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Social Sci LibreTexts

1.3: Population and Culture

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Explain the demographic transition process. Understand the concept of carrying capacity as it relates to the planet’s human population.
    2. Outline the relationship between urbanization and family size. Show how rural-to-urban shift relates to industrialization and the change in rural populations.
    3. Interpret a population pyramid and determine if the population is increasing or declining and if the pace of growth is intensifying or slowing.
    4. Distinguish between the concepts of culture and ethnicity as these terms are used in this textbook.
    5. Understand the difficulty in determining the number of languages and religions existing on Earth. Name the main language families and the world’s major religions.

    Demographic Transition

    Demography is the study of how human populations change over time and space. It is a branch of human geography related to population geography, which is the examination of the spatial distribution of human populations. Geographers study how populations grow and migrate, how people are distributed around the world, and how these distributions change over time.

    For most of human history, relatively few people lived on Earth, and world population grew slowly. Only about five hundred million people lived on the entire planet in 1650 (that’s less than half India’s population in 2000). Things changed dramatically during Europe’s Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and into the 1800s, when declining death rates due to improved nutrition and sanitation allowed more people to survive to adulthood and reproduce. The population of Europe grew rapidly. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, birth rates in developed countries declined, as children had become an economic liability rather than an economic asset to families. Fewer families worked in agriculture, more families lived in urban areas, and women delayed the age of marriage to pursue education, resulting in a decline in family size and a slowing of population growth. In some countries (e.g., Russia and Japan), population is actually in decline, and the average age in developed countries has been rising for decades. The process just described is called the demographic transition.

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, the world’s population was about 1.6 billion. One hundred years later, there were roughly six billion people in the world, and as of 2011, the number was approaching seven billion. This rapid growth occurred as the demographic transition spread from developed countries to the rest of the world. During the twentieth century, death rates due to disease and malnutrition decreased in nearly every corner of the globe. In developing countries with agricultural societies, however, birth rates remained high. Low death rates and high birth rates resulted in rapid population growth. Meanwhile, birth rates—and family size—have also been declining in most developing countries as people leave agricultural professions and move to urban areas. This means that population growth rates—while still higher in the developing world than in the developed world—are declining. Although the exact figures are unknown, demographers expect the world’s population to stabilize by 2100 and then decline somewhat.

    In 2010, the world’s population was growing by about eighty million per year, a growth rate found almost exclusively in developing countries, as populations are stable or in decline in places such as Europe and North America. World population increase is pronounced on the continent of Asia: China and India are the most populous countries in the world, each with more than a billion people, and Pakistan is an emerging population giant with a high rate of population growth. The continent of Africa has the highest fertility rates in the world, with countries such as Nigeria—Africa’s most populous and the world’s eighth most populous country—growing rapidly each year. The most striking paradox within population studies is that while there has been marked decline in fertility (a declining family size) in developing countries, the world’s population will grow substantially by 2030 because of the compounding effect of the large number of people already in the world—that is, even though population growth rates are in decline in many countries, the population is still growing. A small growth rate on a large base population still results in the birth of many millions of people.

    Earth’s human population is growing at the rate of about 1.4 percent per year. If the current growth rate continues, the human population will double in about fifty years to more than twelve billion. The current population increase remains at about eighty million per year. A change in the growth rate will change the doubling time. Between 2010 and 2050, world population growth will be generated exclusively in developing countries.

    The three largest population clusters in the world are the regions of eastern China, south Asia, and Europe. Southeast Asia also has large population clusters. Additional large population centers exist in various countries with high urbanization. An example is the urbanized region between Boston and Washington, DC, which includes New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and neighboring metropolitan areas, resulting in a region often called a megalopolis. The coastal country of Nigeria in West Africa or the island of Java in Indonesia are good examples of large population clusters centered in the tropics.

    Social dynamics and geography will determine where the new additions to the human family will live. Providing food, energy, and materials for these additional humans will tax many countries of the world, and poverty, malnutrition, and disease are expected to increase in regions with poor sanitation, limited clean water, and lack of economic resources. In 2010, more than two billion people (one-third of the planet’s population) lived in abject poverty and earned less than the equivalent of two US dollars per day. The carrying capacity of the planet is not and cannot be known. How many humans can the earth sustain in an indefinite manner? There is the possibility that we have already reached the threshold of its carrying capacity.

    Figure 1.22 Population Growth from Year 1 to Year 2010 AD


    Human population will continue to grow until it either crashes due to the depletion of resources or stabilizes at a sustainable carrying capacity. Population growth exacts a toll on the earth as more people use more environmental resources. The areas most immediately affected by increased populations include forests (a fuel resource and a source of building material), fresh water supplies, and agricultural soils. These systems get overtaxed, and their depletion has serious consequences. Type C climates, which are moderate and temperate, are usually the most productive and are already vulnerable to serious deforestation, water pollution, and soil erosion. Maintaining adequate food supplies will be critical to supporting a sustainable carrying capacity. The ability to transport food supplies quickly and safely is a major component of the ability to manage the conservation of resources. Deforestation by humans using wood for cooking fuel is already a serious concern in the arid and dry type B climates.

    Figure 1.23


    The three main human population clusters on the planet are eastern Asia, southern Asia, and Europe. Most of these regions with high population densities are in type C climates.

    Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.