The explosion in the world’s population appears to be slowing down. Fifty years ago, an average woman had between five and six children. The global average now is just 2.6. In a mere two generations, therefore, the reproduction rate has sunk to slightly above the replacement level, which is currently 2.3. In half the world, people are having fewer children than needed to maintain the species. This includes countries like the United States, China, and Indonesia. In the European Union, Japan, and Russia, the population is shrinking for the first time in human history for reasons other than war, disease, or other calamities. It is a matter instead of free will, with women’s education and rising prosperity helping produce a remarkable slowdown. Worldwide, the number of births is no longer increasing, which gives reason for optimism. The human race is incredibly flexible when it comes to procreation. Only in certain strongholds of Islam and Christianity— along with much of Africa—are birth rates still well above replacement level. The overall world population continues to grow, however, because lots of countries have relatively young demographic profiles. Life expectancy is rising in many places, too. Our species is currently growing by 75 million a year, which means we’ll need more food, water, and housing in the future. The real problem, however, is that wealth has been growing at a much faster rate than the population. Many nations are undergoing rapid economic development, which is in turn changing patterns of consumption. People have begun to eat more meat, use more dairy produce, and consume more energy. We now live in a world where more children are obese than are underfed. With demand exceeding supply, it is invariably the poorest who suffer. China and a number of Arab countries are already buying up huge areas of farmland in Africa to secure their own food supplies. How can we reduce the amount of waste in wealthy regions while simultaneously securing food and water for those who have no choice in the matter? Can we cope with increasing prosperity?
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