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More people are alive today than have ever lived

Back in the 1970s, someone said that more people were alive then than had ever lived. The concept struck a nerve (especially for reincarnationists, no doubt) as there was global concern at the time about the 'population explosion'. It must still have appeal, as versions of it are cropping up forty years later. But is it true?

The world population clock estimated that the world population reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011. For the myth to have been true at that point, the total number of people who had already died would need to have been less than 7 billion.

For most of the world's history, there were no censuses or births and deaths records, so the only way this myth can be tested is by using the best estimates of demographers modelling historic human population growth. There is debate about the detail of these guesses; for example, when does one start counting? With such limitations in mind, a conservative but educated guess of how many people have ever lived places the number at around 110 billion, with estimates ranging from 45 to 125 billion people. Even the lower estimate of 45 billion people outnumbers the 7 billion people alive in 2011 by nearly 7 to 1.

Conclusion

This myth is busted.

How did the myth arise?

Because of high mortality rates, the human population remained at relatively low levels until the 18th century. It’s estimated that the world population reached 1 billion in the early 1800s, and 2 billion around 130 years later, in the early 1930s. Only 70 years after that, in the year 2000, an extra 4 billion people had joined the world population, which then stood at 6 billion. This rapid population growth led to the idea that more people were alive than had ever been alive.

With gradual decreases in fertility in recent years, population growth has slowed considerably. According to United Nations population projections, the world population will stabilise at the 10 billion mark by the 2200s. At this rate of growth, the living will never outnumber the dead.

For your information

Population estimates and projections
Population estimates give the best available measure of the size and composition of the population usually living in an area. Population projections give an indication of the future size and composition of the population.

Population clock
Shows the current population of New Zealand and reflects its growth. Based on the estimated resident population.

World population clock
Based on data from the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau. Also contains information on population distribution and historical population.

Published 22 June 2012, based on information previously published on 9 November 2007.

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