This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thank You for Being Late" by Thomas L. Friedman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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How fast is the world’s population growing? Which countries are contributing the most? What are the main challenges of global population growth?
The United Nations predicts that in 2050, the earth’s population will be 9.7 billion. Most of this growth will come from nine countries, including India, Nigeria, and the United States. Many of these countries are already contending with poverty, resource limitation, environmental destruction, or political conflict. Adding more people to the mix will multiply these issues.
In this article, we’ll discuss the effects and implications of global population growth and take a look at some solutions.
The Consequences of Population Growth
Global population growth has a huge effect on Mother Nature—the more people there are on the planet, the more resources they’ll need to survive, placing further stress on the environment.
In earlier times, many people had lots of children but there was also a high mortality rate. Now, in general, the human mortality rate is decreasing and people are having fewer children. However, in certain parts of the world, the mortality rate is decreasing but people are having the same number of children. Most of the estimated population growth will take place in nine countries, including India, Nigeria, and the US. These nine countries either already have a large population or have high fertility rates. Countries with high fertility tend to also have high levels of child marriage, gender inequality, and opposition to birth control.
Population and Globalization
Population explosion makes it difficult to keep up with globalization—education and new jobs can only be developed so quickly. Because globalization accelerates exponentially, a country can fall far behind even in a short period of time. Previous methods for catching up—for example, exports—are no longer as viable in an automated, digital world. Additionally, countries that were able to catch up in the past, such as East Asian countries in the 20th century, had smaller populations.
Falling behind on global flows can have two consequences:
- Mass unemployment, which can lead to political instability and migration.
- For example, Mati Almaniq of Niger left his family and his village to search for work in Europe or Libya. He couldn’t find a job, ran out of money, and is stuck in a desert town of Niger.
- Return to agriculture, because there are no other jobs. Agriculture exacerbates population growth (children are free labor) and is vulnerable to climate change.
Class and Resource Use
Not every person on the planet uses the same amount of resources, and the middle and upper classes use the most—they can afford to buy cars, install air conditioning, and so on. Tom Burke, chairman of Third Generation Environmentalism, divides people into four groups:
- 1 billion people are middle class or above and live in cities. They have assets and secure incomes.
- 1.5 billion people are transitioning to the middle class. They have secure incomes, often in the public sector, and some assets, but their jobs may be in danger of disappearing due to globalization and technology. They more recently moved to the cities, within the last 15 years.
- 2 billion people have insecure incomes and few assets. They just arrived in cities.
- 2.5 billion people aren’t part of the global economy. They live rurally and work in agriculture.
The 1.5 and 2 groups who live in the city can see the inequality between what others have and what their groups have. They have the potential to disrupt the middle class, pursue political instability, and create social unrest. For example, many of the people in the Arab Spring Awakening were members of these two groups.
For future stability and growth, it’s important that the 1.5 and 2 groups acquire secure incomes.
Solutions to Population Growth
According to Adair Turner, the chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, extreme measures such as China’s one-child policy aren’t necessary to control the population growth. What is necessary is:
- Easy access to contraception.
- Educating women. (Shortform note: Educated women have fewer children.)
- Women having control over their reproductive choices. Religious institutions and politicians shouldn’t put pressure on women to have lots of children.
- Introducing modern gender norms would go a long way because decreasing gender inequality and reducing child marriage would result in lower fertility.
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- The problems that arise when the world changes faster than humanity can adapt
- How to adapt to technology, globalization, and climate change
- The importance of taking time to reflect and reorient