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How the world’s population jumped from 3 to 7 billion in my lifetime

Japheth Mati

When on 31 October 2011 the earth’s population clocked seven billion people, this happened to be only 12 years after we had celebrated the sixth billion. So I started to wonder where I was in the complex arithmetic, realising that while it had taken 123 years to change numbers from the first to the second billion, the increase from the fifth to the seven billion people had taken just 24 years. I started thinking how many billions I had in fact ‘seen’, and who in my foggy past might have existed before the clocking of the first billion. This short history is summarised in the accompanying table, which shows that whereas my predecessors counted in the first and second billion, in my short life I have been counted within six consecutive billions- from the second up to the seventh billion; and God willing, I might also spill to the eighth billion. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the earth’s population almost triple.

Table: Population growth from 1 to 7 billions 1804-2011

(Source: The State of World Population 2011)

Around the beginning of the first millennium the world’s population was about 300 million, and it would take more than 1,600 years for the world population to double to 600 million. The rapid growth of the world population is a recent phenomenon, which started around 1950, as a result of significant reductions in mortality thanks to emerging medical technologies. By the years 2000 the world population had reached an estimated 6.1 billion, which was nearly two-and-a-half times, the population in 1950. The highest global population growth rate (2.0 per cent) was recorded in the period1965-1970, in Kenya, reaching the high of 3.8% in 1979.

As Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA states in the Foreword to the SOWP 2011, how we became so many, and how large a number our Earth can sustain may be important questions, “but perhaps not the right ones for our times”. “When we look only at the big number, we risk being overwhelmed and losing sight of new opportunities to make life better for everyone in the future”. Instead, we should be asking what we can do to make our world better, to transform our growing populations into forces for sustainability by empowering and removing barriers to equality between women and men, and in particular, what we can do “to unleash the creativity and potential of the largest youth cohort humanity has ever seen”

I have in a previous post asked Can we make the “youth bulge” a source of strength not a threat? Indeed, this can happen, with better planning and viable economic policies that mobilise the potential of every corner of this nation. Strengthening of institutions and equitable investment of resources can unleash a strong and better-educated workforce with fewer children to support and no elderly parents totally dependent on them. In such a scenario, the “youth bulge”, generated by our recent demographic history and fertility decline through effective fertility regulation measures, could transform to the driving force behind economic prosperity in future decades.


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