Seven Ways Seven Billion People Affect the Environment and Security (Policy Brief)
The Wilson Center Policy Briefs are a series of short analyses of critical global issues facing the next administration that will run until inauguration day.
Seven billion people now live on Earth, only a dozen years after the global population hit six billion. But this milestone is not about sheer numbers. Demographic trends will significantly affect the planet’s resources and people’s security.
Growing populations put stress on dwindling natural resources while high levels of consumption in both developed and emerging economies drive up carbon emissions and deplete the planet’s resources. Slow-burning climatic changes and extreme weather threaten both agricultural productivity in rural areas and extensive infrastructure in ever-denser population centers. Meanwhile, neglected “youth bulges” – large groups of young people with too few employment opportunities – have bolstered extremism in fragile states such as Somalia and destabilized nascent democracies such as Egypt.
For the seven critical challenges, the impacts of population growth cut across traditional sectors. These linked issues require holistic solutions that combine diverse approaches, including women’s empowerment, natural resource management, renewable energy, resilient governance, and family planning programs.
At the end of the 20th century, nearly 90 percent of countries with very young and youthful populations had undemocratic governments. Eighty percent of all new civil conflicts between 1970 and 2007 occurred in countries where at least 60 percent of the population was below age 30.
According to research by Wilson Center adviser Richard Cincotta, these very youthful countries may achieve democracy, but they are less likely to sustain it. He found that, historically, when the proportion of youth dropped to about 40 percent of the total working-age population, states had a 50 percent probability – an even chance – of being stable liberal democracies.
A few years ago, Cincotta predicted that the population age structure in states along the northern rim of Africa – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – would each reach that 50 percent point between 2010 and 2020. The Arab Spring could be the first step toward validating his prediction, but whether Tunisia or Egypt can reach and maintain stable liberal democracies remains to be seen. “Today we have the largest generation of young people in history, with more than half the world’s population under 30,” said Wilson Center adviser Elizabeth Leahy Madsen. “The opportunities that are available or not available to these young people will determine their country’s futures.”