This page was updated with new data and statistics in September 2021.
Sure, maybe, and you could fit 20 people in an elevator, but how comfortable would they be? You could fit all the cars of the world onto the freeways of Los Angeles, but could they go anywhere? It’s one thing to “fit” into an area, and it is an entirely different issue for people to live and thrive in that same space. The “population in Texas” fact is often cited by people who do not understand the concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity estimates the number of people a certain area of land can sustain without compromising its long-term viability. The carrying capacity of Texas’s 167,187,840 acres doesn’t even come close to accommodating the world’s population of 8 billion.
In fact, if the entire population of the world actually lived within the Lone Star borders, each person would have just 0.02 acres of land on which to live, work, grow food, shop, go to school, and dispose of waste. To put that into perspective, Asia, the major world region with the smallest amount of cropland per person, has 0.13 hectares per capita, which translates to 0.32 acres. The truth is, people need much more than just the land they are standing on. In order to be healthy and safe, they need space that far exceeds the 0.02 acres that Texas would offer.
Certain religious institutions (namely, the Catholic Church) do condemn the use of artificial birth control, but a vast difference often exists between the official position of a religion’s organizational leadership (e.g. the Pope, bishops, and priests) and the actual behavior of its followers. Just consider the fact that Italy and Spain have among the lowest total fertility rates in the world, both currently at 1.29 births per woman. And Mexico, the second largest Catholic country in the world, decriminalized abortion in September 2021. In the United States, 98% of Catholic women over the age of 18 report that they have used a modern form of contraception at some point in their lives.
The Islamic Republic of Iran implemented one of the most successful family planning programs in the history of the world, bringing the country’s fertility rate from 6.5 children per woman in 1960 to 1.6 in 2012. Unfortunately, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been pushing for higher fertility for the past decade, citing the aging population as something to fear.
Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, actively encourages family planning, for the express purpose of addressing population challenges and achieving a demographic dividend. The government aims to facilitate a decline in the total fertility rate from the 2.3 births per woman replacement rate (2.1 births per woman) by 2025.
Egypt, where 90% of people are Muslim, has an official slogan: “Two Is Enough.” It refers to the government’s public education campaign to encourage voluntary family planning and smaller families in the interest of human development and economic growth.
Although religious doctrine can play an important role in the family planning decisions of individuals, education, economic opportunities, and the availability of contraceptive services and supplies can have even more bearing.
A rapidly growing population does not necessarily produce a world power or a healthy economy. If it did, Niger, which is the second fastest growing country in the world (after Syria), at 3.73% a year, wouldn’t be among the least developed countries on earth. Nor would countries with shrinking populations—Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia—have some of the highest GDPs on the planet.
Read more about the relationship between demography and the economy in our quarterly magazine and on our population and the economy page.
The current global population growth rate of 0.84% may not seem high, but consider this: With a base of 8 billion people, a growth rate of 0.84% means that our population grows by over 67 million people a year!
Doubling time is a useful way of observing the impact of a country or the world’s growth rate. For example, Niger, as mentioned above, has a population growth rate of 3.73%—at this rate, the country’s population will double in under 19 years. That isn’t much time to build roads, houses, schools, and sanitation facilities to accommodate twice as many people. If the world’s present growth rate of 0.84% were to remain constant, the Earth’s population would double in 83 years.
In order to calculate the doubling time of a population, divide the annual growth rate into 70. For example:
70 divided by 0.98 (global growth rate) = 71 years
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. You could even say that everything we do is for the sake of preserving the planet for future generations, starting with today’s children.
Children benefit directly from their parents’ improved access to voluntary family planning and slower population growth. Family planning allows parents to space births farther apart, which improves infant and child health and survival outcomes. According to the Guttmacher Institute*, in every developing region, the infant mortality rate is 117 deaths per 1,000 live births when births are spaced less than two years apart; 64 per 1,000 when births are spaced two to three years apart; and 47 per 1,000 when births are four or more years apart.
Family planning also allows girls who are too young to safely carry a pregnancy to term to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place. Physically immature adolescents are at higher risk of giving birth to premature and low-birth-weight babies, and they are also more likely to have obstructed labor because their birth canals are not large enough for their babies’ heads to pass through. In fact, pregnancy and birth complications are the primary cause of death of girls ages 15-19 worldwide. Their babies are also less likely to survive.
Babies born to older women are also more likely to die. Reducing high-risk pregnancies to women outside of their optimal childbearing years is a very effective way of lowering infant mortality rates.
The United States provides family planning assistance to low-income countries through two avenues: the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
USAID grants assistance to foreign non-governmental organizations that apply for funding and technical assistance. There is no U.S. funding for family planning in any country where it is not specifically requested by either the government or a local organization.
UNFPA is funded by nearly every country on earth, even if only symbolically (i.e. at very small amounts), and works in over 150 countries. The agency maintains a democratically organized and implemented agenda, agreed upon by the 179 countries that took part in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. UNFPA extends assistance to countries at their request and works in partnership with governments, all parts of the United Nations system, development banks, bilateral aid agencies, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. Under internationally agreed upon population and development goals, each country decides for itself what approach to take in order to meet the specific needs of its citizens and other residents (e.g. those living in refugee camps).
Some people believe that it is inherently wrong to be concerned about rapid population growth because of historical coercive population control policies that lead to human rights violations. While these must indeed be strongly condemned, they have nothing in common with the modern population movement which seeks to advance human rights regarding bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom.
As the fastest population growth occurs in the poorest countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, some argue that focusing on population equates to blaming the people living in these areas for our environmental crises. But this is simply not the case. Progressive population organizations like Population Connection fully acknowledge that high-income nations bear most of the responsibility for the climate crisis and call for slashing overconsumption. However, ignoring rapid population growth because some deem it an uncomfortable conversation hurts the most vulnerable communities the most. People in the Global South who are witnessing its impacts first-hand are usually the most outspoken about the need for population stabilization. Calling them ‘racist’ would be absurd.
There are 218 million women in developing countries with an unmet need for family planning, child marriage and gender-based violence are still rampant, and girls continue to have unequal access to education. By highlighting the tremendous social and environmental benefits of enabling women to choose their family size, we can leverage much-needed funding for these neglected crises.
Progressive population action is about empowerment and improving lives – quite the opposite of blaming and controlling.