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19.3: The Human Population

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    Concepts of animal population dynamics can be applied to human population growth. Humans are not unique in their ability to alter their environment. For example, beaver dams alter the stream environment where they are built. Humans, however, have the ability to alter their environment to increase its carrying capacity, sometimes to the detriment of other species. Earth’s human population and their use of resources are growing rapidly, to the extent that some worry about the ability of Earth’s environment to sustain its human population. Long-term exponential growth carries with it the potential risks of famine, disease, and large-scale death, as well as social consequences of crowding such as increased crime.

    Human technology and particularly our harnessing of the energy contained in fossil fuels have caused unprecedented changes to Earth’s environment, altering ecosystems to the point where some may be in danger of collapse. Changes on a global scale including depletion of the ozone layer, desertification and topsoil loss, and global climate change are caused by human activities.

    The world’s human population is presently growing exponentially (Figure 19.3.1).

    Figure 19.3.1: Human population growth since 1000 AD is exponential.

    A consequence of exponential growth rate is that the time that it takes to add a particular number of humans to the population is becoming shorter. Figure 19.3.2 shows that 123 years were necessary to add 1 billion humans between 1804 and 1930, but it only took 24 years to add the two billion people between 1975 and 1999. This acceleration in growth rate will likely begin to decrease in the coming decades. Despite this, the population will continue to increase and the threat of overpopulation remains, particularly because the damage caused to ecosystems and biodiversity is lowering the human carrying capacity of the planet.

    Figure 19.3.2: The time between the addition of each billion human beings to Earth decreases over time. (credit: modification of work by Ryan T. Cragun)


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    Click through this interactive view of how human populations have changed over time.

    Overcoming Density-Dependent Regulation

    Humans are unique in their ability to alter their environment in myriad ways. This ability is responsible for human population growth because it resets the carrying capacity and overcomes density-dependent growth regulation. Much of this ability is related to human intelligence, society, and communication. Humans construct shelters to protect themselves from the elements and have developed agriculture and domesticated animals to increase their food supplies. In addition, humans use language to communicate this technology to new generations, allowing them to improve upon previous accomplishments.

    Other factors in human population growth are migration and public health. Humans originated in Africa, but we have since migrated to nearly all inhabitable land on Earth, thus, increasing the area that we have colonized. Public health, sanitation, and the use of antibiotics and vaccines have decreased the ability of infectious disease to limit human population growth in developed countries. In the past, diseases such as the bubonic plaque of the fourteenth century killed between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population and reduced the overall world population by as many as one hundred million people. Infectious disease continues to have an impact on human population growth. For example, life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa, which was increasing from 1950 to 1990, began to decline after 1985 largely as a result of HIV/AIDS mortality. The reduction in life expectancy caused by HIV/AIDS was estimated to be 7 years for 2005.1

    Declining life expectancy is an indicator of higher mortality rates and leads to lower birth rates.

    The fundamental cause of the acceleration of growth rate for humans in the past 200 years has been the reduced death rate due to a development of the technological advances of the industrial age, urbanization that supported those technologies, and especially the exploitation of the energy in fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are responsible for dramatically increasing the resources available for human population growth through agriculture (mechanization, pesticides, and fertilizers) and harvesting wild populations.

    Age Structure, Population Growth, and Economic Development

    The age structure of a population is an important factor in population dynamics. Age structure is the proportion of a population in different age classes. Models that incorporate age structure allow better prediction of population growth, plus the ability to associate this growth with the level of economic development in a region. Countries with rapid growth have a pyramidal shape in their age structure diagrams, showing a preponderance of younger individuals, many of whom are of reproductive age (Figure 19.3.3). This pattern is most often observed in underdeveloped countries where individuals do not live to old age because of less-than-optimal living conditions, and there is a high birth rate. Age structures of areas with slow growth, including developed countries such as the United States, still have a pyramidal structure, but with many fewer young and reproductive-aged individuals and a greater proportion of older individuals. Other developed countries, such as Italy, have zero population growth. The age structure of these populations is more conical, with an even greater percentage of middle-aged and older individuals. The actual growth rates in different countries are shown in Figure 19.3.3, with the highest rates tending to be in the less economically developed countries of Africa and Asia.


    Figure 19.3.3: Typical age structure diagrams are shown. The rapid growth diagram narrows to a point, indicating that the number of individuals decreases rapidly with age. In the slow growth model, the number of individuals decreases steadily with age. Stable population diagrams are rounded on the top, showing that the number of individuals per age group decreases gradually, and then increases for the older part of the population.

    Age structure diagrams for rapidly growing, slow growing, and stable populations are shown in stages 1 through 3. What type of population change do you think stage 4 represents?

    Figure 19.3.4: The percent growth rate of population in different countries is shown. Notice that the highest growth is occurring in less economically developed countries in Africa and Asia.

    Long-Term Consequences of Exponential Human Population Growth

    Many dire predictions have been made about the world’s population leading to a major crisis called the “population explosion.” In the 1968 book The Population Bomb, biologist Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”2 While many critics view this statement as an exaggeration, the laws of exponential population growth are still in effect, and unchecked human population growth cannot continue indefinitely.

    Efforts to moderate population control led to the one-child policy in China, which imposes fines on urban couples who have more than one child. Due to the fact that some couples wish to have a male heir, many Chinese couples continue to have more than one child. The effectiveness of the policy in limiting overall population growth is controversial, as is the policy itself. Moreover, there are stories of female infanticide having occurred in some of the more rural areas of the country. Family planning education programs in other countries have had highly positive effects on limiting population growth rates and increasing standards of living. In spite of population control policies, the human population continues to grow. Because of the subsequent need to produce more and more food to feed our population, inequalities in access to food and other resources will continue to widen. The United Nations estimates the future world population size could vary from 6 billion (a decrease) to 16 billion people by the year 2100. There is no way to know whether human population growth will moderate to the point where the crisis described by Dr. Ehrlich will be averted.

    Another consequence of population growth is the change and degradation of the natural environment. Many countries have attempted to reduce the human impact on climate change by limiting their emission of greenhouse gases. However, a global climate change treaty remains elusive, and many underdeveloped countries trying to improve their economic condition may be less likely to agree with such provisions without compensation if it means slowing their economic development. Furthermore, the role of human activity in causing climate change has become a hotly debated socio-political issue in some developed countries, including the United States. Thus, we enter the future with considerable uncertainty about our ability to curb human population growth and protect our environment to maintain the carrying capacity for the human species.


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    Section Summary

    Earth’s human population is growing exponentially. Humans have increased their carrying capacity through technology, urbanization, and harnessing the energy of fossil fuels. The age structure of a population allows us to predict population growth. Unchecked human population growth could have dire long-term effects on human welfare and Earth’s ecosystems.

    Art Connections

    Figure 19.3.3 Age structure diagrams for rapidly growing, slow growing, and stable populations are shown in stages 1 through 3. What type of population change do you think stage 4 represents?

    Stage 4 represents a population that is decreasing.

    Multiple Choice

    A country with zero population growth is likely to be ________.

    A. in Africa
    B. in Asia
    C. economically developed
    D. economically underdeveloped


    Which type of country has the greatest proportion of young individuals?

    A. economically developed
    B. economically underdeveloped
    C. countries with zero population growth
    D. countries in Europe


    Which of the following is not a way that humans have increased the carrying capacity of the environment?

    A. agriculture
    B. using large amounts of natural resources
    C. domestication of animals
    D. use of language


    Free Response

    Describe the age structures in rapidly growing countries, slowly growing countries, and countries with zero population growth.

    Rapidly growing countries have a large segment of the population at reproductive age or younger. Slower growing populations have a lower percentage of these individuals, and countries with zero population growth have an even lower percentage. On the other hand, a high proportion of older individuals is seen mostly in countries with zero growth, and a low proportion is most common in rapidly growing countries.


    1. 1 Danny Dorling, Mary Shaw, and George Davey Smith, “Global Inequality of Life Expectancy due to AIDS,” BMJ 332, no. 7542 (March 2006): 662-664, doi: 10.1136/bmj.332.7542.662.
    2. 2 Paul R. Erlich, prologue to The Population Bomb, (1968; repr., New York: Ballantine, 1970).


    age structure
    the distribution of the proportion of population members in each age class
    one-child policy
    a policy in China to limit population growth by limiting urban couples to have only one child or face a penalty of a fine