Is overpopulation really a threat?

As the world's population hits 8 billion people, should we be worried?

Is overpopulation really a threat?
An aerial view shows residential and commercial building in Kolkata, India, November 14, 2022. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain

As the world's population hits 8 billion people, should we be worried? Will humans one day completely overrun Earth? Is this rising number causing climate change and food shortages? How many people can the planet even hold?

Well, actually, the theory of overpopulation is a widespread myth. The population isn't just going to keep growing at a faster and faster pace forever. In 2020, a study by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found "the global population was projected to peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion (8.84–10.9) people and decline to 8.79 billion (6.83–11.8) in 2100." And, if the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are realized – which include education and access to contraceptives – the population could be smaller, at 6.3 billion by 2100.

This population drop would present its own problems, especially when so much of the planet is banking on capitalism, which relies on constant growth. But, the idea that human beings will continue to reproduce at the same rate despite changing conditions and circumstances is just unrealistic. And it can have some nasty results.

The modern overpopulation myth and the panic around it caught on in the 1960s and never really went away. Today, when people talk about overpopulation, the conversation usually points toward non-white countries in the Global South. This is kind of strange, considering when it comes to issues like climate change, people from the Global South have lower individual emissions than those in countries like the US. According to Oxfam, "someone in the richest 10% of citizens in India uses on average just one quarter of the carbon of someone in the poorest half of the population of the United States."

It all comes down to a balance. While a high-fertility rate and rapid population boom can stretch a country's resources, falling below the "replacement" fertility rate can lead to a long-term lack of economic growth.

And talking about population control brings back memories of dangerous practices from the past. For example, the US used coerced sterilization programs to control POC, disabled and poor populations throughout the 20th century, even up until the 1980s. Abusive population control methods are tied to eugenics. Meanwhile, ethical population control methods included in the UN's Sustainable Development focus on a person's agency, emphasizing things like contraception and women's education. These can actually have a stronger impact on fertility rates.