Population affects many aspects of world politics. For instance, the fact that China and India have more than a billion people strengthens their standing in the world. However, having too many people also degrades the environment, requires more food, shelter, schools and jobs, and causes other problems. There are complex connections between population, birth control, economic development and the empowerment of women.
In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus wrote that population growth is exponential (i.e., children grow up and have children of their own), while food production only grows arithmetically. Therefore, he predicted that famines would occur. However, food production rose faster than expected, and world population continued to grow.
In his 1969 The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich also made predictions of dire results from overpopulation. However, by this time new factors had emerged. One was improved birth control. Also, as societies developed and became more prosperous, women became more educated, entered the workplace more and had fewer children. This is what is called the demographic transition. What has happened since? The picture varies.
First, the earlier worrisome prediction of 12 billion total world population by 2050 is not going to happen - it will peak at around 9.7 billion from the current 6 billion. This is still a serious increase that will be a challenge. Meanwhile, there are different situations in various countries.
1) In Europe, Japan and Russia, there will be a population decrease. About 1.4 children are being born per family, far below the needed 2.1 replacement rate. Partly, women are refusing to accept their traditional role, not marrying, marrying later and avoiding the education and other costs of having many children. Even in countries where many women work outside the home, they are still expected to do most of the housework and childrearing, and there are problems of the expense and lack of child care.
Decreasing population is already leading to problems of labor shortages and paying for pensions and senior health care in Japan, where the population is dropping by 500,000 per year. Japan is taking small steps toward bringing more women into the workplace and increasing child care, hiring more seniors and allowing the entry of foreign workers. In Northern Europe, there is more a of child support system, e.g. day care, parental leave, child support bonuses and respite services. As a result, overall birth rates are close to replacement. However, it is mostly the immigrant population that is growing, leaving some to predict a future ‘Eurabia.’ In Southern Europe, the population is dropping.
In Russia, a combination of poverty, male alcoholism, lack of contraceptives leading to multiple abortions and 20% of couples being infertile, and the spread of AIDS and Multiple-Drug Resistant TB has led to a decrease in average lifespan, an annual population drop of 750,000 and an imminent population crash in the next decades. What is going to happen when China looks across the border and sees all that empty space? China has already bought or leased large tracts of agricultural land in Russia, and in the Russian Far East, there are now 8 million Russians and 8 million Chinese.
2) To prevent a population explosion, in 1979 China enacted a mandatory policy of one child per family. Two generations of sometimes-harsh enforcement (some women were forced to have abortions in their eighth month!) cut population growth considerably. However, the current cohort of only children of only children will have problems supporting two parents and four grandparents in retirement. Since the policy changed in 2015, despite government efforts to encourage women to stay home and have two babies (without support services), there is still a low birth rate (1.6 per woman) and there will be a population decrease starting in 2027. There is already a shortage of workers, leading to higher wages.
Another problem is that the preference for boys has led to abortions of female fetuses, resulting in an excess of 30 million men and a shortage of women. Urban women won’t even date men who do not have an apartment and car. We now see large matchmaking fees, the kidnapping and sale of girls from poor countries like Myanmar and Pakistan, and expensive brokered marriages with women from Vietnam who run away a few months after the ceremony.
In India, education and strong birth control programs have diminished population growth in the South, but numbers are still growing quickly in the North. All this relates very much to the education of women. As we said, women with education are more prosperous, more often have jobs and have fewer kids (because of birth control, the need for child care and high education costs). On the other hand, poor, uneducated women are forced by their families to have sons to guarantee later economic support for seniors. Selective abortion of daughters in favor of having sons has led to such a shortage of women that today caste and other traditional requirements for marriage are sometimes ignored.
Historically, having large numbers of unmarried men has led to increased social conflict – crime, political unrest, war, etc. We will see. Perhaps the girl shortage will lead to an improvement of the status of women. More families now educate their girls and expect more from prospective marriage partners. To repeat, one of the best ways for a country to develop its economy is to educate and empower its women, and educated middle class women tend to have fewer kids.
3) In counties like Nigeria and Pakistan, population growth essentially continues unchecked, doubling every 35 years. Such rapid growth strains resources. For instance, one of the reasons for more conflicts and migration in Africa is that increased population means there is not enough land for people to survive. Nigeria and other countries have seen violence between farmers and herders. In addition, having half the population under 30 creates huge demand for education and jobs. In Pakistan, there are not enough schools, so many boys attend free Islamic madrassas where they memorize the Koran instead of studying math and science.
4) Despite millions of deaths from the AIDS epidemic (10 million AIDS orphans are being raised by their grandmothers), Sub-Saharan Africa will have large population increases. Because of lack of access to education and birth control, the population will grow from 1 billion today to 2 billion by 2050 and 4 billion by 2100. Prosperous Europe with its declining population is a short but dangerous ride across the Mediterranean Sea. Europe thinks it has immigration problems now - just wait!
5) The United States has been in a good middle position regarding population growth. Although most American women are educated and middle class and have fewer children, between increased immigration and natural increase in the Latino and immigrant population, it was poised to grow moderately from the current 327 million to 400 million by 2050. However, recently it has dropped below the replacement rate to 1.75 per woman and seen a population decline in the 25-55 age group due to alcohol, drugs, obesity and suicide.
So, the picture is very mixed, depending on local circumstances.