The population has reached 8 billion — but experts aren't worried about overpopulation. Here's why

Why humanity at 8 billion people does not mean we've hit a “Malthusian catastrophe”

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published November 15, 2022 5:30AM (EST)

World map composed of people (Getty Images/imaginima)
World map composed of people (Getty Images/imaginima)

November 15th, 2022, is the date that demographers estimate humanity hit a new threshold: a global population of more than eight billion people, with population growth expected to continue climbing for the next 60 years. According to a recent report from the United Nations, the global population "could grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050, before reaching a peak of around 10.4 billion people during the 2080s."

The jump from seven to eight billion only took 12 years — perhaps astonishing given that it took roughly 300,000 years of human history to hit our first billion, in 1804, the same year morphine was first isolated from opium and the steam locomotive was invented. An estimated 109 billion people have ever lived on Earth, and about seven percent of all humans who have ever lived are alive today.

Though billion-mark milestones tend to provoke a sense of alarm, humanity's population growth has actually slowed, according to the UN, and is currently at its slowest rate since 1950. There's a slurry of good and bad news driving these trends. Thanks to increased access to healthcare and declining mortality rates, especially in infants, people are living longer — but it really comes down to where in the world you reside.

Recent global events like pandemics, wars and climate change have not outright stopped the precipitous climb of humanity's numbers, but they have played a role in the changing dynamics of the global census. Life expectancy has dropped in some regards. In the U.S., for example, life expectancy has been on the decline for the last two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"That decline – 77.0 to 76.1 years – took U.S. life expectancy at birth to its lowest level since 1996," the CDC reported in August, citing the unrelenting jump in fatal drug overdoses and, of course, the COVID pandemic that has claimed over 1.1 million American lives and counting. Meanwhile, birth rates in the U.S. climbed 1 percent in 2021, the first increase in seven years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Fears of overpopulation — the idea that there might be so many humans that we start competing for every scrap of food like a swarm of locusts — have existed since the late 18th century.

"More than half of the projected increase in global population up to 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United Republic of Tanzania," the UN predicts, with India projected to surpass China as the world's most populous country next year.

Discussions of global population often trigger some strong, dark emotions about scarcity and who should be allowed to breed. Fears of overpopulation — the idea that there might be so many humans that we start competing for every scrap of food like a swarm of locusts — have existed since the late 18th century. In 1798, English economist Thomas Robert Malthus anonymously published his infamous treatise "An Essay on the Principle of Population," arguing "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, Subsistence, increases only in an arithmetical ratio." In plain English, Malthus believed exponential population growth would inevitably outpace food production, increasing poverty and famine, what's known as a "Malthusian catastrophe."

The book spawned the concept of Malthusianism, which has since been used to justify everything from eugenics to the forced sterilization of "undesirable" citizens. Pop culture has even spun Malthusianism into a meme, if you know what Soylent Green is made of. It didn't just anticipate colonialism and Indigenous genocide or the rise of the Nazis and their "Final Solution." Malthusianism is still very much a problem today, with "overpopulation" being a central issue in the ongoing Rohingya genocide, among other examples of oppression.

This is unfortunate, because Malthus never seems to have advocated for violence. He wrote in his essay, "To exterminate the inhabitants of the greatest part of Asia and Africa, is a thought that could not be admitted for a moment."

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While Malthus' pitch-black cynicism has been debunked time and again, the idea still rears its head periodically — for example, in the best-selling 1968 book "The Population Bomb" by Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne. But these arguments tend to mathematize humans, overlooking our potential as problem-solving primates. As WIRED put it, Ehrlich's "remedies for overpopulation were draconian: steep taxes on diapers, mass sterilization, and the addition of sterility agents to food exported to foreign populations."

The self-described libertarian transhumanist author Ronald Bailey, writing in his 2015 book "The End of Doom," argued that so-called Neo-Malthusians "cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction." The issues of overpopulation can be addressed with increased access to education and birth control, for example, making it more of a resource distribution issue than predestined doom.

It's true that in many countries, the population of elderly people is outpacing the young. In Japan, for example, the country with the highest proportion of older folks in the world, the rate of births isn't enough to contend with the geriatric citizenry, where 1 in 4 people are 65 or older.

"By 2030, 1 in 6 people in the world will be aged 60 years or over," the UN estimated in October. "Older people are often assumed to be frail or dependent and a burden to society. Public health professionals, and society as a whole, need to address these and other ageist attitudes, which can lead to discrimination, affect the way policies are developed and the opportunities older people have to experience healthy aging."

A report from the Brookings Institute recently proposed a few means of caring for an increasingly elderly country. As the report read: "Providing opportunities for the elderly to remain in the workforce longer as well as engage in volunteering, care, and artistic activities can provide both social and economic benefits and relieve some of the fiscal pressures related to aging societies." Japan has explored these solutions and more, following the government passage of "Guideline of Measures for Ageing Society" in 2018. It includes redesigning communities for older people while providing basic needs like stable housing and quality healthcare.

Ageing, or simply growing, societies pose numerous problems, but they aren't insurmountable and don't pose quite the apocalyptic threat neo-Malthusians claim. Indeed, demographers agree fear of overpopulation is a bogeyman that masks sinister ideals like eugenics and anti-immigration. Eight billion is indeed a huge number, but the problems that a surging population presents isn't inherent in the size — it's about how we distribute wealth and treat the other folks who share our planet.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is a science and public health journalist whose reporting has appeared in Scientific American, STAT News, Undark, VICE, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy and science podcast Narcotica. His website is and can be found on Twitter at @filth_filler

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