Lee-Roy Chetty
Lee-Roy Chetty

Global population dynamics and its implications for sustainable development

In 2011 the planet’s population exceeded the threshold of 7-billion people. Based on data from the most recent United Nations (UN) population projections, the world’s population will swell to over 9-billion by the year 2050. As a result of these population growth forecasts, between now and the year 2050, approximately as many people will be added to the planet as inhabited the earth as recently as 1950.

Whether the world’s population will indeed grow to over 9-billion by mid-century and level off at about 10-billion by the end of the century, or potentially grow to over 10-billion by mid-century and to about 16-billion by the end of the century will depend on policies that countries and government’s around the world pursue and implement today.

Within a global context, life expectancy has been increasing and fertility rates have being falling in most of the developing world, with some exceptions, particularly among the least developed countries. However, even if fertility were to fall immediately to replacement level, populations would continue to grow exponentially for some time to come.

This trend can be explained by the concept of population momentum, or inertia in population growth. In other words, because of high fertility in the past, many countries now have a relatively large number of women in reproductive age, and even if each woman has a relatively small number of children, countries will continue to have a growing population for years to come.

Individual choices and opportunities add up to population dynamics, and population dynamics are best addressed by enlarging, not restricting, individual choices and opportunities. Human-centered and rights-based policies, including access to sexual and reproductive health care, education beyond the primary level and with a focus on young girls, and the empowerment of women, has the potential to make significant progress in managing population growth rates.

Efforts to these ends are also implicitly and inextricably linked to matters of human rights, and would also contribute to an improved quality of life for many people around the world. They would help to reduce teenage pregnancies and lower infant, child and maternal mortality; help to lower fertility, slow population growth and encourage more sustainable development.

In the developed world, the ability to plan families is taken for granted, but well over 200-million women in the developing world continue to lack access to family planning. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health care and family planning for women of all ages is an essential and integral aspect of their empowerment. The decisions of how many children to have and when to have them are two of the most fundamental and consequential decisions of anybody’s life. It affects people’s health and access to education, and can influence their participation in economic, social and political life, their earnings and their living standards and overall social mobility.

In addition, increased population growth also increases environmental pressures on our planet. Out of the 7-billion people that currently inhabit the world, more than 1-billion continue to live in extreme poverty. About as many suffer from food insecurity and live in informal settlements and millions are unable to find productive and remunerative employment. Meeting these most vulnerable people’s needs would require a more balanced distribution of economic resources, but it also depends on higher levels of economic output.

As an example, food insecurity is still largely a question of access – the capacity of people to purchase food on the market places. However, food security is also rapidly becoming a question of availability. In other words, the capacity of the agricultural sector to produce food in sufficient quantities to meet demand. According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world agricultural output will need to grow by approximately 70% to feed a projected world population of 9-billion people.

Issues such as poverty reduction, employment creation and food security depend critically on rising economic output, in agriculture and outside agriculture. Rising economic output as a result, will further increase pressures on all natural resources on our planet. Increasingly, more countries are suffering from a rapid degradation of land, a high rate of deforestation, and water shortages. Climate change further contributes to an increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters, changes in precipitation and droughts. The poor, who most directly depend on the natural resources, are most vulnerable to these changes and least able to cope with these changes at the same time.

Continued rising expectations and poverty reduction efforts will put additional pressure on the planet, unless a more efficient, “greener” way to provide all people with decent lives are researched and implemented.

The transition to the green economy requires fiscal incentives and dis-incentives, as well as environmental laws and regulations, which encourage the internalisation of environmental costs, and place a more realistic price on essential and finite natural resources. Environmental impact can also be reduced through more rigorous product standards as well as better conscientious consumer behavior. Together, these measures must promote the development of alternative, renewable and clean energy sources, and encourage the use and development of resource-efficient technologies.

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    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Your population growth estimates are pie-in-the sky wishful thinking. Other estimates are that the population of the world will be 14 billion by 2032.

      Most of Central Africa has a population growth of 7 per cent per annum. And India and South America are similar.

      The Bob Geldorf concert to save Ethiopia from the famine is supposeed to have rescued 30 percent of the population from starving to death – so instead of their population going down by 30 percent it went up by 30 percent in a decade.

      The poor have as many children as possible as an insurance policy for old age – and patriarchial religions, like the Roman Catholic Church and Fundamental Islamists, don’t help.

    • http://www.sane.org.za Yaj

      @ Leeroy

      Excellent article
      .Exponential growth in the consumption of finite planetary resources leads to rapid depletion of these resources.
      Peak Oil is a serious example of this phenomenon. Sustained economic growth is driven by a debt-based money system of compound interest and fractional rfeserve banking whereby 97% of our money supply is loaned into existence , created from thin air by private banks. The collateral of all this debt is future economic growth.

      But if the very energy resources (crude oil) that enable and fuel this economic growth are being depleted rapidly by compound growth -we end up with financial collapse and economic meltdown resulting in wars and mass die-outs.

      Hence the urgent need for monetary reform with full reserve banking and interest-free credit system that will enable transition to a steady-state economy. This of course will need to be achieved through much education and population control in a humanitarian and egalitarian way.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      You keep beating the same drum. Please explain:

      1. Why would anyone save in a bank that pays no interest – when they can deposit into a bank anywhere else in the world that does? How does that system beat inflation? Why, in fact, should anyone then save at all? And if no-one saves – who can borrow?

      2. How can a transaction tax repalace income tax and VAT (which is a transaction tax anyhow). Who will monitor this tax? How will it be collected? How do you stop people then simply dealing in cash instead?

    • Peter Joffe

      This is a very simple equation that few wish to face:- The earth is a finite resource and with the technology that we have at present, it can only produce so much food.
      Population growth is an infinite number so for example 100 does not divide into 50 very well.
      And why should the nations that develop better ways of producing food give it away to nations that cannot produce enough, or any food to meet their demands and place a burden on the rest of the world to feed their ever growing populations?
      How big is the food pie and how many people can that pie feed? We have probably already reached the tipping point!

    • Enough Said

      1) Education is the best form of human birth control, along with giving women the right to control their fertility and bodies reproduction.

      2) Currently the wealthiest 25% of the worlds population consume 80% of the resources, so even if the poorest 80% of the worlds population stopped consuming anything at all overnight, the planet would still not supply enough resources to that wealthy 25% indefinitely anyway.

      3) Our current system of economic growth is leading to the sixth major extinction of life on earth, as well as an increasing number of poor and starving people, so we have no choice but to quickly convert to a totally green economy or perish.

      4) The real problem is over-consumption, not overpopulation. With equal distribution of resources, the planets Eco-systems could support twelve to sixteen billion people.


    • Enough Said

      Point 2) above corrected:

      2) Currently the wealthiest 25% of the worlds population consume 80% of the resources, so even if the poorest 75% of the worlds population stopped consuming anything at all overnight, the planet would still not supply enough resources to that wealthy 25% indefinitely anyway.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Over consumption of food has always been a characteristic of the wealthy. Here is a quotation from “Explorers of the Nile”:

      “Speke and Grant celebrated Christmas at Rumanika’s court with his athletic sons and amazingly fat daughters, who were force-fed with milk and beef-juice until they became almost spherical, as was the fashion for women at court. Just as the crinoline in Europe demonstrated that a ‘lady’ did not work, these princesses were showing that they too led ornamental lives and had parents who could afford to feed them prodigiously. In exchange for showing one of the princesses his bare arm, Speke persuaded the young woman who was ‘unable to stand except on all fours’, to allow him to measure her. The circumference of her upper arm was an amazing two feet, and that of her thigh almost three feet.”

    • http://www.izwa.org.za Muna

      Perhaps these analyses need to be looked at from a different perspective – the pressure on planetary resources is not from standard population growth – it is rooted in overconsumption by the wealthy! The science confirms that the wealthy 25% of the global population consumes 80% of planetary resources…

      simply put, if we shared today’s food production equitably, every woman, child and man on the planet would receive a kilo of grain, and half a kilo of fresh food and dairy EVERY DAY… so the issue is really, can we continue to support the lifestyles of the wealthy at the current rate – and until that is addressed, any and all processes (COP17, Rio+20, etc) will all fail… the elephant in the room!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      If you look at my previous comment about King Ruminaka’s daughters, you will see that fashions were very different in the past.

      Look at a Rubens painting and you will see the same.

      As I have tried to explain before – Saartjie Baartman was ssen as fascinating and beautiful not ugly – it was the day of the crinoline and the bustle when women padded out their bums!

    • Oldfox

      The story of King Ruminaka’s daughters is rather off topic, but I’ll respond to it. Henry Morton Stanley greatly exaggerated his stories, even including outright lies, to impress his readers, knowing that they would not be able to verify the facts. See e.g. King Leopold’s Ghost for an account of this.  After reading your post, I checked on internet, and found several other references to obese women being desirable for various countries. For most ethic groups mentioned, I’m skeptical, but in the case of India, I know it’s a blatant lie. The many paintings, temple carvings and the Kama Sutra make no reference to obese women being prized in India.
      So, in the absence of any proof to the contrary, I will assume that Speke and Grant were, like Henry Stanley, writing fanciful accounts to sell publications.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      I never suggested that ALL cultures had the same fashions at the same time!!

      I have read “King Leopold’s Ghost”, and came to the same conclusion – but I now believe that conclusion was wrong, and Stanley much maligned. Read the book “Explorers of the Nile” – the author’s research is meticulous. The author of “King Leopold’s Ghost” ONLY concentrated on the Congo.

      And the story of King Ruminaka’s daughters was from the explorers Speke and Burton, not Stanley.

    • Oldfox

      I know Stanley did not write about Rumanika. Point is Victorian era explorers in Africa especially KNEW the public would never be able to verify their fanciful tales. These guys were after fame and fortune, unlike say Darwin.

      The article I read that mentioned obese women, was referring only to non European cultures, and it had overtly racist sentiments.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The world’s cultures have had some very weird fashions – neck stretching with copper bracelets, foot binding in China, earlobe stretching in Africa.


      According to the author of “Explorers of the Nile” Stanley was conned by King Leopold along with everyone else, including the President of the USA and all the rulers of Europe.

      King Leopold did all his exploiting in the name of a Missionary Society if you recall.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Livingstone thought the red parrot feathers worn by the men of one African tribe in their hair very attractive.

      That was before he found out that a man could only wear the feathers once he had killed another man in battle, and that each feather represented one dead man!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Most of those early explorers were scientists, just like Darwin. They were funded by Civil Society, and usually by Scientific Organisations.

    • Oldfox

      Nothing wrong about your blog post, but many important things are not mentioned. One being that the current unnatural means of agricultural production and marketing is not sustainable. This results in much wastage – edible produce being destroyed because it does not meet stringent size or quality standards, soil damaged by artificial fertilizer, pests increasingly resistant to pesticides, cattle and chickens being given hormones etc.
      It also results in farmers being forced to farm with ever larger farms, to be viable, with profits per hectare reducing over time.
      There are no indications that we have solutions in sight, yet a growing population puts more and more pressure on the available arable land. Climate change will greatly reduce yields in developing countries, though it could increase yields in countries in temperate or cold climates.
      Melting glaciers in the Himalayas, caused by global warming, threaten a billion people in India and China who are dependent on those 3 great rivers, the Ganges, Yellow and Yangtze rivers.
      Overeating already uses up enough food to adequately feed an additional billion people. But more and more people in developing countries are overeating, and more are eating more meat, which requires far more land or grain to feed the cattle.
      The looming food crisis is as serious as the peak oil problem.

    • Oldfox

      Grant and Speke were both soldiers/officers who had served first in India. Few if any of the African explorers of the 19 th century were scientists, I’m sure. The funders of the explorations would not have known at the time if the explorers lied or exaggerated.

    • Oldfox

      @Lee-Roy, Enough Said,
      The question of high fertility and how/when it comes down is treated at length in Jeffrey Sach’s book Common Wealth. It has more to do with the no. of children deemed necessary to support parents in their old age, or the no. of male children who survive, than it has to do with education. Health care is more important than education in this regard.
      A social safety net plays an important role too, but very few developing countries have one. For a brief period, Communist China had a safety net for the elderly. When it fell away, the killing of girl babies and unborn girls increased, because it is believed that only males support elderly parents. Even in Japan, Singapore and S. Korea unborn girls are killed for this reason.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Those early explorers were also all criss-crossing the same routes – any total lies would have been exposed. Why not read the book “Explorers of the Nile”?

      Where they did exaggerate is usually the one against the other for the credit of discovery, not against the blacks.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The 19th century was the great period of exploration and discovery and renaissance man – many amateurs were better than professionals, and the educated were educated in all the disciplines not just one.

      To start with there were only probably about 3000 books to read to get educated in all knowledge – you did not have to wade through the mountain of junk entertainment rubbish published today.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Actually Charles Darwin(1809-1882) qualified as a doctor not a scientist – as did David Livingstone (1813-1873)

    • Oldfox

      Maybe I’ll read some books on African explorations some day. I would however wish to be able to corroborate such tales with historians, especially Black historians from the countries in question. There should at least be some correlation between accounts from the Victorian explorers and local oral histories.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The book is collaborated from a veritable mountain of sources – all quoted in the index.

      Verbal records are notoriously inaccurate, if there even are any.

      Plus ALL cultures “rewrote” their histories when there was a change of royalty or dynasty – including the Maoris, the Chinese Emeperors, and the Victorian Georgian Germans..