us protect our environment and let us protect and enhance biodiversity but we can work this out.


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