Has the population bomb bombed?

(Published as ‘It’s not population growth but inequality that’s the problem’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 April 2023

702 words

Whenever I write about the problems of economic growth and our ecological footprint I get e-mails asking me why I don’t also address population growth. The short answer is that I have, on several occasions. The longer answer, as I wrote in a July 2018 column on this topic, is that the issue is complex, and the solution not just a matter of family planning.

According to UN data, as reported by ‘Our World in Data’, the rate of increase of the global population had dropped from around 2 percent per year 50 years ago to a bit under 1 percent now. Global population, the UN reports, “is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and could peak at nearly 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s.” (Canada’s population grew by 2.7 percent in 2022, mostly due to immigration, Statistics Canada recently reported, and would double in 26 years if that rate continues.)

However, a new report for the Club of Rome from Earth4All casts doubt on this. Guided by a Transformational Economics Commission,  Earth4All is “a platform to connect and amplify the voices that want to upgrade our economies.” By ‘upgrade’, they mean transforming our economies so that people everywhere can thrive within the limits of our one planet.

Their new report links population size, human development, social justice and ecological sustainability. It is a response to five questions posed by the Global Challenges Foundation, a Swedish organization founded in 2012 to “raise awareness of global catastrophic risks and to strengthen global governance to handle them.”

First, they looked at how large the world’s population would grow, and the result was somewhat surprising. If the world continues its present economic course, they found the population would peak at 8.6 billion in 2050 (we just passed 8 billion) before declining to 7 billion in 2100. Moreover, if the policies discussed below were enacted, says the report, population would peak at 8.5 billion around 2040 and decline to 6 billion by 2100. This is considerably less than the 10 billion or more people by 2060 or so that UN and many other models project.

The reason, the authors explain, is that their model pays more attention to the effects of rapid economic development, which “has a huge impact on fertility rates”, said Per Espen Stoknes, Earth4All project lead and director of the Centre for Sustainability at the Norwegian Business School. Fertility rates fall, he explained, “as girls get access to education and women are economically empowered and have access to better healthcare.”

The report then addresses the Foundation’s five questions, which in essence asked how many people could be supported if everyone could achieve the minimal conditions needed to meet the  requirements of Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and how many could be supported at a standard of living up to 30 percent higher.

Article 25.1 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family (sic), including food, clothing, housing and medical
 care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The research team translated this into threshold levels of food, energy, disposable income and social spending as a proportion of GDP needed to achieve this minimal standard of living. The resulting standard of living would be quite like South-east Asia today, but with six times as much energy and 50 percent more social spending. Thus they concluded that “socio-economic and natural resources are sufficient to ensure a dignified existence for the projected global population.”

However, they add, getting there would require achieving “an equal distribution of resources.” This would involve “unprecedented investment in poverty alleviation – particularly investment in education and health – along with extraordinary policy turnarounds on food and energy security, inequality and gender equity.”

Importantly, they conclude that “contrary to public popular myths, . . .  population size is not the prime driver of exceeding planetary boundaries . . . Rather, it is extremely high material footprint levels among the world’s richest 10 percent that is destabilising the planet” – my topic for next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2023


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


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