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Is Human Overpopulation Really a Problem?

Facebook pages are full of joyous announcements; gossip columnists live for stories on the subject and economists say we need more to support an ageing population, but the reality is that we should no longer be happy about people having babies.

The twentieth century was a bonanza for the human population, which grew from 1.5 billion in 1900 to six billion by 1999 (and on to seven billion in the twenty-first century’s first decade). According to the US Census Bureau, our species has a net gain of one person every sixteen seconds. This seems to be too many.

Unless you’re a large corporation that needs unskilled workers, that is. It thought by some economists to be behind global economic injustice to some extent: it’s pretty difficult for workers to demand better conditions and higher wages when companies know there are virtually millions of other people waiting to take the place of any employees who start to demand too much.

Urban sprawl and mountains of garbage, industry and industrial agriculture, extinction-inducing levels of hunting, poaching and fishing–these are but a few notorious trademarks of the twentieth century, along with an ever-accelerating human compulsion to consume, consume, consume. Our growing numbers mean this is simply no longer sustainable: as of 2007, we have been gobbling the equivalent of 1.5 Earths a year to support our collective habits, meaning the planet requires eighteen months to regenerate what we consume in twelve.

However, whether this is a problem of consumption habits or sheer numbers is the question. Writer George Monbiot, for example, is passionate on the point that there is no need to reduce human numbers whatsoever, IF we all drastically reduce our consumption. But given the grave economic implications this would have–think unemployment, recession, and a completely different lifestyle to the one that most of us in the developed world are used to–this seems highly unlikely–which means the only realistic solution is to reduce the number of humans on the planet.

Moreoever, even if our consumer habits were curbed, even at a most basic level, an increasing–and increasingly affluent–populations demand ever more food, the farming of which requires more cleared land, which means deforestation, which releases tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere–about three gigatons (three billion tons) annually, according to one collaborative study. Combine this expulsion with the emissions produced by heavy fossil-fuel dependence, and it’s easy to see why our atmosphere contains more of the climate change-accelerant carbon dioxide than we as a species have ever experienced. In the next few years, atmospheric CO2 levels will average 400 parts per million. Sure, the blame lies largely at the feet of wealthy countries, which create larger carbon footprints than do developing countries. One Briton, for example, wields the carbon footprint of 22 Malawians, and Qatar has the highest carbon footprint per capita in the world. But the developing world is catching up.

Not the Same Planet

This is a big deal. We have changed the planet, and the implications are grave. Some experts believe warming temperatures could render Arctic summers ice-free as early as 2018. To put that in perspective, that hasn’t happened to the planet in three million years. If the Arctic ice melts, the ocean and planet will heat up enough to dramatically alter wind flow, global weather patterns, even the jet stream. We’re already experiencing the effects of climate change: extreme weather events are responsible for much of the crop devastation in the last decade or so, including floods in the US, drought in Australia and heat waves in Russia and Europe. The future seems just as grim: a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that unchecked climate change will exacerbate food and water shortages, and cause further animal extinctions, not to mention human misery and the increased likelihood of war for scarce resources. Why would anyone want to bring a child into such a world anyway?

The heartbreak won’t just be human: human pollution and overfishing is bringing oceanic devastation and the climate change we have caused is a main contributor to what is likely to be the sixth major extinction. Scientists are lumping the twentieth century’s unprecedented reduction of biodiversity into what they call the Holocene extinction, with as many as 140,000 species disappearing annually, according to the species-area theory.

Overpopulation is already affecting the 750 million people worldwide who have no access to potable water sources, and 2.5 billion are without proper sanitation. Many believe we’ve passed or are in the throes of a peak-water situation, meaning voracious demand has outpaced renewable supply, and ecological costs outweigh benefits of extraction. Besides industrial pollution, much of the water crisis is due to intensive agriculture designed to feed a growing number of humans: the latter half of the twentieth century saw irrigation systems nearly triple worldwide, from 100 million hectares in 1950 to 280 million hectares in 2000, to feed the burgeoning population.

Hungry, Thirsty

Consequently, many nations have dipped into non-renewable underground aquifers as global water supplies have been polluted or strained. The United Nations states that by 2025, 1.8 billion people may inhabit areas of “absolute water scarcity” (less than 1,000m3 of water available per person per year), while two-thirds of the global population may be living in “water-stressed” regions (less than 1,700m3 of water available per person per year). To put Western water consumption into perspective: sustaining the global population on average European or North American water habits would require water from 3.5 Earths.

Many sources (such as here) suggest enough food exists for ten billion people, a number that’s close to the UN’s estimated 2050 population of 9.6 billion. Yet in the last decade, many factors–including climate change and water scarcity–have already ruined crops, causing rising food demand to outpace production, especially of a quartet of global staples, namely wheat, rice, corn and soy. Resulting food shortages and price spikes have contributed to political instability in places like Haiti, Uzbekistan and nations involved in the Arab uprising.

Keep in mind the average worldwide daily caloric availability per person of 2790 is twenty-three percent more than what was available in 1961. Food production has clearly increased, so the problem isn’t scarcity. The problem is unequal distribution, with the affluent, developed world housing twenty-five percent of the world’s population, yet drawing forty-nine percent of global agricultural products. Yet with quickly diminishing potable water supplies, this agricultural bonanza is likely to wither soon, and the numbers of people undernourished worldwide (currently set at 900 million) is likely to grow, especially in developing countries.

Earth: the Next Generation

It bears mentioning in an article about saving the planet that we’re saving her from ourselves, for ourselves. Earth doesn’t actually need us to save her. We may sully her enough to prohibit her from supporting us, but in the long run Earth will be just fine. On the other hand, if we don’t take responsibility for and clean up the mess we’ve caused, Earth will perform that task herself. And we won’t like it one bit.

So how can we protect our interests? Must we simply consume less, collectively, while spreading consumption more equally across the population–or is it crucial to control population size?

Considering that educated, empowered women in developed countries display lower fertility rates than their developing-country counterparts, it can safely be said that developed countries lead in consumption while lagging in population. It stands to reason that sheer numbers aren’t the main problem, that reducing consumption would be the way to go. But is this a viable option? Not likely. Those most equipped to lead such an ambitious undertaking are also those with the most to lose. Which doesn’t mean we can’t try. Start small, like foregoing meat once a month, or taking public transit to work once a week instead of adding another car to the highway snarl.

So we’re back to the idea of population control. It’s certainly possible, through re-education, the championing of women’s rights and changes to government policy. Some 220 million women worldwide lack access to family planning, with forty percent of pregnancies unintended. It’s encouraging to know the promotion of family planning and gender equality leads to more sustainable birth rates.

Furthermore, governments should nix childbearing incentives, like baby bonuses, rent and tax breaks, and instead increase the tax burden on childbearing families. And what about tax breaks for childless couples?

Solutions exist, but we must act yesterday, before climate change hits a tipping point, before food and water crises snowball into global conflicts. The transition to more sustainable behaviour won’t happen quickly or easily, but it must happen–for the double-helixed sakes of our planet and all life on it, including ours.