How the World Survived the Population Bomb: Lessons From 50 Years of Extraordinary Demographic History


The world population will reach 7 billion in late 2011, a demographic milestone that is causing renewed attention to the challenges caused by population growth. This article looks at the last 50 years of demographic change, one of the most extraordinary periods in demographic history. During this period, world population grew at rates that have never been seen before and will almost surely never be seen again. There were many concerns about the potential impact of rapid population growth in the 1960s, including mass starvation in countries such as India, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and increased poverty in low-income countries. The actual experience was very different. World food production increased faster than world population in every decade since the 1960s, resource prices fell during most of the period, and poverty declined significantly in much of the developing world. The article considers the economic and demographic explanations for the surprising successes of this important period in demographic history. It also looks at regions that have been less successful, especially Africa, and at the lessons for dealing with the important challenges that still remain.

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  1. 1.

    These trends will be documented and discussed in more detail later in the article.

  2. 2.

    For a history of the debate between Malthus and Godwin, see Petersen (1971).

  3. 3.

    McEvedy and Jones (1978) estimated that world population reached 2 billion in 1925, roughly consistent with other estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau (2011) and the United Nations Population Division (1999).

  4. 4.

    Other frequently cited books that raised concerns about population growth include Famine 1975! (Paddock and Paddock 1967) and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (Meadows 1972).

  5. 5.

    The doubling times in this paragraph are rough estimates based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s (2011) compilation of a number of historical estimates of world population.

  6. 6.

    The main source of population estimates and projections in this article is the 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects (United Nations Population Division 2011). Details about the assumptions in the low-, medium-, and high-variant projections are available at the United Nations Population Division (2011) website.

  7. 7.

    I use demographic transition to refer to empirical patterns in birth rates, death rates, and population growth rates, as in Lee (2003). For a discussion of the demographic transition as a theory of demographic change, see Kirk (1996).

  8. 8.

    The demographic transition for other regions and the world as a whole since 1950 are presented in Figs. A2 and A3 in Online Resource 1.

  9. 9.

    The food production data are based on the production index for food from the FAOSTAT online database (FAO 2011), converted to a base of 1961 = 100. As of June 2011, the index covered the period 1961 to 2009. The population estimates are from the United Nations Population Division (2011).

  10. 10.

    The results shown here are for total food production, but the trend for grains is very similar. The FAO’s cereals index grew at an average rate of 2.2% per year in the 1990s (FAO 2011).

  11. 11.

    Ehrlich’s perspective on this bet can be found in Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1996).

  12. 12.

    The latest milled rice exports by country from the FAOSTAT online database trade statistics are for 2008.

  13. 13.

    For a history of Borlaug’s life, see Hesser (2006). For overviews of the Green Revolution technologies, see Beddington (2010), Brown (1970), Cohen (1995), Dyson (1996), Evenson and Gollin (2003), and Glaeser (1987).

  14. 14.

    For a broad discussion of the debate regarding globalization, see Bhagwati (2007) and Stiglitz (2002).

  15. 15.

    Data on exports of goods and services as percentage of GDP are taken from World Development Indicators in the World Bank’s online World DataBank (World Bank 2011). Data on imports for these large aggregates of countries look almost identical.

  16. 16.

    These combine the proportions rural and urban in the most recent U.N. urbanization projections (United Nations Population Division 2009) with the 2010 population projections (United Nations Population Division 2011).

  17. 17.

    Pritchett’s paper generated considerable debate. See, for example, Bongaarts (1994), Casterline and El-Zeini (2007), Knowles et al. (1994), and Pritchett (1994b).

  18. 18.

    This section has benefited from helpful discussions with John Casterline, who also provided his estimates of the fertility measures used here.

  19. 19.

    Or, equivalently, the intercept of −0.028 means that 47% (0.028 / 0.060) of the decline in the TFR would have occurred in the absence of any decline in wanted fertility. Using the Casterline and El-Zeini (2007) measure of wanted fertility to decompose fertility change into a wanted and unwanted component for 44 countries, Casterline (2010) found that the median estimate is that 46% of the decline is due to a decline in wanted fertility, a result roughly consistent with the results in Table 1.

  20. 20.

    If it seems odd that mean family size was 8.5 at a time when the TFR was about 6, the explanation is provided in Sam Preston’s classic paper on family size of women and family size of children (Preston 1976). As Leticia Marteleto and I have shown, a good rule of thumb is that the mean family size for school-age children is about 40% larger than the TFR around the same time (Lam and Marteleto 2008b).

  21. 21.

    These data are from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA 2011).


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This is a revised version of the presidential address presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America on April 1, 2011, in Washington, D.C. The article draws on previous work, including Lam (2005), Lam and Duryea (1999), and Lam and Marteleto (2008a). Excellent research assistance was provided by Kendra Goostrey and Laura Zimmermann. Valuable comments were provided by many of my colleagues at the University of Michigan and by two anonymous reviewers. Financial support for the research that is presented here was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Lam, D. How the World Survived the Population Bomb: Lessons From 50 Years of Extraordinary Demographic History. Demography 48, 1231–1262 (2011).

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  • Population growth
  • Demographic transition
  • Poverty
  • Resources
  • Food