Fact or Fiction?: Living People Outnumber the Dead

The human population has swelled so much that people alive today outnumber all those who have ever lived, says a factoid whose roots stretch back to the 1970s. Some versions of this widely circulating rumor claim that 75 percent of all people ever born are currently alive. Yet, despite a quadrupling of the population in the past century, the number of people alive today is still dwarfed by the number of people who have ever lived. —Ciara CurtinFact or Fiction?: Living People Outnumber the Dead (Scientific American)

The dire predictions of Malthus and The Population Bomb have deeply woven themselves into the fabric of a paranoid culture, particularly in big cities where people are all around you all the time. But legitimate and understandable concerns about ecology and global infrastructure shouldn’t trump what the most recent scientific studies show, which is that there isn’t really a population explosion — at least, not the kind of explosion Malthus and Erlich have warned about.

If better health means that people are living twice as long in some developing nations, then very quickly you’re going to see a doubling of the population. But people have most of their children before they are 40, so just because someone lives to age 80 does not mean that person will have twice as many children. Of course, the improvement in infant survival rates does mean that more babies will grow up to have their own babies, but the birth rate in industrialized nations is dropping even as the survival rate in developing nations is rising.

Journalists who swallow and regurgitate the statistics and dire predictions found in activist recruitment brochures or recited at rallies — no matter what the cause — are doing a disservice to their audience.

This is a favorite topic of mine.