Future of the World's Population: Trends, Challenges & Outlooks

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  • 0:00 Growing Faster and Faster
  • 1:14 No Hard Limits
  • 2:20 Expanding Due to Technology
  • 3:11 Dwindling Resources
  • 4:34 Differing Rates of Growth
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

A great deal of discussion has gone into the idea that the world's population is growing at too great of a rate. However, such outlooks ignore the role of innovation in helping people overcome barriers.

Growing Faster and Faster

Look at any material describing the growth rate of the world's population in the past 100 years and it becomes a contest to use the most novel adjectives. 'Explosive,' 'Exponential,' and 'Expansive' are just the ones that start with an E! However, the numbers speak for themselves.

A hundred years ago, the population of the entire world was around 2 billion, itself considered a large number by the sociologists of the day. Today, more than 7 billion call our planet home. While the world population is only growing at around 1.5 percent a year, that means more than 100 million new people a year, or another billion every decade.

Much of this growth is from populations in Asia and Africa. With such a rapid growth rate, the whole planet is now faced with a variety of challenges that were before thought unlikely to ever happen. Much of this comes from the fact that longer life spans, high fertility rates, and massive decreases in infant mortality mean more people. Meanwhile, despite challenges from dwindling resources pressed by a growing population, increases in technology have allowed this growth to continue.

No Hard Limits

Before we get to those challenges, however, let's look at two different theories that have been proposed for what happens with such population growth.

By far the best-known theory is the Malthusian Theory, which states that at some point in the future, the world's population will run against a wall and enter a quick collapse. On the surface of it, the theory makes a great deal of sense. After all, we have a finite amount of resources and once a maximum amount of yield is reached from resources like food crops, even a slight reduction could result in widespread panic.

Thomas Malthus, writing more than 200 years ago, suggested that famine was the most likely candidate for such a colossal collapse. However, Thomas Malthus was writing in a different time and while his predictions may ultimately prove true sometime in the future, the fact of the matter is that he still lived in a society in which most food was harvested with the help of animals and grown from crops which had remained unchanged for centuries.

Expanding Due to Technology

Instead, most observers these days point to what we could call the Expanding Technology Theory, the fact that humanity has always managed to innovate for more efficient food production when properly incentivized to do so. After all, many archaeologists have observed that the core technologies of the early Industrial Revolution were not a fair jump from the most advanced tinkerings of some ancient thinkers.

For example, the Han Dynasty of the Chinese even provided piped natural gas for some buildings' lighting and heating systems! That said, there was never a real incentive to expand the technologies to wider usage. It has only been in the last 150 years, with most people moving from farming to working in cities, that there has been any real incentive to increase technologies. As a result of this newfound incentive, technologies ranging from modern fertilizers to new strands of wheat have changed agriculture.

Dwindling Resources

While the humans of the future may be able to feed themselves, people will certainly be hard-pressed for other resources. Right now, we are firmly a global society that is based on the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal. Yet, if you were try to find an estimate on when these resources were to run out, you'd find a wide range of figures. Of course, there is a great deal of bias when reporting such figures, but it also goes to prove our earlier point about innovation.

Recent growth in the American and Canadian petroleum sectors proves this. In the past, oil recovered from Tar Sands was not considered cost-efficient. However, given the rise of oil prices coupled with enough research in the field to allow for technological breakthroughs, now the United States is a net oil exporter after years of being one of the largest oil importers on the global market.

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