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Attitudes About World Population Growth

An overwhelming majority correctly perceives the world's population as growing and believes that world population growth is a significant problem. However, this majority is divided as to how pressing this problem is-both as a general matter and in terms of security and environmental concerns.

An overwhelming majority perceives world population as growing and as growing too fast. In August 2004 respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed that “the world’s population is growing too fast.” A very large majority did agree—79%, with 40% agreeing strongly and 39% somewhat. Only 17% felt the world’s population was not growing too fast (Widmeyer Communications).

In a September 1998 Belden and Russonello poll, 83% described population as growing while only 16% said it was stable (13%) or shrinking (3%). (Only 1% said they did not know-unusually low for a poll question that quizzes respondents on their knowledge. These responses were almost exactly the same to the same question in a 1994 poll.) [1] The median estimate of world population was fairly accurate, but the median estimate of the rate of population growth was exaggerated. [2]

An overwhelming majority views overpopulation as a significant problem, but this majority is divided as to how pressing this problem is. This pattern came up in several polls. In June 2002, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found only 12% who thought "world population growth" was "not an important threat at all" "to the vital interest of the US in the next ten years." An overwhelming 86% saw it as a threat, but were divided between 44% who thought it "critical" and 42% who thought it "important but not critical." [2a]Similarly, 88% said in an October 1999 Gallup poll that "population growth internationally" was or would be a problem, while only 11% said they "don't expect it to become a problem." However the 88% was divided between those who said it was "a major problem now" (47%) and those who characterized it as "not a problem now, but likely to become a problem for the future" (41%). [3]

Consistent with this pattern, when asked whether the world is overpopulated now, only a modest majority said that it is. In a September 1998 Belden and Russonello poll 59% said that the world is somewhat (39%) or very (20%) overpopulated now, while 36 % said that it is "just about right" (somewhat underpopulated: 3%) Responses were similar when Belden and Russonello asked the question in 1994. Then, 60% said the world is somewhat (36%) or very (24%) overpopulated, while 31% said it was just about right. [4]

This pattern came up when the issue was posed in terms of US security. In a November 1994 poll by Research/Strategy/Management, only 17% said that world population growth was not a threat to US security. However, the 81% who did see it as a threat were divided between those who saw it as critical threat (39%) and those who saw it as "important but not critical" (42%). [5]

The pattern also appeared in terms of the impact of population growth on the global environment. In a February 1994 Belden and Russonello poll, only 15% thought that population growth would have "not much impact one way or the other" on the global environment, while 9% said it would have a positive impact. The overwhelming majority of 73% said that it would have a negative impact, but here again this majority was divided between those who said it would have a very negative impact (46%) and those who said it would have a somewhat negative impact (27%). [6]

Consistent with this pattern of a plurality or a modest majority opting for the more dire perspective, in an October 1999 Pew poll a modest majority said that population growth would lead to major shortages of food and other resources. Posed a pair of arguments, 56% chose the one that said that the growing population "will be a major problem because there won't be enough food and resources to go around." Forty-two percent chose the one that said that it "will not be a major problem because we will find a way to stretch our natural resources." [7]

When asked to simply rate the severity of the problem of population growth, the mean response is moderately high. In February 1994 and September 1998, Belden & Russonello asked respondents to rate "how big a problem…rapid population growth" is, on a 1-to-10 scale. In both years the mean response was 6.6. [8]

When Americans are asked to think about overpopulation in relation to the environment, they view the problem as a bit more serious than when presented by itself. In March 1996 Belden & Russonello asked, "Thinking specifically about environmental issues, please tell me how serious a problem you think…the rate of growth of the world's population [is]," again on a 1-to-10 scale. The mean response was 7.4, with 74% giving an answer of 6 or higher and 30% saying 10. [9]

When the problem of population growth is put in terms of personal impact, concerns are significantly lower. When asked in February 1994 how world population growth might affect their own family's quality of life, only a slight majority of 52% of Americans said their quality of life would be worsened very much (18%) or somewhat (34%). Thirty-nine percent said there would be no impact on their quality of life, and just 5% said they expected an improvement from this cause (Belden & Russonello). [10]

The argument made in some circles that in developed countries birth rates have become too low is not popular with the public. Belden & Russonello's 1998 survey tested the statement, "People in the developed, wealthier countries are having too few babies," and found only 22% agreement, with 62% disagreeing. [11]

Modest Decline in Sense of Urgency

At the same time, there is some evidence that the issue of overpopulation evokes a bit less of a sense of urgency than it did early in the 1990s-perhaps because some of the public has heard that population growth has slowed in the developed world, and that this seems to be a trend that accompanies development and the spread of education. In a 1992 Gallup poll, 29% said that population growth is a major problem now, while in 1999 this dropped to 18%. Those who chose the less urgent view that it "was not a problem now, but likely to be a problem in the future" rose from 45% to 59%. [12]

Another Gallup question in the same pair of polls also showed a trend. In an awkwardly worded series of questions, that referred to "the great increase in population which is predicted for the world during the next few decades," in 1992 68% said they were worried about it, while in 1999 just 48% said they were worried. [13] While the exact meaning of this response is hard to interpret, because only 40% said the term "the great increase in population" was a familiar one to them, the large decline in those who said they were worried is significant.



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