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Population development and population growth in comparison

The term overpopulation (also overpopulation ) is understood today to mean the condition in which the number of living beings exceeds the ecological load-bearing capacity of their habitat . In the past, demographic arguments were regularly subject to change. The issue of overpopulation was established at the international level by the first World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927.

This article deals with the often discussed relationship between the size of the human population and the human habitat on earth. The term is also used in the social sciences , where it describes the subject of demography and population geography .


There are different definitions of the term overpopulation in relation to humanity and their habitat on earth.

In a spatial context , we speak of global, regional or local overpopulation.

In a qualitative dimension, there are different views and measurement criteria of how high the load-bearing capacity of certain habitats or the entire earth is for humans, so that different views prevail as to the population densities and sizes above which there is an overpopulation .

A very far-reaching definition of overpopulation sees this situation as given if the population under consideration adopts a sustainable way of life (the concept of “sustainability” was added to the UN conference in Rio in 1992 as part of Agenda 21 ) with the lifestyle they want based on the size of the population the available living space is no longer possible. A very narrow definition sees the existence of an overpopulation only then fulfilled when bottlenecks in the supply of food , water or energy have already occurred and the immediate viability of the population concerned is threatened in part or in whole.


Some scientists see overpopulation as one of the central problems facing humanity. They attribute problems such as poverty , hunger , unemployment or the growth of slums , which occur mainly in developing countries today , to the local “ population explosion ” or to strong population pressure . Environmental problems and the global ecological footprint of mankind - which is already too high in areas such as land consumption , oil consumption , overfishing , deforestation , water consumption or pollutant emissions - are discussed in connection with the growth of the world population .

With regard to individual countries or regions, it is controversial to what extent overpopulation can be spoken of or which criteria are used to measure it (e.g. population density , degree of self-sufficiency , land consumption , environmental damage or quality of life ).

Example forest loss

Deforestation is the global transformation of forest areas into other forms of land use.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations , the loss of forests is caused , among other things, by poverty , so-called land grabbing (international investors clear areas for plantations) and strong population growth in the affected regions. In many poorer African countries, the forest stock has declined sharply in recent decades. The people are mostly farmers in subsistence farming . Due to the strong population growth, it was no longer possible for them to feed their families on the available arable land. This led to clearing . However, the forest protected the land from soil erosion , so that in the long term an even greater loss of arable land is to be feared.

Worldwide, forest loss has a significant impact on people's lives in poor countries, because the forest protects against soil washout, floods and avalanches. It is also often the most important source of heating material. Most of the food is cooked on wood.

Example of water availability

The term water availability, which UNESCO speaks of available freshwater resources , describes the amount of freshwater that is available to a person per year. Depending on the size of this amount, the subordinate terms water scarcity , water shortage and water emergency are defined, right up to the water crisis .

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) designated in 2013 the water shortage as one of the central problems of our time, and warned that in the future more people could be affected.

According to projections by the United Nations, if the population continues to grow, the number of deaths caused by water scarcity will increase sharply. It is also feared that there will be armed conflicts over water.

Water availability in the year 2010 in 2050
sufficient water availability 71% of the world population 55% of the world population
Water scarcity 23% of the world population 22% of the world population
Dangerous lack of water 06% of the world population 23% of the world population


Plastic on overpopulation in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann

In 2016 the world population increased by more than 1.5 million people per week. Despite falling birth rates in most countries of the world, this increase has been almost unchanged for 15 years. On average worldwide, a woman had 2.5 children; 2.1 children would be needed to keep the world population constant, the higher value means that the world population is growing.

The world population grew (as of April 2020) at a rate of around 1.05% per year (compared to 1.08% in 2019, 1.10% in 2018 and 1.12% in 2017). The current average population growth is estimated at 81 million people per year.

The fertility is declining worldwide: In Asia, for example, it has declined from 2.3 children per woman in 2005-2010 to 2.2 children in 2010-2015.

This decline is attributed, among other things, to the population policies of governments, insofar as they aim to reduce the birth rate, as well as to the work of non-governmental organizations that have given women access to sexual education and contraception. However, in many countries women do not have access to family planning.

In Africa, the continent with the highest fertility, a woman currently has 4.7 children (compared to 4.9 children in the period 2005–2010). Europe is the only region with a slight increase in fertility: 1.6 children per woman in 2016, compared to 1.55 children in the period 2005–2010.

Population as of 2020 (source: UN)
year population Annually Growth (%) Annually Growth (total) Average Age Fertility rate People
per km²
2020 7,794,798,739 1.05% 81.330.639 31 2.47 52
2019 7,713,468,100 1.08% 82.377.060 30th 2.51 52
2018 7.631.091.040 1.10% 83.232.115 30th 2.51 51
2017 7,547,858,925 1.12% 83.836.876 30th 2.51 51
2016 7.464.022.049 1.14% 84.224.910 30th 2.51 50
2015 7,379,797,139 1.19% 84.594.707 30th 2.52 50
2010 6,956,823,603 1.24% 82,983,315 28 2.58 47
2005 6,541,907,027 1.26% 79,682,641 27 2.65 44
2000 6,143,493,823 1.35% 79.856.169 26th 2.78 41
1995 5,744,212,979 1.52% 83.396.384 25th 3.01 39
1990 5,327,231,061 1.81% 91.261.864 24 3.44 36
1985 4,870,921,740 1.79% 82,583,645 23 3.59 33
1980 4,458,003,514 1.79% 75,704,582 23 3.86 30th
1975 4,079,480,606 1.97% 75,808,712 22nd 4.47 27
1970 3,700,437,046 2.07% 72.170.690 22nd 4.93 25th
1965 3,339,583,597 1.93% 60,926,770 22nd 5.02 22nd
1960 3,034,949,748 1.82% 52,385,962 23 4.90 20th
1955 2,773,019,936 1.80% 47,317,757 23 4.97 19th

The proclamation of Tehran

In the proclamation of Tehran on May 13, 1968, the International Conference on Human Rights included a passage stating that every couple should be given the fundamental right to freely decide on the number of children and the interval between births. This was confirmed in the action programs of the World Population Conferences of 1974 (Bucharest), 1984 (Mexico City) and 1994 (Cairo). In the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women's Convention), the right to family planning was first made binding in 1979. Whether it will be possible to curb population growth in the poorer developing countries too depends on political decisions. The central point is the implementation of the resolutions of the Cairo World Population Conference of 1994. The key points of this action program include a qualitative and quantitative improvement in reproductive health care , including family planning , and the "empowerment" of women - that is, the strengthening of their legal, economic and social position.

Population policies in different countries

Different countries operate population policies with the aim of reducing the number of births. In many cases, however, this is made more difficult by poverty and the lack of a functioning health system. In developing countries, women in rural areas in particular are often not reached. In many countries, Catholic circles in particular speak out against giving the population access to contraceptive methods. In the case of the Philippines, this has led to poor women having unwanted children that they cannot feed.


In Iran , the Ministry of Health and Medical Education worked with the Muslim clergy. Several fatwas have supported the government's national family planning program. The program offers free supply of all contraceptive methods. In 2004 Iran had one of the highest contraception rates of any Islamic country. In 2011, however, then President Ahmadinejad called for the abolition of family planning. He wanted to increase the population of Iran and believed that this would give his country more power.


The Catholic Church in the Philippines is strongly in favor of natural family planning and against artificial contraception: In 2003, due to strong opposition from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, a law was prevented that would prevent the use of state funds for condoms and others Contraception. It is feared that this will lead to rapid population growth: in 2014 there were around 100 million Filipinos, in 2050 it is expected to be more than 147 million. In 2003, Jose Livioko Atienza, Jr. (better known by his nickname Lito Atienza ), Manila Mayor and Conservative Catholic, ordered government-run hospitals to discourage state-run contraceptives and to promote natural contraception instead, it said. Doctors, nurses and midwives were advised not to inform those seeking advice about artificial contraception methods. Hospitals also stopped distributing contraceptives, although Atienza carefully avoided the word “prohibited” when referring to contraception. This so-called “Decree 003” was not repealed by his successor Alfredo Lim . This makes it very difficult for poor women to decide for themselves how many children they will have because they often do not have the money to buy contraceptives on the free market.


In India , the Minister of Health and Welfare proposed promoting electrification and the distribution of televisions in rural areas in order to discourage people from sexual intercourse and to reduce population growth. The goal of the Indian government is a birth rate of no more than two children per family, which is aimed primarily through education and the distribution of contraceptives. In 2013, North India launched a competition. There you could win cars, washing machines, televisions etc. if you voluntarily allowed yourself to be sterilized.

People's Republic of China

In the People's Republic of China , the most populous country in the world, one-child marriage has been anchored in law by the state since the early 1970s. It was implemented on the one hand with benefits for one-child families and on the other hand with disadvantages for families with more than one child; There were also forced sterilizations and forced abortions, especially in the initial phase . This one-child policy has been able to slow down population growth in China, but it also poses new social problems. Because of the traditional desire to have a male heir , so many girls were selectively aborted that the gender distribution was shifted towards a majority of boys. At the end of October 2015, the Central Committee of the Communist Party officially declared the one-child policy to be over. In future, every couple will be allowed to have two children.


In densely populated African Rwanda , where the birth rate in 2007 was around six children per couple, there are plans for a "three-child policy". In addition, through a strong expansion of the health system and targeted education of the population, child mortality was drastically reduced, life expectancy increased and the average number of children decreased from 6.1 in 2005 to 4.6 (2010).


There is also a family planning program in Indonesia ('Keluarga Berencana'), see Indonesia's family planning program .


Map of states by fertility rate
Change in world population in absolute numbers (gray bars) and relative in percentages (red line) from 1950 to 2010

Different concepts of population policy are used to slow down or stop population growth .

At the global level since 1974 every ten years is World Population Conference of the UN instead be discussed at the basic problems and results worldwide. At regional and local level, various concepts for controlling reproductive behavior have been developed and implemented in different regions, partly as part of development aid . With information campaigns and the provision of contraceptives is to family planning be promoted. In recent times, the role of women is increasingly being striven for, since women tend to have fewer children if they can decide for themselves about sexuality and contraception.

For example, Joel E. Cohen, professor at Rockefeller University , has identified enabling girls to complete their secondary education as it enables them to plan their fertility, ensure the survival of their children and improve family health .

In the 19th century, marriage restrictions were put in place on poor and dependent people in order to reduce population growth. In European countries, emigration - especially to America - was viewed and promoted as a means against overpopulation, in that the authorities partly covered the costs of crossing the poor and / or urged people to leave.

Some countries have tried to relieve very densely populated and / or resource poor areas by relocating to more resource-rich, sparsely populated areas. One example is the Transmigrasi policy in Indonesia , which promotes the relocation of people from the island of Java to other islands with benefits . In Ethiopia , especially in the 1980s, farmers were forcibly relocated from the highlands affected by drought and erosion to more precipitation-rich lowland regions; The Ethiopian government is currently running a voluntary relocation program.


Critical illumination of the historical development of the term

Thomas Malthus

The concept of overpopulation was anchored in the wider public by the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus towards the end of the 18th century. Malthus published his population theory in his book Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 . He assumed that the population would grow exponentially , while food production could only increase linearly through technical progress. Unless population growth is restricted by low birth rates or high mortality, the population trap would inevitably threaten - the population would outgrow the amount of food and poverty and famine would result.

Unlike other thinkers of his time, Malthus did not believe in the problem-solving ability of the market economy . In later editions of his Principles of Population , he advocated abstinence and late marriage in order to get population growth under control, but also advocated investment in education as a tool to lower the birth rate. He rejected contraception and abortion as sins. In the event of insufficient, preventive limitation of the birth rate, the limitation of resources would inevitably reduce the standard of living and increase the death rate. In emigration he saw only a temporary alleviation of the problem.

David Ricardo, born the third of seventeen children and father of eight, criticized Malthus sharply

His contemporary David Ricardo accused Malthus of giving "the rich a very pleasant formula to endure the misfortunes of the poor," a criticism that Karl Marx and others later shared.

By viewing population growth as a threat, Malthus contradicted the mercantilist view of the time ( populationism ), according to which a large population was the basis for prosperity and military strength of a state and therefore desirable. The confrontation with the Malthusian theory shaped the population science thinking in the 19th century.

In the 19th century, Malthus' work was widely understood to mean that the poor had no right to support, since their excessive birth rates were the real cause of poverty and support for them only worsened problems in the long run. These views contributed to more restrictive social policies in Great Britain ( Poor Law of 1834) and other countries. Charles Dickens criticized the concept of overpopulation and the social policy derived from it in A Christmas Carol, among others . The handling of the Great Famine in Ireland 1845–1849 and subsequent famines in British India was also influenced by Malthusian views, which contributed to the reluctance of relief measures.

The scientific examination of the problem of overpopulation initiated by Malthus has continued to this day and has met with approval and rejection in countless papers. In the course of the strong increases in yields due to technological developments from the end of the 19th century and above all in the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, the overpopulation debate became less important due to Wilhelm Fucks ' prognoses , which differentiated and relativized the Malthusian hypothesis. In the 1970s, the subject received a lot of attention again through the study The Limits to Growth, carried out by Donella and Dennis L. Meadows on behalf of the Club of Rome , and by Paul R. Ehrlich ( The Population Bomb and others). It found favor with parts of the environmental protection movement and is now often discussed in relation to climate change .

More criticism

Since the concept of overpopulation, both conceptually and in terms of content, suggests that there are too many people, it is viewed by some as inhuman. Laws from biology would be inadmissibly transferred to the social sphere. It is doubted that the earth's carrying capacity is already exhausted; rather, social, economic and ecological problems are caused by political mistakes and a poor distribution of the overall sufficient resources.

Germaine Greer (2006)

In 1984 Germaine Greer's book Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility was published , which was also to spark heated public controversy. Based on experiences on her travels to the Third World, she criticized the Western attitudes towards the nuclear family: The world is only overpopulated by Western standards. She called for a return to the ideals of family life and modesty instead of limitless consumer rights. She painted a positive image of women as the mother of the extended family and promoted chastity as a possible means of birth control.

The concept has been accused of serving to calm the conscience of the rich in the face of poverty. At the moment, for example, Jean Ziegler , the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food on the left , takes the view that the term only distracts from social inequality and political errors, which are the real causes of world hunger .

The connection between poverty and high numbers of children is also interpreted differently. Criticism of the concept of overpopulation is that it is not a high birth rate that is the cause of poverty. Rather, poverty leads to a high birth rate because it is usually associated with poorer education and less access to contraceptives. Surveys show that many pregnancies are unplanned and that women in developing countries want fewer children than they actually give birth (see also family planning as a human right ). Another reason could be that in poor regions of the world the only way to provide for old age is to have many children. The influence of traditional ways of life also tends to decrease with increasing prosperity - this also contributes to the decrease in the birth rate.

The lifestyle in developed countries has a larger ecological footprint than that in developing countries

In the film Population Boom (2013), the maker Werner Boote took the view that fear of overpopulation was unfounded. The earth has enough food and enough space for the necessary additional cultivation to supply more than 7 billion people. The film takes the view that this “fear” is based on a different fact: there is not enough living space for these people, because the earth's surface is not available to all people equally, but rather a relatively large amount of living space for relatively few people "Owners" claimed and used (for exploitation).

With regard to climate change and other environmental problems, George Monbiot wrote in 2010 that population growth in developing countries was insignificant compared to the consumption and emissions of industrialized countries and international corporations. To see population growth as the main source of environmental problems means "shifting the blame from the rich to the poor". The industrialized countries, whose population is hardly growing any more, have a larger ecological footprint than the developing countries. Some organizations like the Optimum Population Trust believe that these countries are the really overpopulated.

The largest ecological footprint in 2010 was on average for the inhabitants of the United Arab Emirates with 10.68 gha / person, the inhabitants of Qatar with 10.51 gha / person and those of Bahrain with 10.4 gha / person. At 8.00 gha / person, Americans also have a large ecological footprint. The inhabitants of Germany and Switzerland, on the other hand, are in the international midfield with 5.46 and 5.28 gha / person respectively. The residents of Bangladesh had the lowest with 0.62 gha / person, East Timor with 0.44 gha / person and Puerto Rico with 0.04 gha / person. (gha global hectare is a unit that corresponds to the amount of yield of a specified value.)

The decisive factor is not just the number of people, but also their resource consumption per capita. People in developing countries use far fewer resources per capita, but are most affected by the consequences of environmental problems .

Furthermore, in 2010 the pro-life organization Population Research Institute put forward the argument that previous forecasts of overpopulation and the resulting catastrophes had not come true.

In 2018, John Bongaarts and Brian C. O'Neill identified rapid population growth as one of the main drivers of rising emissions. Demanding lower population growth from poor countries in order to curb global warming makes the poor partly responsible for the problems mainly caused by rich countries, but that does not change the fact that population growth in developing countries poses several climate challenges.

See also


  • Louis Krafft: Population Problems . A population theoretical treatise on the concept of overpopulation and underpopulation. Mohr, Tübingen 1917.
  • Hoimar von Ditfurth : So let's plant an apple tree. The time has come (=  Knaur . No. 3852 ). Knaur, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-426-03852-8 (first edition: Hamburg / Zurich 1985, ISBN 3-89136-033-9 ).
  • Paul Harrison: The Third Revolution. Answers to population explosion and environmental destruction (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch . No. 2571 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1996, ISBN 3-518-39071-6 , pp. 25–42 (English: The Third Revolution . Translated by Anette Kayser, first edition: Heidelberg 1994, ISBN 3-7171-0922-7 ).
  • Andrey Korotayev , Artemy Malkov, Daria Khaltourina: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics . Compact Macromodels of the World System Growth. URSS, Moscow 2006, ISBN 5-484-00414-4 (English, urss.ru ).
  • Susanne Heim, Ulrike Schatz: Calculation and evocation. Overpopulation . Criticism of a debate. Verlag der Buchladen Schwarze Risse / Rote Straße, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-924737-33-9 .
  • Wolfgang Kuls, Franz-Josef Kemper : Population geography. An introduction (=  Teubner study books. Geography ). Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-519-23417-3 .
  • Roland Rösler: The number of people. Or: the destroyed Sodom is your land: (Isa 1,7) . Christiana, Stein am Rhein 1989, ISBN 3-7171-0922-7 .
  • Peter Sager: How on with humanity. Empirical-sociological reflections on the problems of the present from a demographic and historical perspective . By Hase & Koehler, Mainz 2002, ISBN 3-7758-1400-0 .
  • Alan Weisman, countdown. Little Brown, 2013, (German edition: Countdown. Does the earth have a future? Piper, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-492-05431-7 ). Continuation of The World Without Us.
  • Bettina Rainer: The Discourse of Overpopulation - On Metaphorics and Function of a Global Catastrophe that is in Prospect. Berlin 2003, dissertation, Free University of Berlin, ( diss.fu-berlin.de ).
  • Sabine Höhler: The science of "overpopulation". Paul Ehrlich's “population bomb” as a beacon for the 1970s In: Zeithistorische Forschungen / Studies in Contemporary History. 3, 2006, pp 460-464 ( zeithistorische-forschungen.de ).

Web links

Wiktionary: Overpopulation  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


Individual evidence

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