Overpopulation: Too Many Kids, or Not Enough?

Many scientists and concerned citizens around the globe are worried about the economy, the environment, and more. While they all seem to have different ideas about solutions, a lot of people point to what they feel is the problem: too many kids.


This worry about overpopulation was kickstarted back in 1968 with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. But he didn’t come up with this concern on his own! Way back in 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, proposing the idea that limited resources can only sustain so much. And Ehrlich said we were getting dangerously close to maxing out those limited resources.  

While overpopulation was a big concern back in the day, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans are even more worried about it now than they were then. Today, 59% of Americans and even more scientists think that the growing population is going to “strain the planet’s natural resources.”1

Too Many Kids?

So is it true? If we have children, are we putting our planet at risk? Are we overpopulating the Earth and producing more than its limited resources can handle? Well let’s look at the data.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the current US fertility rate is 1.87.2 (The fertility rate is the average number of children a woman has over her lifetime. See the World Bank stats on fertility rates here.) The fertility rate necessary to simply replace the parents is approximately 2.1.3

And this low fertility rate isn’t uncommon. According to data from the United Nations, almost half the world lives in a country with sub-replacement level fertility rates (or below that 2.1 rate).4

Although the effects of the sub-replacement fertility rate aren’t currently apparent — the global population is still projected to peak around 20505 — we can see the effects already in countries such as Japan, and in the near future Russia. (Learn about Japan’s population decline or Russia’s projected population decline here.) And with the US’s declining fertility rates, it’s looking like we won’t be far behind.

Or Not Enough?

So maybe we aren’t headed towards the massive population bomb that Ehrlich predicted. But what’s the problem with declining fertility rates? Is it possible that we actually aren’t having enough children?

Declining fertility rates really change the makeup of a population. With the rates we’re at now in the US, we’re on track to have an older population without the young people necessary to support them.6 This may spell disaster for funding Social Security and for the economy in general.

A report from the Wall Street Journal puts it well:

“Previous generations feared a population explosion. But for today’s global economy, the problem is just the opposite. Falling fertility rates and aging work​ ​forces will plague the developed world.7

The Real Problem

So the question is, is our problem really too many kids?

What the research seems to indicate is that rather than solving our problems, declining fertility rates will in fact increase economic strains and other political difficulties.  

The next time you worry about how having kids will harm the planet, don’t. Because you’ll probably be helping much more than you’re harming.


Additional Resources:

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  1. Gao, G. (2015, June 8). Scientists more worried than the public about world’s growing population. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/08/scientists-more-worried-than-public-about-worlds-growing-population/
  2. “United States.” (2017). The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html
  3. Mather, M. (2012, July). Fact sheet: The decline in US fertility. Retrieved from Population Reference Bureau website: http://www.prb.org/publications/datasheets/2012/world-population-data-sheet/fact-sheet-us-population.aspx
  4. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2015). World Fertility Patterns 2015 – Data Booklet. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/fertility/world-fertility-patterns-2015.pdf
  5. World population to peak by 2055: report. (2013, September 9). Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/id/101018722
  6. U.S. Census Bureau. (2012, December 12). U.S. Census Bureau projections show a slower growing, older, more diverse nation half a century from now. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-243.html
  7. Wall Street Journal. (n.d.). 2050 demographic destiny [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://graphics.wsj.com/2050-demographic-destiny/

Pictures retrieved from http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Adorable-Babies-Son-Caucasian-Newborn-Infant-Boy-2008822 and https://pixabay.com/en/world-earth-planet-globe-map-1301744/.

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