Prediction of Population Decline is Good News
More people means more habitat destruction, climate change
A recent headline-grabbing forecast predicted that global human population will peak within the next 50 years and start declining by the end of the century.
But it was unfortunate that many of those headlines traded science for sensationalism, warning of a “jaw-dropping” “crash in births” and a “population bust,” making it sound like human extinction is imminent.
Before we panic about our demise, let’s look at the numbers.
Human population has doubled in the past 50 years; there are now about 7.8 billion people on the planet. As our population has exploded, there has been disturbing correlation in the rate we’ve been losing species. We’re not in any danger of disappearing in the near future, but about 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.
The recent study, published in The Lancet, projects human population will reach a peak of 9.73 billion people around 2064 and decline to 8.79 billion by 2100. Previous United Nations reports predicted the global population would steadily grow to nearly 11 billion by 2100.
The study’s analysis predicts a similar trend of declining population for the United States, with the peak of 363.75 million in 2062 and then declining to 335.81 million by 2100. For comparison, U.S. Census predictions estimated reaching 404.5 million people by 2060.
It’s worth noting that the “declining” numbers for both the United States and the world are higher than today’s population. Still, this is good news.
But it doesn’t somehow erase the daunting challenges we face.
The pressures of supporting our growing population has been pushing endangered species and their habitat to the point of no return. Our own species is also facing a breaking point. We have a lot of work left to do to sort out how to support an additional 3 billion humans at the same time the climate crisis is increasing the threat of sea-level rise, reducing crop yields, worsening droughts and making cities unlivable.
As the study’s authors point out, population decline does come with social and economic challenges as demographics shift. But those are challenges we can — and must — meet because the alternative is much worse. We’re already paying the price for decades of pretending infinite growth is possible on a finite planet.
Although these new numbers are cause for optimism, it’s too soon to celebrate. What a lot of the news articles fail to mention is that these predictions of a shrinking population are just one of several possible scenarios researchers analyzed.
The researchers counted on two key drivers to reduce fertility rate: (1) education of females and (2) access to modern reproductive health services. If current trends continue with education and health care becoming increasingly accessible, the research predicts population will stabilize and start to decline.
There was another scenario with even steeper declines if education and health care improve more rapidly.
But there was an alternate scenario where the pace of achieving universal secondary education and universal coverage of contraceptives slows and population keeps growing at the previously predicted rate.
And, sadly, here in the United States, access to reproductive healthcare and education are going backwards.
After a failed attempt to cut Title X funding entirely, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ruled to undermine the program by promoting natural family planning over other contraceptive methods. This meant emphasizing discredited abstinence-only messages among adolescents and blocking funding for clinics that provide, refer or discuss abortion services. As a result, many organizations were forced to close or restrict their services.
And it doesn’t stop there. The Supreme Court just ruled that your employer can opt out of birth control coverage by claiming religious or moral objections. Over 19 million people are in need of publicly funded contraception and 95% of them live in an area that lacks access to a health center that offers the full range of contraceptive methods. And while 85% of students graduate high school in the U.S., it’s becoming harder to afford college, and only 17 states require medically-accurate sex ed.
The troubling reality is that almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. That’s one of the highest unplanned pregnancy rates among high-income nations.
And the implications of political attacks on reproductive rights don’t stop at our borders. The global gag rule bars U.S. aid to any foreign organization that provides abortions or abortion counseling, even if they use their own funds for those services. It is a harmful policy that undermines access to contraception, HIV/AIDS services, and maternal health care, contributing to more unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions.
Even as the study’s authors discuss the very real political consequences of low fertility rates and declining population, they caution against using this as an excuse to undermine human rights or health care to boost population. The only solution is one that keeps equality and population stabilization moving forward. The authors emphasize that “Policy options to adapt to continued low fertility, while sustaining and enhancing female reproductive health, will be crucial in the years to come.”
Instead of taking these predictions as gospel, or even worse, panicking about declining populations, we should view this study as a roadmap to positive, desperately needed change. We have no choice but to reduce our impact on the planet. And turning back the clock on equality and health care is not an option.
Once we acknowledge the severity and inequity of our unethical policies we can learn and adapt with research-based solutions that promote voluntary family planning that is good for everyone and the environment.