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What stops population growth?

About this Video

Hans Rosling is once again debunking myths. Watch this high-definition video to find out what population growth really is.

Hint: Press the icon in the right bottom corner of the video window to see the video in fullscreen.

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55 thoughts on “What stops population growth?

  1. >”The only way to stop population growth is to have small families.”

    As much as I admire Hans and Gapminder, the use of the absolute “only” seems to make the video’s conclusion false.

    At about 4:50 we watch the developing countries get smaller and move to the upper left corner of the graph. Meanwhile most of the undeveloped countries also begin moving left and up. Hans mentions people living longer and vaccines, pennicillin, eating better. At the end of the sequence most of the world’s population is now grouped in the upper left corner with long life expectancy, below the 2 children (replacement level) line, and now losing population.

    While more than 2 births did contribute to the expansion from 3 to 6 billion, equally obvious was the impact that healthcare had on life expectancy by preventing the previous deaths of billions of people. Again, Hans mentions improved healthcare, but focuses on family size.

    In the final scene we see Sweden, Chile and Tanzania compared. While the focus is on the population of Chile and Tanzania increasing, the graph clearly depicts their life expectancy increasing with the population. At the end of the sequence, Sweden and now Chile are to the left of replacement level and are now losing population.

    The direct relationship between increasing life expectancy and population shows that ther is at least one other way to stop population growth and that is to reduce life expectancy (poor health care).

    The other thing to note in the clip is at the beginning. When the population goes from 3 to 6 billion, that’s a 100% increase, byt going from 6 to 9 billion is only a 50% increase. Another way to say that is that population growth will slow by 50%. The UN data used for the video also predicts that the world population by 2100 will be about where we are today or less with no further changes in family size or life expectancy needed.

    Bottom line: Hans is brilliant, Gapminder is sensational, but there is at least a second way to reduce world population, so family size is not the only way.

    1. Wah, from your reply, I must say, you have really sharp mind. I agree with you by the connections between the conclusion and some of the data shown…

  2. this is a great video!

    although poor health care does decrease life expectancy it doesnt stop population growth. all of the countries with poor healthcare just have more children per family so the population still continues to grow despite low life expectancy. hans is right, smaller families with good healthcare is the only way. i dont understand why you went to such great lengths to make a mute point. also, as far as 2100, the UN data is based on theory. the farther into the future data and statistics are applied the less likely it will actually be accurate. Hans is working with data we already have and finding the best way to PERSONALIZE plans for each individual region/country/ethnic groups.

  3. The population expanding is a huge problem, we need to stop this from happening . Trust me, Overpopulation will not be pretty.

    1. I must agree with you again. I think the most important way to help poor countries to reduce the population increase is to help them reduce birthrate… lots of women do not want to give birth to so many babies, but they do not know how to stop it….

      I always believe that if human beings really want the world to be peaceful, they can make it… but the fact is lots of people are profit-driven.

  4. While the punch line to the video is that the only way to stop population growth is to have small families, that isn’t really the main point that is made. Hans Rohsling implies that the only way to get small families is to improve health care and longevity. While I don’t doubt the morality of that argument, the data only show a correlation, not causality. In fact, South Africa, which has been devastated by AIDS continues to have small families.

    There are other plausible drivers of small families; family planning being one of them. A recent study in Kenya found that only 38% of the population had access to contraceptives, but at least another 21% wanted access. Hans mentions family planning in several of his videos, but often seems to use it simply to say that people have fewer children, rather than show that there was some planned effort to have less children. Urbanization is another one. It is often argued that when people move to towns they have less children. Both of these factors are confounded with better health care, but that does not seem to be sufficient reason for the fatalism that Hans presents in this video. There is good reason to believe that there is also an inverse logic at play, i.e. health improves as people have less children, because it is easier to care for fewer children (this applies both to individual families and to the state).

    Contrary to what Hans states, there is in fact also evidence to support the notion that keeping children alive sustains poverty and population growth, and by extrapolation probably degrades the environment. One such study can be found at:

    I don’t advocate leaving children to die, but nor do I support the idea of leaving the problem to sort itself out. I advocate for an active role for family planning to improve health and incomes more rapidly than is currently happening in sub-Saharan Africa.

  5. This is a very complex problem, but Hans points to the essential. Children must live if there are to be smaller families, and we must have smaller families. The correlation of population increasing dramatically during civil wars can also be seen with a population spike during the Bangladesh famine even though life expectancy went down.

    The best way to make two children families attractive is to increase world wealth, increase world education, increase world energy. Out of those factors you gain increased health care and life expectancies, those three are not just dependencies, they are interdpendencies.

  6. Is this video closed-captioned? At the beginning of video, I saw the familiar CC logo on bottom right area of the video, when I pressed it the CC logo, nothing turns up. I’m profoundly deaf and I cannot hear or understand Hans’ talking. Also, wanted to know how long the video last? Thanks.

  7. The one outstanding example that he didn’t say much about was Yemen, where they have a fairly long life expectancy but are still cranking out 6 or 7 children per woman. He said this was anomalous because the women there didn’t have rights, etc. etc. With the current wave of fundamentalist religious fanaticism sweeping through the world one wonders whether the population will stabilize anytime soon. Of course the only way to keep a handle on population growth is to have small families, but didn’t specify what conditions are required to enable this. Clearly the conditions are: 1) Reduced child mortality, and 2) Education and equal rights for women. The second part is crucial; if women are not allowed to hold any interests beyond making babies then decreasing mortality is a disaster.

  8. Population growth and poverty
    Improving economic well-being of the populace is the best way to contain population growth. That is where I would put my money, not in family planning programs. If Hans’ work proves anything, it is the correlation between access to wealth creating opportunities and family size. Most developed countries do not have large families. Even in the poor countries, the educated and wealthier have smaller familes. You do not need to teach them family planning, they know it by good education and access to wealth creation means. That is our best bet!

  9. I don’t understand…

    How the bubble of China or India stays the same size while moving toward smaller number of children per family?

  10. An excellent talk by hans but my concern is this, the
    Millenium Ecosystem assessment indicates that: “Humans are consuming resources at a faster than replacement rate” i.e. we are already overpopulated. (The MEA consists of 4 volumes of technical scientific peer reviewed papers compiled by 1,300 scientists and no scientist has come forward to dispute the findings or produced a paper that disagrees with it as far as i can see)
    If this statement is still true in 2050 :”Humans are consuming resources at a faster than replacement rate” then I have no doubt we will all be in serious trouble from a lack of resources. Any method that encourages people to have less children must exceed the growth in consumption per capita or we will remain overpopulated. Even a small population can exceed its carrying capacity if its consumption rate per capita is very high or if it increases. I have a question for hans…. If the population falls to a stable level, does he think the increased consumption per capita (thats seems to go with a stable population) continue to cause severe environmental damage despite the population being stable?

  11. I guess better healthcare must be paid for, so economic growth is necessary in order to reduce “birthrs/woman” and increase “life expectancy”. This means resource ectraction and pollution will increase mora rapidly than population during the years to come. Since population growth to abour 9 billion can not be avoided (without massive deads), the question seems to be if the planet can support the necessary wealth of so many people in order to transfom their lifestile to a non-growth net regeneration rate – in the long run.

  12. I found this presentation useful and provacative, but in some respects quite vague. It starts by using what to my mind is a completely implausible straw-person argument arguement, that we must allow children to die to stablize population growth and save the environment. This myth, in my view, is not that prevalent. I support the above comments made by Mikkel on February 27th, 2009; bruce on March 30th, 2009. I would also like to point out that family planning programs do not just happen spontaneously, they are the result of tireless advocacy for women’s right to control their fertility. Yes, fertility will decline in the absence of strong family planning programs, but not as rapidly as when good quality family planning services are available in the context of high quality child survival programs. We (all of us, both in the first and third-world) need to promote child survival and access to family planning with the same level of support to maximize the trend toward zero population growth. The opportunity cost of failing to reduce population growth as rapidly as possible is huge. This presentation treats the projected doubling of population within a poor African country by 2048 as something that should be accepted as a neutral phenomenon about which nothing can or should be done. I disagree. Gapminder is clearly a very useful tool, but please try to define your myths more plausibly.

  13. Great Presentation.

    However, I think it is a bit limited to not also throw resource limitations into the mix.

    It is a fair observation to claim that if all nations followed the same roadmap to high life expectancy and low children per woman that population levels would level.

    However without the associated correlation to resource limitations what are we actually talking about?

    Not much I’m afraid.

  14. As we have no way of knowing the future, it seems just a tad optimistic to tell people to have small families to bring population growth under control. We hear from some researchers that male and female fertility is at an all time low, and that in the future only 3 in ten couples will be able to have children without medical intervention.

  15. The China and India remained mostly the same because while less children are born per family, the life expectancy increased. So less babies but they lived longer.

  16. A number of commenters here have suggested that mortality plays just as big a role in determining population growth as does fertility. This used to be so, but is no longer the case. Longer life expectancy certainly did have a large role to play in population growth in the early part of the demographic transition, but only because of its direct impact on births – increases in life expectancy were the result of fewer deaths at young ages, leading to more women surviving to fertile ages, thus more births. Nowadays, any increases in life expectancy are generally the result of improvements in the care and prevention of chronic diseases, which largely affect people of older ages, long after ages of fertility.

    To put it another way, extending a person’s life-time from (say) 75 to 80 years only adds another five person-years to contribute to the total population pool. An extra birth adds (on average) another 75 to 80 years. In other words, the closing statement is correct, but not adequately explained.

  17. The information I have from all mass media easily available is that in China you are not allowed to have more than 1 child per family!!! (and I supposed this is enforced)

    Question: why China in the graph is in the 6 or 7 children per woman position?

  18. I think one major problem overlooked here is that as societies become more affluent and population growth slows along with this, the amount of resources needed to support a person, per capita, grows substantially. This is because of not only increased energy use by the individuals (we buy more things and drive more), but more importantly because of changes in their diet. Westerners eat a lot of energy intensive food. We also eat a lot of meat. Meat requires 5 to 10 times more land to produce than an equivalent amount of plants.

    With a large portion of the world’s population eating meat as only a luxury item right now, instead subsiding on plant products, if they were to raise their standard of living so that they have the purchasing power to be able to eat meat regularly, then we are going to need a lot more farmland. Where is that going to come from? Mow down the rest of the Amazon?

    It is questionable whether the Earth can even sustain humanity in its current form (the oceans are being severely overfished, diminishing every year, and if ocean levels rise due to global warming then billions will be displaced and have to move elsewhere), and that’s with 6 billion people poor using 2 hectares per person and 1 billion rich people using 5 hectares per person. Now if we were to bring everyone up to our standard of living and using 5 hectares per person, that’s going to require what, like twice as much ecological productivity? And if population grows to 9 billion then that’s three times as much.

    And we can’t count on another Green Revolution to save us because as a result of the Law of Diminishing Returns we won’t get much more significant improvement in agricultural productivity. In addition, the industrial agriculture enabling the Green Revolution is energy and water intensive and we are running out of fresh water, not getting more.

    So to conclude, I question whether it’s even possible, ecologically, to support that many people living that lifestyle required in order for them to have stable populations.

  19. Good point by Null on 6 June. Note that Gapminder videos on Carbon Emissions and Oil Usage dramatically illustrate the difference between a “rich” person’s impact on the earth and a poor person’s.

    I like to think of the earth as a giant hotel with a finite number of rooms. Each rich person takes up roughly five or six rooms, and every poor person takes up one. My point is not that we should all forsake our iPods and Minivans, but that population growth is not the only problem here. It is population growth plus growth in the standard of living. One billion Indians driving cars and living like Americans has FAR more impact on the planet’s ability to sustain life than simply doubling the number of Indians at their current standard of living.

    I’m also not suggesting that the developing world should ban the purchase of cars or embrace poverty. Rather, I think scientists should try to approximate the number of wealthy / high standard of living people that this planet can support. Fewer people with a higher standard of living sounds preferable to more people with a lower standard of living. If we continue along our current path, I have some concern that more and more people are going to be fighting – literally – over a limited number of rooms.

    My perception is that most people are either focused on “limiting population growth” (eg China’s one child policy) OR on “limiting environmental impact” by recycling and riding bicycles and such. I haven’t heard many people advocate doing both, and I don’t believe that either approach has any possibility of working without the other.

  20. Now this is why I’m taking Human Geography at university! This is incredibly interesting – as always. All I can hope is that I, one day, can help bring these solutions.

    I think that the best way to lower population growth is to improve healthcare and empower women (through education and rights etc). Empowering women will increase the economy and per capita income because the work force will increase (not double because change is not instant – along with other factors) and so will entrepeurship. These ideas, I believe, are the core to the solution of putting the break on population growth.

    Perhaps in the future we will find that population change will be more to do with migration as people migrate between countries for their own reasons but in effect helping each individual country reach optimum population; both economically and environmentally.

  21. There seems to be an assumption here that population growth is bad based on another assumption that the world will not be able to sustain life. So the question is who chooses who lives and who dies? Does might make right? 50 million and counting abortions because of selfishness does that make sense? Do we need to have a “war of the worlds” in order to pull together as a human race to find solutions that will “respect all life”? What is the impact of War and Acts of God have on the population of the world – should that be addressed also? One atom bomb put into the hands of “might makes right” worldview mentality would really cut down on world population in a hurry. Therefore over population does not seem to be the real issue or problem that underlies this discussion. It seems to me that selfishness needs to be addressed. Several have pointed out the more selfish we are the more we destroy instead of respecting life and the world we live in. Therefore until the selfishness issue is addressed we won’t need to worry about over population we will self-destruct and become extinct as the dinosaur.

  22. Professor, you are not persuasive at all when you tackle us students’ thought of ‘poor children should as well die because if they survive they create emissions’ with your critique that it’s wrong, it’s not moral. And your further argument couldn’t back it. We are sick and tired of ‘moral talk.’ Even if those poor children now don’t die (because they ‘must not’) and grow old and see generation change, they won’t grow smart enough to understand your resolution of small families.

  23. IPAC (re: your comments on 18 July),

    Selfishness is certainly a bad thing, and selfishness/greed has been the source of much of the world’s suffering over time. There is one issue, however, that may not be resolved even if we all become selfless, loving humans who hold hands and sing all day. That unavoidable issue is this: When any population grows faster than the resources it consumes – within a finite space – the resources get used up.

    This is as true of humans on a planet as it is of bacteria in a Petri dish. This tragedy of the commons will be resolved in one of three ways:

    1) We go extinct.
    2) We fight over scarce resources so that only the “strongest” survive.
    3) We pull together and manage population growth in a peaceful way.

    If we match the rate of human reproduction and consumption to the rate at which our resources can be replenished, then we can all live comfortable, happy lives. Otherwise we go down in history as the one species that had the intelligence to foresee its own demise, but lacked the wisdom and the spirit of cooperation required to do anything about it.

  24. brilliant videos
    really accessible to the masses, very clever and easily understandable
    a great way to showcase statistics and make relevant, informed, insightful and interesting points about the modern world.

    many thanks

  25. thanks for this presentation. It really helps understanding better the demographic problems we`re dealing with at geography lessons 🙂

  26. What utter nonesense! There is not a single specie on this planet that would strive if it had the chance! If you have ants in the backyard, and want to know how well they are doing, the easiest way is to monitor their population. If an alien comes to this earth and finds that the so called “developed” countries are having a depopulation (yes, a population decrease! Why do you think they have immigration!), while the so called “developing” countries are still increasing their numbers, whom do you think he will conclude is striving?!

    Population control is a measure to control the populace. They do it by raising prices, controling capital, and giving the ‘means’ for the individual to save himself by not having children. In plain english, why do you not have as many children? I will remind you, Life is expensive, divorce rates are high, etc.. But going back to the first point, “life is expensive”. Go search the about the gap between the rich and the poor in the so called “developed” countries and compare them to the so called “developing” countries. In the “developed” country you are squeezed to a corner, and given one way out, the way they want you out, contraceptives.

    There is not a single specie on this planet that would not strive if it had the chance! Not one.

    1. That’s right, Jim, an alien arriving on Earth would look at the high rates of infant mortality, infectious disease, poverty and population growth in Africa and immediately conclude that they’re “striving” better than countries of Europe and North America with their high survival rates, good health, economic prosperity and stable populations.

      Give me strength.

  27. I would very much like to see a graph depicting environmental impact as a function of life expectancy. Right now, his argument looks like a red herring from an environmental perspective.

  28. the conclusion of the video is “The only way to stop population growth is to have small families.” but how do you get to have small families ? usually the answer is ” if you improve education level, you will decrease families sizes” but the data from this website shows the opposite : as times goes on, education level increases but population instead of declining keeps rising as education level increases. am i missing something ?

  29. The presentation was great right up until the end. Then this statement was suddenly presented, without any evidence to back it up: “The only way to stop population growth is to have small families.” I disagree. While that is one way to stop population growth, here is another obvious way: Every woman has 7 children; only 2 of them live long enough to have children of their own. Again there is no population growth, but there are large families.

  30. Lots of great researchers simplify problems and/or publish controversial presentations to attract public attentions and inspire discussions… No matter Hans meant it or not, I think he did a great job.

  31. Cool video with lots of good stuff to think about but his conclusion is not true. Having small families certainly helps but the population of any species is a function of food supply. Humans are no different. If we increase food production, then we increase human population. Our culture has increased food production every year for the past 10,000 years. Therefore, for the past 10,000 years our population has increased. Daniel Quinn describes our current population problem as a Food Race. Every year we increase our food supply to feed an increasing population. But that increase in food supply is met by an increase in population (due to the ABCs of ecology). Which in turn is met by an increase in food production (due to a cultural choice). Which is met by an increase in population (due to the ABC’s of ecology). And on and on and on every year for the past 10,000 years. Any biologist/ecologist will tell you that if a population has increased access to food, then that population will increase. Our current problem is that, as a culture, we think that humans are somehow exempt from the ABCs of ecology. Once we realize culturally that humans are no different from any other species, we will realize the catastrophe that we are bringing upon ourselves and then we can have serious discussions about population growth. Family size will certainly be a big part of those discussions but not as big as food production.

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