The global population is projected to cross the 8 billion mark in the coming days. How did we get here and what does this mean for the future of our planet? And have we hit ‘peak people’ or are we still growing?

How Did We Get Here?

Humanity finds itself in the midst of a period of sustained population growth. Underscoring this is the fact that we as a species have enjoyed the perfect conditions that have seen our rising numbers continue on an exponential upward trajectory in recent years. These factors include significant advances in medicine, nutrition and personal hygiene, increased access to healthcare, rising education levels and an overall decrease in wars around the world.

The United Nations has projected our total population will hit 8 billion people come November 15th, 2022

Equally important are the high fertility rates shared by many developing nations, which have also contributed to the boom in population. Deeper examination of this factor reveals a significant trend, with countries that have a higher level of wealth and education among its citizenry tend to have lower birth rates overall. Therefore, the global population has become concentrated among these nations, which when combined, account for approximately 85% of the world’s population (6.69 billion across 152 countries). Likewise, access to reproductive health care information, along with adequate contraception continue to shape the narrative, with almost half of all pregnancies unintended.

It should come as no surprise then that the United Nations has projected our total population will hit 8 billion people come November 15th, 2022. This is a major milestone and comes only 11 years since we reached 7 billion people. To put that into perspective, we are adding around 90 million people to our total population each year. That’s the equivalent of incorporating an additional country the size of Iran, 1.3x United Kingdoms or two entire Spain’s worth of people to our growing global community every 365 days.

The Environmental Impact Of Overpopulation

Our swelling population is placing strain on the natural world and our environment. People require resources and if 7 billion mouths to feed was a struggle, the extra billion that have come along in the last decade are not going to make matters any easier. Food shortages, displacement of people due to famine and growing pressure on infrastructure, transport and energy grids have all been realised over the last few years. After all, there are limits to the amount of people we can realistically fit on earth.

Slowing the currently unsustainable birth rates affords us the opportunity to buy some much needed time as we transition to more environmentally responsible ways of living.

An infinite expansion of the populous may seem ideal to economists whose models are built on perpetual growth, but they are impractical when it comes to environmental sustainability. The net value of every new person added only serves to magnify the challenges we face, especially when it comes to the current landscape of unsustainable patterns of consumption. Animal agriculture, the rising carbon crisis born of ‘dirty transport’, the increasing environmental cost of greenhouse gas emissions, single-use-plastics, mass extinction of species, climate change; our problems are myriad and won’t be solved by education and awareness alone. Meeting the targets set by the Paris Agreement, transitioning to renewable energy and adopting a shift toward plant-based nutrition and responsible agriculture are just some of the overdue actions needed to reverse the damage to our planet caused by overpopulation. This is especially true of developed nations, as emissions output and material resource consumption are evident more in countries with a higher per capita income than those where populations are rapidly increasing. Slowing the currently unsustainable birth rates affords us the opportunity to buy some much needed time as we transition to more environmentally responsible ways of living.

How Long Until The Next Billion?

Fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels.

Unbelievably, we are at least trending in the right direction when it comes to population growth. Since the United Nations began formally began tracking the earth’s population in 1950, we have seen yearly growth between 1-2% each year, reaching a peak of 2.09% between 1968-69. Now, the global population rate is growing at its slowest rate since recording began, having fallen under 1 percent. Following the UN’s ‘medium scenario’ projections, the earth will reach around 10-11 billion by 2100, but the growth rate itself will peak in the 2080’s, leading to a population decline in the years that follow. Some experts believe that we have already crossed the threshold where average fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels, a 2:1 ration of children to women and have reached the maximum number of children that will be alive on Earth at any given time. North America, Oceania, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America have all recorded declining fertility rates, on average, since at least the 1960s.

To mark the forthcoming population milestone, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has launched an educational campaign, ‘8 Billion Strong‘, sharing facts around our growing population, trends and the forces that have shaped them. The campaign is now live and can be found on social media with the hashtag #8BillionStrong. Alongside this, the UN has put together a policy brief that details the impact of 8 billion people from the perspective of sustainability and what near term impact this will have as our population continues to grow in size.

Fortunately, there are also several factors at play right now that may be helping to slow our population rate. The rising cost of living, higher levels of family-planning education, longer life expectancy and the fact that we are all aging (and will eventually die) are forces that are starting to have an effect. In the meantime, our biggest challenge is that of environmental responsibility, especially among those with more resources and the means to enact change. If we want to leave behind a healthy planet for the next billion people, we must make adjustments to our daily patterns and adopt a more sustainable way of life. That’s a challenge that we have to meet head on, if we are to survive as a species.