The ratio of human survival and occupation of the planet has always been similar, but modern advancements have allowed those numbers to increase exponentially, so the difference is more obvious.
According to our best estimates, 10,000 years ago, after the end of the last Ice Age, there were only a few million people living on this planet. 9,000 years later, that number had not exceeded 500 million.
Yet now, only 1,000 years after that, the population continues to skyrocket around the globe. For most people alive today, saying that the global population is around 6 or 7 billion seems normal, but by 2050, there may be 10 billion people crowded on this pale, blue dot.
Shockingly enough, despite there being 196 countries in the world, a huge amount of the world’s population lives in just two of them – India and China. In fact, 36% of human beings live in one of those two countries. But WHY?
The Spread of Humanity
As mentioned above, human beings weren’t always particularly good at surviving, and the planet wasn’t the most hospitable place. Following the last Ice Age, is took roughly 9,000 years for the population to go from a few million up 300 million. At that time, the Americas were relatively empty, Africa and Europe had roughly 100 million, and the remaining people were in the Asian continent.
Following the initial spread of humanity from Africa, China and India had proven to be two of the most hospitable places for hunting, gathering, agriculture and survival, primarily due to the climate conditions and crop choices. With more availability for farming and healthy living, survival rates were higher, and more space and food meant that more babies could be born. There were definitely more people living in Asia 1,000 years ago, but there were only a hundred million or so more than were living in the rest of the world.
All over the world, babies were born and people died at relatively similar rates. Many people didn’t even survive until childbearing age, which kept the world’s population in relatively check. The inability to mass-produce food also made larger populations less feasible. It is also important to consider that wars and plagues would have had much longer and more impact in the past, as the number of people was so much smaller, life was so much shorter, and the conditions for birth so narrowly successful in many parts of the world.
Environmental conditions and the geography of the world also was a major factor in this population breakdown on the planet. There are huge swaths of land that cannot be inhabited, such as Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, as well as harsh deserts on every continent where agriculture cannot grow. You must also factor in large mountain ranges, tropical rainforests, tundra, and areas with high salt content, where plants cannot grow and consistent living is simply not an option. When you eliminate those regions, that leaves the large landmass of the Indo-China plateau as one of the most uninterrupted, and viable areas on the planet to grow crops.
The choice of agriculture was also a huge decision; rice-growing and -consuming nations tend to have larger populations, as there are far more calories produced in a rice paddy than a wheat or cornfield. However, growing rice is a hard business, so larger families meant a built-in workforce to ensure they had a good harvest each year. This naturally led to more children and a society with a calorie capacity to support more people.
The Leap to a Billion
In the past 1,000 years, human medicine didn’t make too any huge improvements, at least not until the 1800s or so. At that point, the global population hit 1 billion for the very first time, and we haven’t looked back since. With ongoing advancements in science and medicine, as well as agricultural practices that have revolutionized the way we feed the world, people began to live longer. More and more children survived into childbearing age and had families of their own, and the population grew – all over the world.
The rise of industry and large-scale agriculture meant that families could be much bigger than they had been in the past, and the social effects of the rural-urban divide led to more complex societies, more cities, and many more people. Today, the advantage that Asia had enjoyed for the past 10,000 years has not disappeared.
If 1/3 of the world’s population was centered in Asia (namely China and India) 1,000 years ago, it makes sense that roughly 1/3 would also be located there now! The population growth dynamics and the factors that allowed for larger families and a more abundant food supply are still present in China and India.
Obviously, there are other social, cultural, religious and political factors that play into this ultimately one-sided population, but the fact is that populations increase exponentially. That means, with a higher base level to begin with in China and India, the population explosion of the past 200 years is more prominently seen there. As a prime example of our increasingly imbalanced planet, more than 51.5% of the world’s population exists in an Asian bubble that contains only 19 countries.
If the experts are right, and we level off at 10 billion people by 2050, I wouldn’t suggest moving to India or China. If you thought taking the train was hard before, just wait until 2.5 billion people live in each of those countries!
- The Washington Post
- Asia Leadership Program
- Pew Research Center
- United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific