Sometime today, November 15, the 8 billionth human being on Earth is expected to be born. It could be happening right now, as I write this (or you read this). Or maybe it happened hours ago. But regardless of the exact second, today we are officially entering a world of an estimated 8 billion people, according to a new report from the United Nations.
It’s the first time we’ve added a full billion people since 2011, when humanity crossed the 7 billion mark. And it’s slowed down from there. The world’s population growth rate is the lowest since 1950, at less than 1% per year, where it has fluctuated since 2020.
As a species, we are not expected to gather our next billion for about 15 years. By 2050, the UN predicts a world population of approximately 9.7 billion. The intergovernmental organization further expects the number of people on Earth to peak at about 10.4 billion by the 2080s.
The reasons behind that slowed population growth and expected eventual peak are multiple. As so-called “sustainable development” benchmarks such as access to contraception, access to education and gender equality all improve, people are gaining greater physical autonomy and can choose how and if they want to have children. As people in more countries become more educated and societies become more equal, population trends appear to be leveling off.
Fertility rates – meaning the number of births per woman on average, not the number of fertile people – have fallen significantly in many countries. Two-thirds of the world’s population lives in a place where the death rate is at or below 2.1 births per woman, which is the approximate rate for long-term zero growth when the death rate is low.
The UN report also noted other shifts. India is expected to become the most populous country by 2023, surpassing China. Until 2050, future population growth is expected to come mainly from eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Tanzania. And average life expectancy worldwide is estimated to be 77.2 years in 2040, despite setbacks from the Covid-19 pandemic and persisting disparities.
There are extremists on both sides of discussions about human population. But 8 billion people on Earth are a far cry from the existential “overpopulation crisis” that scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and others have proposed throughout modern history. In 1798, when there were about 800 million people on the planet, Thomas Malthus published the essay “On the Principle of Population”, in which the economist predicted a widespread famine without strict limits on human reproduction. And while it never materialized as prophesied, it’s an idea that has been repeated many times since – for example, in Paul Erlich’s 1960 book (population: 3 billion). The population bomb, which also made sweeping predictions about world hunger so incorrect that they had to be constantly updated with new additions. Or in 2013 Ten trillion, which assumes a nightmare scenario for people and the planet with, you guessed it, a population of 10 billion.
But until now, basically any projection of a limit to Earth’s human population, or supposed “ideal number,” has been wrong.
While people experience famines in some places, they are the result of wars or political and economic maneuvers rather than an overrun natural limit on food availability. Our ability to feed ourselves has increased faster than our population, and hunger is a problem of distribution and justice. We have many more people on earth than thousands, hundreds and decades ago, yet the average quality of life and life expectancy has increased (almost) without hindrance in that same time.
More people on the planet may mean more opportunities for conflict with other species and the health of our environment, but decreasing biodiversity with increasing human numbers need not be a foregone conclusion. There are sustainable solutions for energy, agriculture and how we build things. It is simply a matter of changing perspectives, attitudes and policies.
The number of people in a place is not the only (or even primary) determinant of environmental impact. After all, Canada and Australia are among the countries with some of the lowest population densities in the world – and yet they rank number 7 and number 11, respectively, on the list of provinces with the highest per capita carbon emissions. And an incredibly small number of people are most responsible for climate change.
On the other hand, that one like Elon Musk those fearing the total collapse of the population and the attendant dissolution of society also function according to a strange, unfounded set of assumptions. Again, the UN predicts a gradual peak and flattening of the human population. In some places, such as Japan and parts of Europe, the national population is already declining and likely to continue. But that doesn’t mean everything is falling apart. There are challenges for an aging population, such as coordinating care and health costs, but they are not insurmountable.
Speaking of crossing the 8 billion mark, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “This is an opportunity to celebrate our diversity, recognize our common humanity and marvel at the progress made in health which have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and infant mortality rates,” in a press release announcing the report. “At the same time,” he added, “it’s a reminder of our shared responsibility to care for our planet and a moment to reflect on where we still fall short of our obligations to each other.”
Earth is an often wonderful, often extremely difficult place to build existence. No matter how your life goes, don’t blame the 8 billionth baby.
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