Why the World's Exploding Population Isn't as Bad as it Seems

Geographer Joel Kotkin says the bigger problem is low birth rates in developed countries

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Flickr/Abhisek Sarda

The world population hit seven billion yesterday. But Joel Kotkin says those obsessed with this number are missing the point.

Kotkin, a geographer (he edits the site New Geography) and professor at Chapman University in California, argues that we should worry about rapid aging as much as overpopulation. In many developed countries, particularly East Asia and Europe, the average family has fewer than two children. As a result, countries will have smaller work forces and fewer people to care for the elderly.

"It's catastrophic," he says. "Innovation and inspiration really can only come from young people."

Kotkin has spent a lot of time researching the causes of "birth death" in places like Singapore. There, he says, women are choosing to have fewer children in part because they have more opportunities than they did a generation ago. As a result, more women are working and choosing to delay marriage.

But other times, couples say they cannot afford housing to raise children, or are working such long hours that they don't have the time to start a family. "I’m really trying to understand this. I don’t make a moral argument, but I do think it’s something sad," he says. "We may be vastly underestimating how slow this population growth may turn out to be."

The key to puzzling out the pace of population growth, he says, is Africa. Kotkin says that countries like Brazil, Iran and Turkey lowered their birth rates quicker than anyone expected. Now, he's watching Africa to see if it'll do the same.

Another place where the population continues to grow is, surprisingly, America. The population of the U.S. is still growing, thanks in part to immigration, and may well hit 400 million by 2050. To support that population growth, Kotkin believes the country will see about 100 new towns spring up over the next 40 years, modeled after planned communities like Irvine or Reston. He also imagines that the country will use the space we have in new ways. One example: the school buildings in Clovis, California, function as a set of community centers at night. Many redundant malls and abandoned big box stores—for example book and video stores—could also be re-purposed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Abhisek Sarda.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.