Op-ed published in the Daily Maverick | By Mark Tomlinson | 6 July 2020
A major consequence of overpopulation and the climate crisis is that wildlife has had to adapt to living in a new proximity to human beings. The increased contact between humans and wild animals has massively increased outbreaks of infectious zoonotic diseases like Covid-19.
In 1989 the United Nations established World Population Day which is observed on 11 July every year. The choice of 11 July was prompted by a milestone — the world population reaching five billion on 11 July 1987.
Each year World Population Day has a theme that highlights an issue relevant to global population. For example, in 2011 when the world population crossed the seven billion mark, the theme was on how to engage with and activate all seven billion people around the challenges related to our planet.
In 2020, the focus is on reproductive health and gender equality, and the UN has called for countries to attend to the “unfinished business” of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. The “unfinished business” is the recognition that achieving gender equality is essential if we are to achieve sustainable development.
Why is population growth and the associated issues such an important issue today? The magnitude of population growth has been colossal. It took the world hundreds of thousands of years (and modern humans about 10,000 years) to reach a global population of one billion. This milestone was reached in 1800. In the subsequent 220 years, the global population has grown to an estimated 7.8 billion. Linked to this growth has been massive changes in where people live.
For most of human history, people largely lived in rural areas. In 2007, the global urban population outnumbered their rural counterparts for the first time. The shift was considerable – in 1950 there were about three-quarters of a billion people living in urban areas, but by 2018 this had swelled to 4.2 billion. South Africa has followed this trend with more than two-thirds of South Africans now living in urban areas.
We are currently in the middle of a global Covid-19 pandemic, and in South Africa we are in month four of a series of strict lockdowns. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, children have been out of school for months and entire industries lie dormant. In this context, one might legitimately ask how important is World Population Day, and of what relevance is it for our current situation?