The term population is commonly used in the realm of statistics. For a statistician, the term refers to a collection of items. Demographers use the term similarly to refer to the collections of persons alive at specified points in time that meet certain criteria. This definition of the term population connotes the specification of various conditions when referring to a population of a given nation including the specific date or year, place, and the types of individuals who are legal residents, or any person who resides within the boundaries of the nation. At a different level of understanding, the term population is also used to mean a different kind of collectivity, one that persists through time even though its members are continuously changing. From this perspective, the collectivity of an aggregate of persons, those who have ever lived, and those who are not yet even born to live, within a boundary of a given nation represent the concept and notion of a population.
Since the second half of the 20th century, and at the advent of the third millennium, the expression “population explosion” has been associated with the state of the unprecedented rate of growth of the number of humans inhabiting the Earth. A high rate of growth that was witnessed during the 19th century in Europe was considered as an opportunity in terms of a larger labor force and a wider market for commerce. A similar rate of population growth toward the end of the 20th century, however, is viewed as problematic with the rise of consciousness of the limits of the benefits of growth. The optimists, however, challenge this view with the notion that population growth, rather than problematic, has been a condition for the economic development humankind has witnessed.
Historical Accounts and Trends
The population size of approximately 300 million has been fairly consistent and stable during the first millennium. Since the middle of the second millennium, however, population began to rise significantly as the result of new developments and inventions, ranging from the printing press and scientific practices all the way up to the Industrial Revolution. By the middle of the 20th century, the world population counted 2.5 billion. Increased yield from harvest, good health services, transportation, and increased availability of clean drinking water have led to the improvement of life for humankind while also contributing to the growth of its population. The world is growing in its population by more that 76 million people per year. The world population has doubled in the last 40 years, growing from 5 billion to 6 billion in only the last 12 years. Within a range of a century, from 1900 to 2000, the world has witnessed a growth of population from 1.7 billion to an estimated 6 billion. Fertility rate is declining, but so is the death rate. Population decline is a phenomenon of only a smaller percentage of the nations of the world, whereas it is an increasingly alarming social phenomenon in most of the developing world. The poorer regions hold the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants.
The world population, which reached 6 billion in 1999, is projected to approach 9 billion by 2050. And much of the growth in 2050 will be mainly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The population of the developed world will remain stable at its present size while even declining in some nations. Thus, in the projected time of 50 years, Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of the world’s population will increase from 10% to 17%. To the contrary, the share of the population in Europe will decline from 13% to 7%. The population of the developed world is outnumbered now 4 to 1 by the population in developing nations. This proportion will change to 7 to 1 in 2050.
Several factors explain the state of the high rate of population growth across the world. The major reasons for the growing rate of population explosion include a high rate of fertility that is above the level required for replacement of generations, low mortality due to the rise of high life expectancy, migration that raises population among some nations, and favorable age distribution in which there is a high ratio of young people, capable of giving birth, to older adults. In particular, growth in the youthful age, a group capable of reproduction, which is referred as population momentum, would account for more than half of the population boom projected by 2050.
The growth rate of population has been interpreted differently at different periods of time. The interpretation has also varied depending on where the rate of growth is happening. During the 19th century, rapid population growth that took place in Europe and North America was favorably associated with economic prosperity in relation to a larger workforce and expanded market. In the 20th century, however, the perception about rapid population growth changed as the new phenomenon of population explosion began to take place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This latter development brought about a new experience in that high population growth rate took place without the corresponding economic dynamism in the developing world. This is an unintended outcome of the impacts of western influence shared by the developing world. The introduction of health services, instead of creating economic boom, contributed to the fall of the death rate, in turn, leading to an increase in population growth rate in the developing world.
The birth rate that had risen in the first half of the 20th century continued to do so in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1950, a woman gave birth to six children on average in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Declines of fertility have been witnessed since the late 1960s in many developing countries. From 1990 to 1995, total fertility rate stood at 3.3 children in all developing countries taken together. However, the range is so wide across regions. For instance, the rate of fertility for Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Ethiopia, is higher, standing at 5.9 compared to the drastic fall for East Asia, which is 1.9.
The decline of population that is a typical phenomenon of the developed world, and in some parts of Asia including Japan and elsewhere, has some explanations. Reasons for fertility decline include behavioral mechanisms that involve changes in reproductive habits such as the use of contraceptives, induced abortion, and postponement of marriage and motherhood. The other reasons for fertility decline are mortality decline and improved survival—thus no demand for another child, changing demand for children due to the state of the transition of children from being an economic asset to liabilities (mainly in developing countries), and the diffusion of new ideas. Despite the observed tendency of a decline of fertility, however, the world population will continue to grow, and for the most part this will be the case in the developing world.
The historical account of human population reveals that the size that had been stable to about 300 million during the first millennium had changed beginning from the Renaissance period, and showed a significant increase by the 19th century that was positively associated with economic prosperity. During the 20th century, population growth continued to be witnessed, and toward the end of the century, the steady unprecedented rate of growth of population that had become a social phenomenon of the developing world was viewed as a societal problem, calling for intervention programs. Sub-Saharan Africa is in the lead for the highest rate of population boom. To the contrary, now, at the onset of the 21st century, the developed world is characterized by a decline of its population compared to its counterpart in the Southern hemisphere. The projection indicates the continuation of this trend into the next decades.
Impacts of Population Explosion
The population of a nation is a human asset that is vital to its survival. But, when it gets enlarged beyond what the available resources can support, then the size of the population becomes a problem. In the context of the developing countries, in particular, the trend of an alarming population growth rate brings about impediments to economic prosperity as it constrains the improvement in the provision of basic services such as education, health, land for food production, and other services. This is mainly due to the reason that the greater the number of the people, the higher will be the demand for food, water, education, health care, sanitary infrastructure, and jobs, as well as a greater pressure on the environment.
Specifically, the concern about population explosion is associated with the following: the worsening of water scarcity, respiratory health complications in cities, a growing malnourishment worldwide, failing economies where the poor are getting poorer, the depletion of oceans due to over-fishing, the inundation of the wild habitats of animals and plants by human activities, the spread of diseases accelerated by crowding, migration pressures, and civil conflicts over meager resources that lead to instabilities and political turmoil.
By being overpopulated, humans unfairly share the resources of the Earth vis-à-vis other species, and destabilize the ecosystem. The exponential rate of growth of population is putting tantamount pressure on the natural resources of the planet. In return, the depletion of the support system in the ecology such as water, soil, plants, and animals constitutes one of the direst challenges to the existence of humanity itself. In some parts of the world, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, millions of children are born into starvation. The ecosystem that has been disturbed by humans is leading to factors of further calamity—deforestation, desertification, decreased rain, soil erosion, and little or no yield of food for survival.
The impact of the rapid growth rate of population is viewed as having severe consequences on the environment. There is a gloomy scenario where population growth is taking place: An ever-increasing but poor peasantry depends on the declining natural resources while having a tremendous impact on the ecosystem.
Adjin-Tettey argues that while it is resulting in unwanted consequences for humans themselves, over-population is also linked to the reduction in number, and even possibly the tendency of extinction, of some species of plants and animals. Underlining that the growth in population of humans is posing serious problems on the ecosystem, Adjin-Tettey notes that the poor deplete the surrounding supplies, and that this accelerates the depletion of the world’s forest cover that aggravates the rate of deforestation.
The rapid rate of population and its severe consequences is typical in the developing world. The situation is even more pervasive in Sub-Saharan Africa. African population growth rate is less compatible and proportionate to the available services for food, health, and education, and the region’s ability to cope with the cycle of poverty. Thus, it is evident that there is a scenario of poor health, low educational achievement, and shortage of food there. Africa’s development efforts are dependent upon its measures to overcome its high rate of population growth. African nations suffer from population explosion and, under such conditions, any positive economic growth will not be of great significance as it is divided over an increasing denominator. According to Brown, countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria will double or even triple their population within the next 50 years, and these countries will be in demographic crises.
The projection that African population is likely to double in 2030 is a gloomy scenario unless measures are taken to manage the challenge. Among others, intervention strategies should involve sex education for adolescents and family planning support systems in society at large. The problem requires the political resolve of governments to take all the necessary steps to mitigate the growing risks of population explosion.
Bengtsson and Saito reviewed the historical developments of economic thoughts with regard to the relationship between demography and development. In their review, the authors outline that, following the World War II, the United Nations, politicians, and scholars began to pay attention to population expansion in the developing world. Since then, there has been the belief that because of population expansion, the larger share of production is used for consumption, leaving little for saving. As the result, there will be no capital to develop machinery and infrastructure, which leads to a halt to economic development that brings about poverty. This analysis, according to Bengtsson and Saito, was based on the work of Ansley Coale and E.M. Hoover who studied the development of India. Accordingly, the conclusion was that population expansion provided the work force, and the absence of capital made economic development less possible. Bengtsson and Saito indicate that this pattern of analysis of population expansion in relation to economic growth has influenced the policies of the UN on population in developing countries to date in its programs such as family planning and investment loans.
Bengtsson and Saito have further outlined the review of the pessimistic view of population expansion. In this regard, they cite the publications of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Dennis Meadows’ The Limits to Growth. Both authors, Bengtsson and Saito argue, were convinced that the availability of the Earth’s resources is limited to support the increasing global population. In fact, in their later works, Bengtsson and Saito present Meadows and Ehrlich with their continuing optimistic view of population expansion, contending that the catastrophe is taking place as the result of the explosion of the population bomb. Their argument includes an authors’ note stating that the population expansion has exceeded the limit in the face of the scarce resources, the proofs of which are hunger, reduction of biological diversity, and the hole in the ozone layer.
Meadows, Randers, and Meadows have recently updated their decades of work in the book entitled Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update. The authors, who have been so influential for many years, maintain their argument and note that there is an occasional catastrophic overshoot that confronts humanity, and the growth in the globe’s population is such a case.
The literature on population as a problem has been shifting its focus and framework of argument over the last decades. Prior to World War II, the Social Darwinian and Eugenics schools of thoughts considered the problem of population explosion from the point of view of competitive fertility among various groups of peoples or races leading to the prevalence of fear of being outnumbered by others. In the aftermath of the war, the paradigm was linked to the issues of development. Thus, population explosion in the Southern hemisphere was associated with shortage of food, famine, and failing economy. As the shift of paradigm continued, the environment became the most outspoken rational for curbing population growth during the 1980s. The issue of population explosion once again came to be associated with gender issues in the 1990s. This has been evident in the debates and arguments observed in the 1994 Cairo Conference. Thus, it is argued, women should be granted the authority and freedom of right to limit birth, and, thereby, contribute to a control on population growth. Curbing global migration and defending international stability are also among the rationales discussed during the last decades for population policies.
Contrary to the position that population expansion is a problem for economic progress, the optimistic line of argument holds the view that population growth is not an obstacle to economic development. One of the earliest challenges to the belief that population expansion is a cause for stagnation of economic growth and poverty came from the work of Simon Kunzets. The work of Kunzets revealed that there is no correlation between population expansion and economic development. Likewise, the work of Ester Boserup provided a strong foundation for the argument that population expansion does not create problems. In fact, Boserup argued that a certain level of population size was an important condition for development to occur in agriculture, and advancements in new techniques and practices were not beneficial until the population had reached a certain level of size and density. According to Bengtsson and Saito, the finding of Kunzets made a remarkable impact and was overwhelmingly popular, whereas Boserup’s position on population growth opposed the earlier idea that population expansion is a cause for underdevelopment and poverty.
Similar to the above optimistic view of population, some proposed the perspective that population expansion in Africa is not a problem by itself. To the contrary, the current state of population size can be a compelling reason to look for other ways and means of overcoming the challenge such as creating more markets and technological developments. In this regard, Julian Simon contends that population growth in Africa is a blessing and recommends Africans cope with the situation by creating jobs, marketable skills, and products that would meet demands at an international level. Simon argues that more people induce more demand for goods and services, and that that would initiate more production, which leads to better income for many, and improved standards of living.
This alternative argument upholds the thesis that population by itself is not a dreadful human phenomenon. Furedi takes this position strongly. According to Furedi, the rapid growth rate of population in 19th century Europe, which was linked to economic prosperity, used to be viewed positively. Since the late 20th century, he notes, population expansion in the developing world, which is associated with famine and poverty, is viewed with pessimism as a big social problem. Furedi notes, therefore, views about population are the functions of the prevailing socioeconomic realities of the period. He justifies this argument as he mentions the case of the 1930s where many thinkers related the crises of the Great Depression in the U.S. with a stagnant rate of population growth. During the same time, Furedi indicates, poverty was considered as the outcome of a slow rate of population growth. In conclusion, Furedi remarks that the causal factor of population growth to economic trend is indeterminate. He attests that the economic stagnation and slow population growth rate of the 1930s was just a coincidence as it is true for today’s population expansion and the prevalence of poverty in the developing world. Furthermore, Furedi refers to the case of Europe where millions of unemployed exist at a time when its population growth is below replacement. Population policies in this context are clearly irrelevant to the situation.
For Furedi, population is not number; instead it is communities expressed in the forms of social organizations, political institutions, and technology. Humans are not mere consumers, he remarks, but also producers, and not just as so many mouths, but also as pairs of hands that can produce more foods and enhance the standards of life in their communities. Furedi argues that people encounter poverty not because of numbers, but rather due to lack of influence on their conditions. Famine and poverty facing Africa are not the outcomes of population number, Furedi contends, but the failure of the social system and political institutions. Criticizing the advocates of population policies, Furedi notes that contraceptives can help reduce the rate of fertility, but they do not increase the yield of food; thus, he continues to contend that social and economic changes and progress are more important than the reduction or control of population. In the case of Africa, Furedi notes that economic crises and a high rate of population growth is just that—a coincidence. Africa has plenty of land to engage the energies of its people, what it lacks are the capital and effective political institutions to bring this about. As he continues to elaborate his position, Furedi indicates that what matters most is improvement in the efficiency of institutions, and an emphasis on mere population numbers is, therefore, misguiding. He remarks that a decrease in the size of the population is not the solution.
Furedi extends the argument that issues and positions, with reference to population, are political in nature. He contends that pronouncements on population are rarely neutral statements about numbers. They are usually based on an agenda, which involves issues of resources, power, and national interest. Specifically, Furedi argues that the West has viewed population explosion as problematic. According to Furedi, the central focus of contemporary strategic demography is the contrast between falling birth rates in the North and rising birth rates in the South.
Julian Simon, the renowned optimist, argues that the rapid process of modernization, and changes in the economic systems of India and China at the end of the 20th century, demonstrate that population explosion is not a problem by itself. He notes, instead greater population size promotes progress. Simon writes, “. . . the size of the human population . . . together with the technology these people produced— is the root cause of the speed of progress.” For Simon, this is the basis of advancement.
The pressure on resources due to population expansion, the optimists note, is temporary and invites human creativity and problem-solving ability to devise coping strategies. In fact, they argue the problems can lead to the discovery of better ways of handling and managing the encounters of day-today life. Explaining the positions of the optimists, Leisinger, Schmitt, and Pandya-Lorch write that the problem of scarcity in society is momentary. In the long term, the impact is positive, as people continue to be inventive and respond intelligently to new demands and circumstances.
In conclusion to their review, Bengtsson and Saito show that in the past, populations have been vulnerable to economic crises, and various methods of easing the pressure on resources were employed, including postponement of marriages and births, and outmigration. The writers, however, underline that it is a rare phenomenon to find a population that expanded beyond the capacity of its resources. While accepting the possibility for population-related problems in the future, the authors nevertheless pointed to the flaw in the Malthusian notion of population as they conclude, “. . . only that human responses to stress so far have been more varied and flexible than ever Malthus anticipated.”
Optimists reject the pessimists’ consciousness of limits to growth. The position of the optimists adheres to the accounts of the advancement of human civilizations, in the face of the countless challenges, that led up to the contemporary remarkable age of technology.
Despite the harshness of nature since the time of life in a cave, the ingenuity of humankind has overcome those difficulties so much so that the Internet brought about the realization of the global village. The attained prosperity of the long past and the continuation of its trend into the future adds up to the optimism in which the human race shares the fruits of accumulated wisdom as well as the burdens of difficult times from possible pressures from the expansion of populations.
The Case of Ethiopia
Since the late 20th century the concern over a rapid rate of population growth is being seen as most alarming, among all regions of the world, in Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s population is growing fast, and is estimated at the moment to be over 70 million. Though there has been a sign of decline, fertility rate during the 1990s has been above 7.5 children per woman with a growth rate of 3% annually. It is projected that the population will at least double by the year 2030. With such a trend, the state of population expansion in Ethiopia will pose a burden on the environment and food production. Agriculture is the mainstay of the country’s economy.
Cognizant of the situation, the Ethiopian government formulated a National Population Policy in 1993. The policy outlines that demographic and development factors reinforce each other. High fertility and rapid population growth exert negative influences on economic and social development and low levels of economic and social development provide the climate favoring high fertility and hence rapid population growth.
The goal is, the general objectives of the policy states, to close the gap between high population growth (total fertility rate of 4.0 by 2015) and low economic productivity through planned reduction of population growth and increased economic returns. This national policy is further reinforced by the expectations on the part of the United Nations that the implementation of family planning is considered crucial to promote depopulation so that Ethiopia will become less dependent on foreign food aid.
However, a decade after the launching of the national policy, the growth of the Ethiopian population is still high. It is believed it could lead to massive deforestation, soil erosion, and additional burden on the agricultural land, which all together lead to the aggravation of the problem of food security. Basic services of education, health, and a supply of clean water will also be undermined under the circumstances of unchecked population growth amidst a recurrent drought and famine that have aggravated poverty in the country over the last decades.
Others, however, argue that the cause for famine in Ethiopia is not population, but rather subsistence and a fragile economy. Ghelawdewos Araia, though he believes that it aggravates other multivariate factors, notes that population explosion is not the main cause for, it is rather the absence of development that leads to, the Ethiopian famine. Ghelawdeows Araia agrees with the notion of the impact of overpopulation on the environment and the need for family planning to check high fertility rates. However, he underlines that unless sound development programs are in place, a reduction in fertility rates by itself will not prevent famine. Underdevelopment and poverty, Araia underscores, have led to the depletion of the environment in Ethiopia as the peasants cut trees for fuel wood as their main source of energy. Aria concludes by stating that the problem of population can be handled through development efforts that target human resource and sustainable economic growth.
The stress posed on land distribution, and on food yield, due to a rapid growth rate of population, is indisputable. The land distribution, which sustained the food supply for decades, is now dwindling with the rise of the number of family members among which that piece of land must be shared. Today the land holding is less than one hectare per family in Ethiopia. The government has taken the step of formulating a national policy on population issues. But, the implementation of the policy is subject to the initiatives and commitment taken at all levels and among various sectors. Success of population policy in Ethiopia is also partly a function of dependency on foreign aid to run programs such as family planning.
In conclusion, irrespective of the strengths or limitations in their methodological framework or otherwise, both optimist and pessimist arguments about population growth share in common the concern for the good of humanity. In any case, concerted efforts directed at health and population education, sound policies of integrated sustainable development, expansion of the private investment sector, peace and stability, efficiency of institutions, and financial and technical assistances, would ultimately contribute to the attainment of food security and self-sufficiency in Ethiopia and elsewhere. To that end, the successful implementation of the integrated poverty reduction and development program the government is launching at the moment is among the promising interventions.
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