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World overpopulation, or underpopulation?

The last 60 years have demonstrated an exponential increase in the world’s population. Increasing from about 2.5 billion to approximately seven billion, the population has spurred the fear of overpopulation and the depletion of the world’s food and energy resources. However, the birth of the seven billionth person in March of 2012 has inspired talk of the opposite effect.

Slate reported that despite an ever-increasing population, the rate of population growth is starting to fall for the first time ever. While it took 123 years for the world to reach a population of two billion, and 12 years to jump from five billion to six billion, the number of years it takes to get to the next billion has finally increased. Some might attribute this change to factors like China’s restriction on childbirth, requiring each family to pay a fine if they exceed the one-child policy that was established in 1979. Other factors that are largely contributing to this falling rate can be found in developed countries. As it has become more socially acceptable and realistic for women to become financially independent and decide against having children, population growth has started to decline. For example, Japan and Russia both showed waning rates of growth in 2011. Additionally, the fact that families no longer have the same fears of famine, war, and disease means that they will be inclined to have fewer children. As Warren Sanderson, an economics professor at Stony Brook University, said, there has been “a shift between two very different long-run states: from high death rates and high birthrates to low death rates and low birthrates.”

But all of this talk might be more surprising to an American than it would be to someone else. While many developed countries are experiencing their own declines, the same is not true in the U.S. For this reason, a future population decline has received little American media attention. The immigration patterns into the U.S. have ensured, both due to a direct population increase in response to immigrants and a generally high birthrate in immigrant families, that in the U.S. a population decline is less of a concern. But why is this idea a worry at all, especially when it seems that it will ensure the world does not run out of resources? Because in the end, simple math shows us that a couple centuries from now, it could be extinction rather than overpopulation that is our concern.

For now, one of the main problems associated with a declining population growth rate is the economy. If the declining trends continue, we will start to have an excess of retirees and a lack of able-bodied workers. In other words, Japan’s current economic stagflation might become an issue in many more developed countries around the world. Other than this potential issue, a decrease in population would not threaten humanity for centuries. In fact, it may be that under-population never threatens humanity at all. But it is possible. With half of the world’s population already reproducing below the replacement rate, extinction might be possible, according to a 2008 population report by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Under-population won’t be an issue for years to come, but the latest research and analysis of population trends suggest that it might be time for us to stop being overly concerned with a population that the world can’t sustain, and start to acknowledge both sides of the equation. Under-population may not be something that today’s generation or the next ever have to worry about, but these recent reports mean that these generations may not be plagued with the issue of overpopulation either.

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