Population explosion – or not?

Expert estimates of the Earth’s future population vary by billions.

Not too long ago, the population explosion was being bandied around in many discussions. Apocalyptic forecasts were illustrated with images of squalor in overcrowded refugee camps, or starving children in Africa.

Now overpopulation is scarcely talked about. Was the explosion a dud?

 “Exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity and a huge global population fighting for the last remaining resources no longer seems terribly likely," admits Karri Silventoinen, university lecturer and demography researcher at the University of Helsinki.

It is about to get more crowded, however, as the UN’s median projection places the number of people on the globe in 2100 at 11 billion instead of the current 7 billion. The UN estimates that the population will begin to decline after the turn of the next century.

According to Silventoinen, the Earth will be able to feed the projected larger population easily, as the global potential of food production is much greater than was previously understood. Africa’s fertile areas could be used in agriculture much more effectively. Even our hostile northern climes struggle with overproduction of food.

 “Sufficient food is not the problem, and it is unlikely to become one. The problem is that since the food is sold on the market, not everyone will be able to afford it,” Silventoinen points out.


Let’s go back to the UN’s population projection for 2100. Mikko Myrskylä, Executive Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, points out that the population of 11 billion is the median estimate. The UN has drafted several different future scenarios which consider possible variations in birth rate and life expectancy. The population forecasts range from 7 to 15 billion.

 “It’s difficult to predict the development of the population. The forecasts look so far into the future, that any number of unexpected things may happen. Reality often goes beyond expected scenarios,” he points out.

According to Myrskylä, demographers have persistently underestimated the increases in life expectancy, which has led to overly conservative estimates of global population growth.

Predicting birth rates has also proven challenging.

In many areas, the birth rate has declined more rapidly than researchers expected. Developed countries have been experiencing sub-replacement fertility for quite some time. This means that in western countries, women give birth to fewer than two children on average. Also in many developing countries, the typical number of children per family is two.


In a popular TED talk, the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling from the Karolinska Institutet surprised his audience by presenting the low birth rate in Bangladesh, 2.2 children per woman.

There is one exception to the generally declining birth rates: Africa, and particularly the area south of the Sahara. In 2014, the fertility rate in Angola was 6.1, in Mali, 6.2 and in Nigeria, 5.7.

“There is no simple explanation for these high figures. Usually, increasing education among women and improving the economy have lowered fertility. However, many African countries defy this correlation. Researchers continue to struggle with this fact,” Myrskylä says.

According to the forecasts, most of the world’s population growth will take place in Africa.


Even though we can probably forget about a huge population explosion, population growth continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. There may not be sufficient work and livelihoods for all, which means that migration will increase.

Last year, Europe received an unprecedented number of refugees. Myrskylä believes that migrants will keep coming in the future, particularly from Northern Africa. The demographic structure and large number of young people, together with political and economic instability indicate that the influx will be significant.

Markus Kröger, university lecturer in development studies at the University of Helsinki, points out that a large population does not automatically mean civil unrest, squalor and famine.

“The Benelux countries are among the world’s most densely populated areas. They are as populous as Haiti or Rwanda,” he states.

According to Kröger, a large population has also been a blessing for Africa.

“Africa has not witnessed land grabs like the ones seen in Brazil, for example, where major landowners have seized lands from the local populace in sparsely populated areas of the Amazon or Cerrado regions. The landowners have then clandestinely cut down huge swathes of forest to plant soy beans for animal feed.”

“In Africa this has not been possible, because there are too many people. Local people have angrily opposed all attempted land grabs,” says Kröger.


How many people can the Earth carry? Even though our planet could feed a larger population, it is uncertain whether it will be able to handle the increased pollution and greenhouse gases associated with more people.

Paola Minoia, university lecturer and geographer from the University of Helsinki, points out that what is crucial for the planet's carrying capacity is not the number of people but their rate of consumption.

“The ecological footprint of a poor but populous country may be several times smaller than that of a wealthy country with fewer people. Let’s look at a typical diet: producing a basket of groceries for the average American uses about five times as much water as producing one for the average Indian.”

“This is to say that wealthy westerners worried about the world’s carrying capacity should primarily adjust their own consumption patterns and stop worrying about poor people in developing countries who dream of just a little more prosperity," Minoia states.


Kröger recommends we focus on the countries with rapidly increasing gross domestic products.

“The development of the gross domestic product is an indication of the country's environmental impact. In terms of the Earth’s carrying capacity, a GDP explosion is more relevant than a population explosion,” Kröger emphasises.

Rapidly growing economies include those in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Nigeria and Angola. Should we not give these developing countries a chance at prosperity?

According to Kröger, the amount of wealth is not increasing in an equitable manner in these countries, where the rich are exploiting the poor.


Demographic researcher Mikko Myrskylä refuses to give an outright answer to whether countries with a high birth rate should try to push their fertility lower.

“Education is generally viewed as the best method for regulating the birth rate. If you want to worry about population growth, you can think that education is a good way to fight it. If you don’t want to worry about it, you can think that education is never a bad thing, and as its side effect, the birth rate may go down,” the researcher replies.

Myrskylä is more worried about the decline in the quality of population data in developing countries than in population growth itself. Conducting a census is expensive, and their value is not universally recognised.

“To understand what’s happening in the world and what will happen in the future, we must first look at population development. We must understand what is happening to the amount of population, the demographic structure and the life expectancies in different countries," Myrskylä says.

Focus on girls

Fertility has gone down in Sub-Saharan Africa, if slowly. A large family is still considered life insurance in rural Africa, but the education of girls is changing attitudes.

They say that poverty means large numbers of children, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is indeed the case. The large number of little ones makes the demographic pyramids in the poverty-stricken areas bulge at their base.

However, poverty is not linked to large families in all parts of the world.

“For example, in the poorest countries in South Asia, the birth rate is approximately half of that in most of Africa, says Juhani Koponen, professor emeritus in development studies.

There has also been a slight decrease in the birth rate of Africa’s poorest areas. For example, in the 1960s, Tanzanian women gave birth to an average of seven children, while today the number is five.

The birth rate matters. In many African countries there isn't enough work for the younger generations, and consequently, no hope for the future. This may lead to instability – and at least human trafficking across the Mediterranean will continue to be a popular pursuit.


Explanations for the slow decrease in the birth rate in poor African countries can be found in history, culture and the economy.

“The old western imperialists thought that there weren’t enough native people. The new masters needed labour for their plantations and mines. Modernisation, along with better health care, decreased mortality and increased the birth rate,” Koponen explains.

The economic structure in many African countries favours large families. Having many children may be a deliberate choice, particularly in rural areas, where children are a welcome source of labour for their parents and insurance for their old age.

“A large family can also be a status symbol. For example, in Malawi, people think that the larger the family, the stronger it is. The status perspective is particularly important for men," says Laura Lipsanen, an expert from Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland, who has worked in development cooperation in Malawi.


Women’s education is considered to be one of the most effective ways of mitigating population growth, and the education of girls has improved somewhat during the past years, also in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“More girls are starting school, but there is still a long way to go to equality in education. Girls often have to drop out from school too early,” says Elina Multanen, Executive Director for the Finland National Committee for UN Women.

Laura Lipsanen from Väestöliitto meanwhile estimates that the power of education is already apparent in Sub-Saharan Africa. The average number of children for uneducated women is between 6 and 7, while for women who have some education, it is between 4 and 5.

Koponen counters that the education of women will only decrease the birth rate when it is sufficient. As the society modernises, the birth rate may initially even go up.

Multanen and Lipsanen both emphasise that family planning and sex education are crucial.

Many people in poor areas continue to have no access to sex education or family planning services. Travelling to the only clinic in the region may require unreasonable amounts of time and money.

Locals may also be biased against family planning. The society may consider sexual education immoral, particularly for young and unmarried people. Further, the husband or male relative of a married woman may have the power to decide that contraception cannot be used.


Development cooperation does not involve mandatory education.

“The right to decide about the number of children is a fundamental sexual right. Everyone should be allowed to decide how many children they want. This means everyone must have information and the opportunity to weigh the options. Generally, the information gained from sex education reduces the size of the family,” Lipsanen says.

Even though family planning programmes have dramatically reduced the birth rate, funding for them is hard to find.

“It’s a controversial topic and surrounded by many taboos in both the countries providing the funding and the countries receiving the help. Funding may be cut altogether if funders believe their money is being used to inform people about abortion. According to Lipsanen, the USA stopped funding the UN’s Population Fund during President George W. Bush’s term.

Right now, the Väestöliitto project which has promoted the education of girls in Malawi is also on hold due to development cooperation cuts implemented by the Finnish government.  

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/09/16 issue of Yliopisto magazine.