Is overpopulation a problem?

There are growing concerns among Malawians regarding the country’s fast-growing population—soon expected to surpass 18 million. The typical complaint is that unrestricted population growth is a challenge for a resource-constrained economy and impedes the Malawian State’s ability to feed its citizens and provide quality social services.

Some argue that the population “problem” has been exacerbated due to a fall in Aids mortality followed by consistently high birth rates throughout sub-Saharan Africa. According to recent UN estimates, the world’s population may reach 11.2 billion in 2100— with sub-Saharan Africa expected to grow from one billion in 2015 to four billion in 2100.

Much of Africa is experiencing high birth rates, which The Economist claims is one of the main factors explaining the continent’s pervasive poverty. Other studies, including one from the Gates Foundation, find that Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo will most likely witness massive increases in their populations in the next few decades, which in turn will pose major challenges for the implementation of social protection policies.

The debate on the links between overpopulation and sustainable development is often polarised. There is growing scientific evidence on the negative consequences of rapid population growth for the world’s climate, and currently there are numerous global debates that highlight the need to better implement family planning programmes —that for cultural, religious, financial and political reasons—are often not prioritised in large parts of the world.

From a developing country perspective, much of the global discourse linking population growth to climate change can be interpreted as the rich world telling the poor not to have too many children. And the poor are left wondering what the problem is since, given their low-consumption lifestyles, they contribute little to global emissions of greenhouse gases. For example, despite his country having a fertility rate of 4.9, President Magufuli of Tanzania declared in September 2018 that birth control was a sign of ‘parental laziness’ and that a major consequence of widespread use of contraceptives is a shrinking labour force. Many in the Global South also wonder whether the population problem is often overblown to justify restrictive immigration policies in the West.

There is general consensus around the world that coercion-based policies to control population is not the desired alternative for nations to follow. And although unrestricted population growth may indeed be a challenge for sustainable development, innovations in modern technology (including solar and wind power) may greatly reduce the impact of overpopulation on global warming.

Recent research has shown that population policies are ultimately dependent on societal goals and political priorities on birth control. I look forward to hearing your views on the link between overpopulation and development on Twitter. n

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