(Roughly) Daily

“Most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline. I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.”*…

For essentially the entirety of global history since the Industrial Revolution– and the advent of the modern societies shaped by it– the world’s population has been growing. That’s begun to change…

One of the big lessons from the demographic history of countries is that population explosions are temporary. For many countries the demographic transition has already ended, and as the global fertility rate has now halved we know that the world as a whole is approaching the end of rapid population growth…

As we explore at the beginning of the entry on population growth, the global population grew only very slowly up to 1700 – only 0.04% per year. In the many millennia up to that point in history very high mortality of children counteracted high fertility. The world was in the first stage of the demographic transition.

Once health improved and mortality declined things changed quickly. Particularly over the course of the 20th century: Over the last 100 years global population more than quadrupled. As we see in the chart, the rise of the global population got steeper and steeper and you have just lived through the steepest increase of that curve. This also means that your existence is a tiny part of the reason why that curve is so steep.

The 7-fold increase of the world population over the course of two centuries amplified humanity’s impact on the natural environment. To provide space, food, and resources for a large world population in a way that is sustainable into the distant future is without question one of the large, serious challenges for our generation. We should not make the mistake of underestimating the task ahead of us. Yes, I expect new generations to contribute, but for now it is upon us to provide for them. Population growth is still fast: Every year 140 million are born and 58 million die – the difference is the number of people that we add to the world population in a year: 82 million…

The annual population growth rate (that is, the percentage change in population per year) of the global population… peaked around half a century ago. Peak population growth was reached in 1968 with an annual growth of 2.1%. Since then the increase of the world population has slowed and today grows by just over 1% per year. This slowdown of population growth was not only predictable, but predicted. Just as expected by demographers (here), the world as a whole is experiencing the closing of a massive demographic transition…

We are on the way to a new balance. The big global demographic transition that the world entered more than two centuries ago is then coming to an end: This new equilibrium is different from the one in the past when it was the very high mortality that kept population growth in check. In the new balance it will be low fertility that keeps population changes small.

By 2100, the UN projects, world population will have effectively stabilized: “Future Population Growth,” from Max Roser (@MaxCRoser) and Our World in Data (@OurWorldInData). How will the economies and societies that are premised on growth adapt?

See also: “Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born.”

Christopher J.L. Murray


As we dwell on demographics, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Karl Gunnar Myrdal; he was born on this date in 1898. And economist and sociologist, he shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics (with Friedrich Hayek) for “their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.” When his wife, Alva Myrdal, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982, they became the fourth ever married couple to have won Nobel Prizes, and the first to win independent of each other (versus a shared Nobel Prize by scientist spouses).

Myrdal is probably best known in the United States for his study of race relations, which culminated in his book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy— influential in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education. In Sweden, his work and political influence were important to the establishment of the Folkhemmet and the welfare state.


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