Human population growth, with Professor John Cleland CBE

Out of control or an end in sight? One of the greatest problems facing our world: the staggering growth in human population, with the Professor of Demography at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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It took many thousands of years for human population to reach the 1 billion mark in 1820. The population of the planet now stands at 7.3 billion and, barring a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude, is destined to reach around 9.7 billion by mid-century. What happens thereafter depends largely on the success of efforts to promote birth control in the remaining high fertility countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Cleland will outline the advent of birth control in Europe and North America & look at government efforts, both coercive and voluntary, to reduce birth rates in the huge populations of Asia. Most African governments have been reluctant to promote contraception but the political mood is now shifting: Ethiopia, Rwanda and Malawi, for instance, have started serious and successful family planning programmes.

We now live in a demographically diverse world. In much of Europe and the Far East, the average couple has fewer than 2 children which, in the absence of migration, spells long run population decline. Between now and 2050, the population of Russia will probably fall by 10%, Japan’s by 15% and some Eastern European countries by over 20%. By contrast, the typical couple in sub-Saharan Africa has 5 children and the region’s population will more than double in the next 35 years.

The consequences of continued population growth will fall most heavily on Africa but there are also global implications, notably the need for increased food production and consequent loss of natural habitats and bio-diversity. Food production has outstripped population growth for the past 100 years but this trend is threatened by climate change, depletion of fresh water stocks and by the shift in diets from grain and vegetables to meat.

With appropriate policies and priorities, the end of the population explosion could come in the second half of this century. However, the even more intractable problem of excessive consumption remains. The sooner an end to the era of rapid population growth can be achieved, the brighter will be our future as a species.

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John Cleland

John was appointed professor of demography at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in 1992. He retired in 2010 but is still teaching, researching and writing. He works mainly on child mortality, fertility and family planning in Asia and Africa.

He is currently analysing the implications of population change for economic and social welfare in Ethiopia and trying to understand why Ghanaian couples appear to prefer less effective methods such as rhythm and withdrawal to highly effective methods.

He is a past president of the international association of demographers, an elected fellow of the British Academy and a consultant to the World Health Organisation, the Wellcome Trust and many similar bodies.

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2015Martin Keeley