The human race has passed a remarkable milestone. According to a report by the UN, at some point yesterday the global population reached a record 8 billion, a figure that would have seemed utterly unbelievable only a generation or two ago.
As the UN’s demographic experts explain, the world’s population is likely to soar even higher in the next few decades, hitting 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. By the 2080s it should reach 10.4 billion, where it will remain until the end of the century.
So many people! But if you’ve ever been trapped for hours in traffic on the motorway, or have fought for space on a packed commuter train, or have flown home after a break abroad and been shocked how crowded everywhere is, then none of this, I suspect, will come as a surprise.
Today, our own population is estimated to be around 67 million. But it’s not really so long since it was exactly half that. To picture Britain in the heyday of the Victorians, for instance, you have to subtract one in every two people.
The Great Depression- Men line up for free bread and soup in 1932 when the world population was 2bn
Pictured: South Vietnam, 1965 members Of US 1st Cavalry Division Start Patrol Duty From Helicopter Landing Base. World population was 3bn
Politicians launch the single European currency in Brussels in 1999, pictured, when the world population was 6bn
Indeed, the further back you stand, the more astounding the UN’s figures begin to look. In the Stone Age, around 10,000 BC, there were no more than 4 million people worldwide. By 3,000 BC, when civilisation began on the banks of the Nile in ancient Egypt, there were about 40 million. By the birth of Christ there were about 200 million. And in 1700, as Britain was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, there were still only 500 million.
Then came the explosion. Thanks to improved health and living standards, the world’s population hit 1 billion during the Napoleonic Wars, then 2 billion about a century later.
And when you look at a graph, the line since then has been almost vertical, shooting relentlessly upwards, year after year.
You could, of course, tell this as a story of progress. But most of us are too sensible to pretend that such expansion has come without a heavy cost. And when you look forward to the year 2030 and beyond, it’s hard not to feel a shudder of dread at the prospect of such a crowded planet, with life becoming a ruthless, brutal, even bloody struggle for space and resources.
Does that sound too bleak? If so, remember that experts have been warning for years that such heedless expansion could have terrifying consequences.
Visit booming megacities such as Manila, Tokyo and Mexico City, and you’re immediately struck by the appalling air quality, the atmosphere poisoned by emissions from millions of homes, vehicles, factories and human beings. Pictured: Elon Musk at the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship launch in 2014 when world population was 7bn
Only a year ago, the acclaimed documentary film 8 Billion Angels explored the implications of such a population milestone, from the gigantic industrial farms sprawling across the plains of Kansas to the sweltering, smoke-wreathed slums of greater Delhi — whose population was just 1 million in 1950, stands at 32 million today and is expected to reach 42 million within a decade. The film opens with a quotation from world-renowned primate expert Dame Jane Goodall, who knows more than most about the fragile balance between mankind and the natural world.
‘What I really, really, really would love to change, without causing pain or suffering,’ she says, is to ‘reduce the number of people on the planet, because there’s too many of us. It’s a planet of finite resources and we’re using them up. And that’s going to cause so much suffering in the future.’
If you’re a technological utopian, convinced there’s no such thing as too many people and that science holds the answer to everything, then you may disagree with her. But as the film shows, the formidable challenges of resource competition and environmental destruction just can’t be wished away.
Visit booming megacities such as Manila, Tokyo and Mexico City, and you’re immediately struck by the appalling air quality, the atmosphere poisoned by emissions from millions of homes, vehicles, factories and human beings.
In the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, smog kills an estimated 15,000 people every year.
During the Stone Age of 10,000BC, world population was 4m (stock image)
Population growth over the years
4m- 10,000BC- Stone Age
40m- 3,000BC-Civilisation in Ancient Egypt
200m- Birth of Christ
500m- 1700- Pre-Industrial Revolution
1bn- 1810- Napoleonic Wars
2bn- 1927- Cusp of Great Depression
3bn- 1960- Depths of the Cold War
4bn- 1975- U.S. defeat in Vietnam
5bn- 1987- Black Monday crash
6bn- 1999- Creation of the euro
7bn- 2011- Arab Spring uprising
In China, air pollution accounts for a staggering 1.6 million deaths a year. And in Delhi, the fumes from cars, factories and power plants are estimated to have damaged the lungs of 2 million children so badly they will never properly recover.
Then there’s the ever-fiercer competition for resources. UN figures suggest that by 2030, almost 700 million people may be driven from their homes in the heart-rending quest for clean and drinkable water. And as expanding cities become ever more desperate for heat and light, so water sources will become more endangered.
For more than a decade, tension has festered in north-west Africa, after Ethiopia began work on one of the world’s largest hydro-electric dams on the Blue Nile.
Its neighbours downstream, Egypt and Sudan, were outraged, insisting that the Ethiopians were depriving them of much-needed water for cities such as Cairo and Khartoum. But the dam went online this February, prompting closer military ties between Egypt and Sudan, and raising the spectre of a major war for control of the Nile’s water supply.
Another possible flashpoint, according to geopolitical analysts, is the basin of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, where Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran are all competing for water.
The Turks plan to build 22 dams and power plants along the upper rivers, which could leave their neighbours desperately parched.
But as ominous as these potential water wars might sound, they are nothing compared with the serious danger of increased pandemics. With more people burning more carbon and the planet becoming ever hotter, mosquitoes, ticks and other disease-carrying insects have more places in which to thrive.
Meanwhile, as the rate of deforestation, land clearance, and the encroachment of urban dwellings into previously wild areas increases, so the risk of zoonotic diseases — caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans — becomes ever greater.
SpaceX successfully launched and landed Starship SN15 at the company’s Starbase spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. World population was 7bn
As hospitals become more crowded, superbugs will become more common just as their resistance to antibiotics grows. And with larger battery farms being created to meet the demand for food, the risk of viruses leaping from birds and animals to human beings becomes greater ever year.
Again, all this might sound unnecessarily apocalyptic — if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve had several stark warnings in the last century alone.
The Spanish flu of the late 1910s and early 1920s, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, is widely thought to have spread from farms in Kansas. The bird flu outbreaks of the 2010s were driven by the enormous rise of battery poultry farms.
And the Covid epidemic is generally traced back to Wuhan, China — a city whose population had soared from about 4 million in the early 1980s to more than 12 million today.
Should we have seen Covid coming, then? The short answer is yes — not least because scientists had been warning for decades that more people, more cities and more travel made future pandemics inevitable.
As long ago as 1798, the great clergyman-turned-economist Thomas Malthus predicted that rising living standards and a surging worldwide population might actually propel mankind into a kind of vicious circle, with the struggle for resources leaving people just as poor, downtrodden and despairing as they had been at the beginning. Pictured: The Great Sphinx in Ancient Egypt when world population was 40m
As long ago as 1798, the great clergyman-turned-economist Thomas Malthus predicted that rising living standards and a surging worldwide population might actually propel mankind into a kind of vicious circle, with the struggle for resources leaving people just as poor, downtrodden and despairing as they had been at the beginning.
Scholarly arguments about this ‘Malthusian trap’ have raged ever since. But the debate has become even more charged in recent decades, as we’ve come to appreciate the environmental costs of economic progress.
In 1968 the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published a manifesto entitled The Population Bomb, warning that hundreds of millions of people would soon starve to death because of overpopulation.
In the short term, of course, he was completely wrong. Indeed, he lost a famous wager with a more cornucopian economist, Julian Simon, who saw population growth as offering ‘more hands to work and brains to think’.
Simon bet Ehrlich that $1,000 worth of five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten, then all in short supply — would fall in value during the 1980s.
In the ensuing decade the global population grew by 800 million, yet the prices of Simon’s five metals fell by more than 50 per cent, with customers preferring cheaper and more innovative substitutes such as plastics, fibre optics, ceramics and aluminium.
But Ehrlich never retracted his basic argument. As recently as 2018, he told an interviewer that a ‘shattering collapse of civilisation’ was a ‘near certainty in the next few decades’, because of the intense competition for food and water, as well as the effects of chemical pollution and climate change.
As the UN’s demographic experts explain, the world’s population is likely to soar even higher in the next few decades, hitting 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. By the 2080s it should reach 10.4 billion, where it will remain until the end of the century. Pictured: The Great Depression, when the world population was 2bn
Plenty of experts in other fields have come to similar conclusions. The respected U.S. defence analyst Robert Kaplan, for instance, has spent the past three decades writing about what he calls the ‘coming anarchy’.
As long ago as 1994, Kaplan warned that unchecked population growth, especially in West Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, would mean a future of ‘disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels’.
When you go through that list, item by item, you can’t say he was wrong. And that makes his conclusion even more chilling. ‘Future wars,’ Kaplan predicted, ‘will be those of communal survival, aggravated or, in many cases, caused by environmental scarcity . . . This is how many states will ultimately die.’
It’s tempting, of course, to shrug and say that we’ll muddle through somehow. But no society, however advanced, has a divine right to exist for ever.
The great civilisations of the Americas, such as the Aztecs and the Incas, were devastated by smallpox and never recovered, while the island peoples of the Caribbean were wiped out completely.
Demonstrations in support of Yemeni legitimacy and against the Houthi militia in the city of Taiz in 2014. World population was 7bn
In perhaps the most ominous precedent, the highly sophisticated society of the Mayans in Central America collapsed in the course of two generations in the 9th century, with cities abandoned almost overnight. Much of the story remains a mystery, but many historians blame overpopulation, drought, epidemics and ecological collapse — all of which sound disturbingly familiar today.
So is this the fate that awaits our grandchildren? Famine, plague, war and death, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
Fortunately there are a few chinks of light amid the gloom.
As the UN report points out, the rate of population growth is slowing, and in the very long run, well after we’re all in our graves, the total is likely to fall.
The richer people become, the fewer children they tend to have. So by 2100, according to the report, declining fertility rates mean the world’s population may begin to come down.
For more pessimistic experts, that’s simply too late. Some even think the world should adopt the controversial one-child policy followed by China between 1979 and 2016, which restricted most families to a single child and probably prevented at least 400 million births.
Such a policy seems very unlikely, though — not least because the countries that will see the biggest increases in the decades ahead, such as Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines, have shown no interest in such draconian restrictions.
Traders buying and selling on the trading floor, in aftermath of the Black Monday crash in 1987 (pictured) when the world population was 5bn
I think a more plausible answer is the one offered by the documentary 8 Billion Angels, which calls for a worldwide effort to educate poor women about fertility and contraception.
As the film points out, the more women know about their own bodies, and the more power they are given over their own prospects, the less likely they are to have large, unplanned families.
Even so, we can’t expect an overnight transformation.
The world’s population will keep growing for the rest of our lifetimes.
Even in Britain, our population is expected to reach 70 million in about 2030, though the rate of growth has slowed dramatically in recent years.
So while we should escape the very worst consequences of the demographic boom, the pressure for more housing, in particular, is only going to get worse.
And if you think the roads and trains are packed now — well, just wait till you get to 2030!
‘Hell,’ the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, ‘is other people.’ As it happens, he was wrong about most things.
But in this respect, I fear, he was completely, utterly, depressingly right.