The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The world’s population is 8 billion and rising. That’s probably a good thing.

A crowd of people at Times Square in New York in August 2019. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

On Nov. 15, Planet Earth welcomed its eight-billionth living inhabitant, according to an authoritative projection from the United Nations. The figure represents an increase of 1 billion in global population since 2010 and 2 billion since 1998; in 1950, the world’s population was less than a third of what it is now. The U.N.-declared “Day of Eight Billion,” said Secretary General António Guterres, “is an occasion to celebrate diversity and advancements while considering humanity’s shared responsibility for the planet.”

We agree. Of course, a growing population creates more pressure on the natural environment and man-made infrastructure alike. It is one factor in accelerating climate change. Accentuating the challenges associated with contemporary population growth is the fact that the bulk of it is taking place in economically less-developed countries in Africa and Asia. The United Nations projects that more than half of the 1.7 billion global population increase between now and 2050 will occur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania, all of which the World Bank deems low- or lower-middle income.

Mr. Guterres’s use of “celebrate” is appropriate nevertheless; his word choice represents a milestone of sorts itself. Too often in the past, conventional wisdom about population growth has tended to be pessimistic — even apocalyptic. In 1798, British economist Thomas Malthus forecast that an increasing population would soon outstrip, disastrously, nature’s capacity to feed so many people; in 1968, the title of an influential tract spoke of a “population bomb.” And yet here we are: The world’s population has octupled since Malthus’s day, more than doubled since 1968, and living standards around the world have vastly, though unevenly, improved during that time.

For most of human history, the world’s population remained essentially stagnant for the unhappy reason that high death rates offset high birthrates. Demographic expansion occurred once humankind figured out how to raise the productivity of all the new farmers and workers being born and to produce better, more abundant food, health and education — driving death rates down. Pessimists such as Malthus failed to comprehend this process, which has come to be known as the “demographic transition.” It turned out that a scramble for resources among increasing numbers of people would create not only scarcities and conflicts — but also incentives to overcome them through innovation. Britain was one of the first countries to make this transition, followed by many others over the past two centuries. In the ultimate phase, which is now underway in most highly urban, industrialized countries, both birthrates and death rates reach low levels and population stabilizes — or even shrinks.

These are the “achievements” to which the secretary general rightly alluded. There is every reason to hope Africa and South Asia can experience the same demographic transition; another formerly poor and predominantly rural region, Latin America is on its way toward doing so. Richer countries can help through job-creating foreign investment and trade, though, to be sure, governments in the developing world will have to do their part by maintaining transparent governance and the rule of law. Another lesson of demographic history is that, even if South Asian and African economies do develop rapidly, labor-force growth might outstrip employment opportunities. As British demographer Paul Morland has shown, this is the main reason for history’s migrations, and contemporary movements of people suggest it still holds true. Countries such as the United States, whose own birthrates have fallen, should revise and stabilize immigration policy to channel migration to their advantage.

Another reason not to worry about impending population growth: It’s mostly inevitable anyway. As the United Nations’ World Population Prospects report explains: “Two-thirds of the projected increase in global population through 2050 will be driven by the momentum of past growth that is embedded in the youthful age structure of the current population.” Policies directly aimed at reducing fertility could not affect this, the report argues. This analysis comes with an asterisk, though. The United Nations does not formally include education as a factor influencing population growth, but not all demographers agree. Wolfgang Lutz of the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna has argued that education — especially of women and girls — can speed the demographic transition to lower fertility rates, by empowering people to pursue careers, make informed use of contraception and delay childbearing. Whereas the United Nations foresees world population hitting 10.4 billion people sometime in the 2080s before plateauing, Mr. Lutz has projected that it could peak just below 10 billion in 2070. In his optimal “rapid development” scenario, the maximum would be 8.7 billion in 2050.

Whoever is right, the end of population expansion is now foreseeable — a moment well within the potential lifespan of the eight-billionth person born on Nov. 15. Instead of population growth and growing birthrates, the fast-approaching new demographic challenge is societal aging. Japan, South Korea and several European countries are already shrinking in population; they will struggle to find enough workers to take care of the elderly and pay into their pension systems. Nowhere will this phenomenon be more consequential than China, whose population of 1.4 billion is on track to cease growing in 2023 and will be surpassed by India’s.

Having boomed economically for four decades thanks in part to an enormous cohort of working-age people, China faces demographic stagnation and, as a result, more difficulty sustaining economic growth. This is traceable in large part to its Communist government’s “one-child” policy, in force between 1980 and 2016, which was an especially simplistic — and, with its coerced abortions and sterilizations, harsh — application of Malthusian thinking. The United Nations expects China to have 100 million fewer people by 2050, a much higher percentage of whom will be elderly than at present. A team from China’s own Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has predicted that China’s population will be less than half of what it is today by the end of the century.

The hope is that the massive challenge of global aging will spur innovation just as the challenges of rising population did in the past. In that sense, it’s a good thing that millions of new people — with their new ideas and fresh energy — are on the way.

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