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18 Jul 2011

The World at 7 Billion: Can We Stop Growing Now?

With global population expected to surpass 7 billion people this year, the staggering impact on an overtaxed planet is becoming more and more evident. A two-pronged response is imperative: empower women to make their own decisions on childbearing and rein in our excessive consumption of resources.
By robert engelman

Demographers aren’t known for their sense of humor, but the ones who work for the United Nations recently announced that the world’s human population will hit 7 billion on Halloween this year. Since censuses and other surveys can scarcely justify such a precise calculation, it’s tempting to imagine that the UN Population Division, the data shop that pinpointed the Day of 7 Billion, is hinting that we should all be afraid, be very afraid.

We have reason to be. The 21st century is not yet a dozen years old, and there are already 1 billion more people than in October 1999 — with the outlook for future energy and food supplies looking bleaker than it has for decades. It took humanity until the early 19th century to gain its first billion people; then another 1.5 billion followed over the next century and a half. In just the last 60 years the world’s population has gained yet another 4.5 billion. Never before have so many animals of one species anything like our size inhabited the planet.

And this species interacts with its surroundings far more intensely than any other ever has. Planet Earth has become Planet Humanity, as we co-opt its carbon, water, and nitrogen cycles so completely that no other force can compare. For the first time in life’s 3-billion-plus-year history, one form of life — ours — condemns to extinction significant proportions of the plants and animals that are our only known companions in the universe.

Click to enlarge
UN Projected Population Growth

Population Action International
Population growth, historical and projected, 1950-2100
Did someone just remark that these impacts don’t stem from our population, but from our consumption? Probably, as this assertion emerges often from journals, books, and the blogosphere. It’s as though a geometry text were to propound the axiom that it is not length that determines the area of a rectangle, but width. Would we worry about our individual consumption of energy and natural resources if humanity still had the stable population of roughly 300 million people — less than today’s U.S. number — that the species maintained throughout the first millennium of the current era?

It is precisely because our population is so large and growing so fast that we must care, ever more with each generation, how much we as individuals are out of sync with environmental sustainability. Our diets, our modes of moving, and our urge to keep interior temperatures close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit no matter what is happening outside — none of these make us awful people. It’s just that collectively, these behaviors are moving basic planetary systems into danger zones.

Yet another argument often advanced to wave off population is the assertion that all of us could fit into Los Angeles with room to wiggle our shoulders. The image may comfort some. But space, of course, has never been the issue. The impacts of our needs, greeds, and wants are. We should bemoan — and aggressively address — the gross inequity that characterizes individual consumption around the world. But we should also acknowledge that over the decades-long span of most human lifetimes, most of us are likely to consume a fair amount, regardless of where and how we live; no human being, no matter how poor, can escape interacting with the environment, which is one reason population matters so much. And given the global economic system and the development optimistically anticipated in all regions of the world, we each have a tendency to consume more as that lifetime proceeds. A parent of seven poor children may be the grandparent of 10 to 15 much more affluent ones climbing up the ladder of middle-class consumption.

This, in fact, is the story of China, often seen not as an example of population’s impact on the environment but that of rapid industrialization alone. Yet this one country, having grown demographically for millennia, is home to 1.34 billion people. One reason the growth even of low-consuming
We can put in place conditions that will support an early end to population growth.
populations is hazardous is that bursts of per-capita consumption have typically followed decades of rapid demographic growth that occurred while per-capita consumption rates were low. Examples include the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, China at the turn of the 21st, and India possibly in the coming decade. More immediately worrisome from an environmental perspective, of course, is that the United States and the industrialized world as a whole still have growing populations, despite recent slowdowns in the growth rate, while already living high up on the per-capita consumption ladder.

Many of the impacts of this ubiquitous multiplication of per-capita resource consumption by the number of individuals are by now well documented. Humanity started to overwhelm the atmosphere with greenhouse gases not long after the Industrial Revolution began, a process that accelerated along with population and consumption growth in the 20th century. Fresh water is now shared so thinly that the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) projects that in just 14 years two thirds of the world’s population will be living in countries facing water scarcity or stress. Half of the world’s original forests have been cleared for human land use, and UNEP warns that the world’s fisheries will be effectively depleted by mid-century. The world’s area of cultivated land has expanded by about 13 percent since its measurement began in 1961, but the doubling of world population since then means that each of us can count on just half as much land as in 1961 to produce the food we eat.

For the rest of life on Earth, the implications of all this are obvious. Where we go, nature retreats. We are entering an epoch scientists have begun calling the Anthropocene, a break with the geologic past marked by
We can’t stop the growth of our numbers in any acceptable way immediately.
humanity’s long-term alteration of the natural world and its biota. We are inadvertently bringing on the sixth mass extinction not just because our appetites are vast and our technologies powerful, but because we occupy or manipulate most of the land in every continent except Antarctica. We appropriate anywhere from 24 percent to nearly 40 percent of the photosynthetic output of the planet for our food and other purposes, and more than half of its accessible renewable freshwater runoff.

Given these facts, it’s hardly surprising that wildlife conservation faces an uphill battle globally and in every nation, while ambitious concepts like the creation of wildlife corridors to help species escape the ravages of development and climate change proliferate despite their impracticality in a world of growing human impacts.

So should we be afraid on the day we gain a 7 billionth living human being, especially considering UN demographers are now projecting anywhere between 6.2 billion and 15.8 billion people at the end of the century? Fear is not a particularly productive response — courage and a determination to act in the face of risk are the answer. And in this case, there is so much to be done to heal and make sustainable a world of 7 billion breathing human beings that cowering would be not just fatalistic but stupid.

Action means doing a lot of different things right now. We can’t stop the growth of our numbers in any acceptable way immediately. But we can put in place conditions that will support an early end to growth, possibly making this year’s the last billion-population day we ever mark. We can elevate the autonomy of women to make life-changing decisions for themselves. We can lower birth rates by assuring that women become pregnant only when they themselves decide to bear a child.

Simultaneously, we need a swift transformation of energy, water, and materials consumption through conservation, efficiency, and green technologies. We shouldn’t think of these as a sequence of efforts — dealing with consumption first, because population dynamics take time to turn around — but as simultaneous work on multiple fronts. It would be naïve to
By the sheer scale of our presence and activity we are putting ourselves and all life at risk.
believe we will arrive at sustainability by wrestling shifting technologies and lifestyles while human population grows indefinitely and most people strive to live as comfortably as Americans do. Nor should we take comfort in the illusion that population growth is already on a path to end soon. Demographers can no more tell us when that will happen (or through what combination of lower birth rates or higher death rates) than economists can predict when robust global economic growth will resume. Both expert groups are mocked by the many surprises the future holds in store.

Rather than forecast the future, we should work to secure it. More than two in five pregnancies worldwide are unintended by the women who experience them, and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth. Clearly there is vast potential to slow that growth through something women want and need: the capacity to decide for themselves when to become pregnant. If all women had this capacity, survey data affirm, average global childbearing would immediately fall below the “replacement fertility” value of slightly more than two children per woman. Population would immediately move onto a path leading to a peak followed by a gradual decline, possibly well before 2050.

Despite the obvious barriers to women’s rights in today’s world, such a vision rests on a set of straightforward and achievable conditions: Women must be able to make their own decisions free from fear of coercion or pressure from partners, family, and society. They must not depend on prolific motherhood for social approval and self-esteem. And they must have easy access to a range of safe, effective, and affordable contraceptive methods and the information and counseling needed to use them.

For those who care about the environment, the future of human civilization, or both, the Day of 7 Billion should prod us to face and address the risks of continued population growth. By the sheer scale of our

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presence and activity we are putting ourselves and all life at risk. No human being has the right to consume forever more than any other. Yet if we could somehow close the global consumption gap, the importance of our numbers would be even more obvious as the limits of natural systems were crossed. It scarcely lessens the importance of reducing both consumption and inequity to celebrate the fact that population growth can end without policies that restrict births, without coercion of any kind, without judgments on those who choose large families. We are not far from a world in which the number of births roughly balances the number of deaths, based on pregnancies universally welcomed by women and their partners.

The transition to this world may not be entirely painless. Nations will have to adjust to rising average ages as birth rates descend further. In China and India, smaller families may contribute to artificially high ratios of baby boys, with possible risks to future social stability. But these problems are the kind that societies and institutions are generally good at handling. Stopping climate change, reducing water scarcity, or keeping ecosystems intact, by contrast, don’t yet seem to be in our skill set. Working now to bring population growth to an end through intentional childbearing won’t solve such problems by itself, but it will help — a lot. And such an effort, based on human rights and the dignity and freedom of the world’s childbearers, is in the interest of all who care about a truly sustainable environment and human future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Robert Engelman is president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. The Population Institute awarded his book, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, the Global Media Award for Individual Reporting in 2008. A former newspaper reporter who covered science and politics, Engelman served on the faculty of Yale University as a visiting lecturer in the early 2000s and was founding secretary of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

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COMMENTS


Bob Engelman once again proves why he is one of the smartest, most even-handed, and respected experts in the field of population.

One bone to pick: I understand it is realistic to state we cannot stop population growth immediately, but I hate to see this statement repeated time and again. Too often it is used as an excuse to do nothing. The fact is, we could achieve population stability tomorrow. Not likely, but not a bad goal to shoot for, trying to have every couple making a decision about family size to do so will full information about the ramifications. By stating we can't, we set the bar pretty low to begin with. Nevertheless...

This essay should be required reading for all crewmembers of spaceship Earth!

Thank you, Bob, for writing this.

Dave Gardner
Producer of the upcoming documentary
GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

Posted by Dave Gardner on 18 Jul 2011


As evident from Bob Engelman's excelent essay, we are finally reaching the limits of our planetary home to meet the ever growing needs of human beings. Less than a year from now, leaders from countries, corporations, and communities around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the 20th anniversary of the first "Earth Summit" there in 1992. This time we need to make sure that our leaders do more than agree to yet another grand plan of action with far off abstract goals. They need to take the kinds of actions Bob suggests to both reduce the pressures from our increasing population and consumption.
Posted by S. Jacob Scherr on 18 Jul 2011


I feel this a mandatory article on a mandatory topic. Yet, I would love to see more emphasis on the fact that the age bearing population might rightly be termed "girls" and not "women" to bring framing and perspective on the number of unintended / unwanted pregnancies. When half of a nations population is below the age of 16, as is the current case in Pakistan I believe, the other factors to the empowerment of girls and women are made even more clear.

It is true that "Women must be able to make their own decisions free from fear of coercion or pressure from partners, family, and society. They must not depend on prolific motherhood for social approval and self-esteem. And they must have easy access to a range of safe, effective, and affordable contraceptive methods and the information and counseling needed to use them" and thus it is equally true, and of primary importance, that girls be given education that sets the foundation for the women they will be who will make reproductive choices that benefit the well being of all.
Posted by h on 18 Jul 2011


Excellent article Robert Engelman coming from a great Institute, WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE.

In India there is a slogan from Family Welfare Department:

DELAY THE FIRST,SPACE THE SECOND AND STOP THE THIRD.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com
Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 19 Jul 2011


The 7 billion global population milestone we will reach this year is an excellent entry point for people to understand not just the "number", but its ramifications. Bob Engelman provides a stellar account of the complexities and nuances that characterize this field of "population and environmental linkages". Environment and population scientists need to work together and urge our leadership to make policy change that addresses both the current unsustainable population and consumption trends that Engelman mentions - something not now undertaken in the US and globally.

Posted by Vicky Markham, Director, Center for Environment and Population (CEP) on 19 Jul 2011


My Rosetta Stone for population education was published by UNESCO, in the International Bureau of Education series, EDUCATIONAL DOCUMENTATION AND INFORMATION, 48th Year, NO. 193, 4th Quarter 1974, with the title: Population education: problems and perspectives. The preface reads:

1974 was World Population Year. The year saw the convening of a World Population Conference in Bucharest which brought together representatives from 137 countries to discuss the population situation and its variations in different parts of the world, and to draw up a World Population Plan of Action which would put population phenomena in perspective and recommend action which could be taken by governments and international agencies and organizations.

One part of UNESCO’s activity on the occasion of World Population Year was a global survey of population education programs and, in co-operation with the International Bureau of Education, the preparation of this annotated critical bibliography of school and out-of-school materials. The bibliography and narrative introduction to it are the work of Dr. Noel-David Burleson, an anthropologist who is an internationally known specialist in population education as well.

The task of compiling the bibliography was not an easy one, in view of sometimes extremely divergent views of what constitute the most important elements of population education.

These differences in conceptualization and perception which stem from different experiences in various parts of the world led UNESCO to initiate in 1974 an International Study of the Conceptualization and Methodology of Population (ISCOMPE) to which this bibliography will lend support as an early major step towards collecting and analyzing data on a global scale. Leaving the author the responsibility for the content of the bibliography, the Secretariat avails itself of this opportunity to express appreciation for Dr. Burleson’s contribution and those of the hundreds of individuals and organizations who have given of their time and experience to make this publication possible.

The first para of my preface reads: “There is nothing in the realm of population education about which I am more certain than that this essay and annotated bibliography are needed: yet it is very clear to me that both are inadequate in definitions, incomplete in coverage, and insufficient in detail. It has been a rewarding but taxing experience to be on the receiving end of population education materials from all the continents except Antarctica, from a large number of public and private international organizations, from foundations, from governments, from professional groups, and from universities, schools, and private individuals deeply concerned that the children and youth of today should have the opportunity to develop a keen understanding of the processes of population dynamics and the social and biological consequences thereof.”

(For more information, contact…UNpoet@aol.com)

Posted by david burleson, UNESCO, retired on 19 Jul 2011


This is unbelievable!

Posted by Karunwi Abayomi on 19 Jul 2011


Most scientists that study the issue say that the Earth's sustainable population is somewhere between 1.5 billion and 2.5 billion people. Sadly I conclude there must be a contraction somehow to get to this number. Every increase in population adds to this tragedy. Every agricultural scientist wracking his brain to come up with a way to feed 9 billion people is also adding to the tragedy, as this will only lead to more people. This does not appear to be a problem with any good solution.

Posted by John Dyer on 19 Jul 2011


The relationship between the population and the standard of living can be explained with an equation:

(natural resources x level of technology) / population = standard of living.

In Robert Engelman's book "More" he explains how during human history and prehistory technology has usually outpaced the population growth. That is why the average standard of living in the world is higher now than in 1800.

Nevertheless, population is always a negative factor. We should not assume that technology will always keep up.

About a thousand years BC there was a steep population drop in western nations practicing urban civilization. The Greeks forgot how to use their linear B script, and did not become literate again until the eight century BC. The Hittite civilization collapsed. The empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon went into decline. The reason was probably that the population had earlier reached the limits of existing technology.

Posted by John Engelman on 19 Jul 2011


More people mean more customers and more job applicants. By the law of supply of demand this means higher prices, lower wages, and higher profits. The growing population in the United States is a major reason for the growing income gap.

Ideological thinking happens when we allow our likes and dislikes to influence our judgment of what is true and false. Everyone does this, including me. It is wise to try not to. One should be aware of one's prejudices.

Those on the right are prone to deny that population growth is a problem. Economic conservatives agree with me that population growth benefits the rich at the expense of everyone else. They disagree that this is a problem. Social conservatives dislike birth control, oppose abortion, and favor large families.

Liberals are not immune to ideological thinking on population issues. Many suspect that if one says there are too many people on this planet that person means that too many are the wrong kind of people.

Posted by John Engelman on 19 Jul 2011


It is an excellent essay.

It is obvious that the need of the hour is to check the excessive consumption of energy and natural resources rather than stabilizing population growth. Intentional child bearing may take its own time as it mostly depends on the cultural setting a woman lives in. At present human greed has overcome the need for sustainable life on earth. Is it needed to have more than one shelter, whereas a section of the same society lives without a shelter or a roof over their head? Excessive construction activities are growing day by day. Fertile lands are abused in the name of some development project or luxury villa or housing society. One can imagine how much natural resources are utilized or destroyed to produce one skyscraper or a big building -raking mountains for stone, digging river beds for sand, trees for wood and so on. Besides these to produce other construction materials such as cement, metals etc. excessive amount of energy and national resources are utilized. Does it stop there, no. To live there one needs constant supply of energy is needed in the form of lifting people up and keeping them in the desired temperature and water.

What mentioned here is not new to anyone. However, Government’s should assess before sanctioning a construction project, whether it is needed. Reduction in construction activity could definitely conserve a chunk of natural resources for the growing human race.

Posted by Princy Yesudian, Sr. Research Officer, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai on 20 Jul 2011


I would like to put in a plug for Robert Engelman's "The Security Demographic." http://www.populationaction.org/Publications/Reports/The_Security_Demographic/Summary.shtml

This explains that a high percentage of young men in a country's population is a destabilizing
factor.

The insights presented in "The Security Demographic" help to explain Islamic terrorism, the two world wars, the fall of the Soviet Union without violence, and the spread of democratic governments throughout Latin America after decades of conflict between right wing dictatorships and left wing revolutionary movements.

Posted by John Engelman on 20 Jul 2011


Having children is not a right, but an enormous responsibility.

Somewhere someone is eating it and turning it into human protein.

This is not a sustainable situation.

Either we do something about reducing the exponential population growth, or nature will.

Nature's cure will be catastrophic.
Posted by Tony Trenton on 20 Jul 2011


An article full of vague insistence on what man ‘must do’ or ‘could do’ to reduce population. But an embarrassed avoidance of the problem itself.

Mankind (womankind too) has evolved to do two things, eat and procreate. Once a man has a full stomach he will seek out a sexual partner if at all possible. Sorry to be crude about this, but that’s the way it is and no birth control program or godbothering attempts to instil ‘restraint’ will stop it. Ethiopia is a perfect example: 85 million people, 10 million of whom are starving to death; to compound that disaster, they have a growth rate of 2.6%, that’s 170 million 30 years from now! Is anyone seriously suggesting that those extra 85 million can somehow be ‘saved’, or that some kind of family planning program will prevent them from appearing? Egypt’s riots were over food, but they will double their numbers in 40 years and still continue to starve. I could go on. We are headed for 9 billion, and while I don’t think we will reach that figure, the way in which we will be stopped from getting there is going to be extremely unpleasant for all of us. There will be no common consent. Malthus’ population theories were correct, but skewed by 200 years of fossil fuel production, something he could not foresee. That didn’t make his calculations wrong, as many gleefully point out , it made them infinitely more terrifying. He foresaw regional famines and plagues that would keep our numbers balanced overall, perhaps a few thousand deaths here and there which would not affect global or national stability. We’ve moved on from there, now our food supply is 99% dependent on the continuing supply of oil, and we have created a globally interlocked commercial system based on infinite growth. But we are still confined to a spherical earth; our situation is no better than hamsters in a cage- our food, water, heat and light are delivered by means we are unaware of, and our wastes are removed the same way while we continue to fill the cage with yet more hamsters.

This has become our normality; our ‘commercial system’ is an illusion that can function only by burning more and more oil but has no more significance to our future than the hamster running round in his wheel. That wheel might be seen as our fixation on ‘infinite growth’. We cannot stop, or go into reverse or exist in some kind of utopian equilibrium. Instead we delude ourselves that we can find alternative energy systems and ‘growth’ will enable us to feed the 80 million new mouths that arrive every year even though we cannot feed those already here.

We must face the brutal truth: that there are 7 billion people here dependent on a constantly increasing oil/food supply. Oil is getting too expensive to use in food production, which means that 6 billion people don’t have much of a future.

http://www.yourmedievalfuture.com/

Posted by Norman Pagett on 20 Jul 2011


"Homo Sapiens" is deficient mutant dependable on environment" , so possible scenarios:

1. eco/environmental dictatorship, i.e. power/science/knowledge alliance of developed states; so, there is no place for old policy/polity/politics approach;
2. Silent green, i.e. we must start to eat each other with full implementation of the Nano-Bio-Informatic-Cognotove Technologies/Sciences/Materials and Products;
3. Climate Change, GW, Loss of Biodiversity and Overpopulation, will be helpful for our World Risk Society, i.e. cultural- anthropocene solution;
4. "no solution scenario" like a best way to start changing our beliefs and after that our habits, i.e. virtual, consumer life style.

But, as always, I'm optimist, so in a words of Aldo Leopold: "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community."
Posted by dino deleut on 21 Jul 2011


It is indeed an excellent article, a lot of advocacy is needed in order to sensitize individuals to the problems and impact of rapid population growth. The source of the problem seems to be human greed and excessive consumption. Our greed has led us to trade in natural commodities. Agricultural land is being used for industrial purposes, crops are being grown for ethanol, food grains are hoarded and sold for investments, etc. I would like to support the views of Princy Yesudian- that the need of the hour is to put in place checks and measures on excessive consumption of natural resources rather than focussing solely on stabilizing population growth. Family planning is essential, however this is a decision between a man and woman, sometimes this is taken jointly and sometime not, this is also often based on cultural and religious sensitivities. Education of both genders is key in facilitating a rational this decision making process. Population growth is being stabilised today albeit slowly, with the change in lifestyles, natural calamities, terrorism, wars, etc. as stated in the other views above.

Posted by Kennedy Dias Geneva on 21 Jul 2011


Bob Engleman touches all the bases in a framework that is thorough, objective, and respectful of the subtle differences in language, culture, and beliefs that often divide people who care about these issues, and keep them from working together. Glancing through the above comments, I see words and concepts used that can turn away potential allies even while they fire up existing advocates. Bob neatly avoids these points of division. This is a framework that can unite all who care about the future of our world.
Posted by Marty Farnsworth Riche on 21 Jul 2011


Too much fear mongering!

Ever fly across the U.S.? Most of it is barren land where no one goes and nothing grows. The U.S. alone could easily support another 15 billion people, but only under the following conditions:

Eliminate all fossil fuels and replace them with clean, safe, renewable alternative energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal and algae biofuels.

Build homes out of energy efficient adobe block, made from the soil at the building site (Average cost per 3,000 sq ft home - less than $30,000). If built in the shape of a dome, no wood products or roofing materials are needed.

Also build a greenhouse and edible garden at every home, so no one ever starves to death again.

In desert areas, pipe in sea water and use the new British technique recently developed that turns sea water into fresh water in greenhouses. It's already under production in California farms.
Posted by Kevin Schmidt on 21 Jul 2011


It is astonishing to me that the simple and obvious fact of unlimited growth of population and consumptive needs thereof seems so difficult for otherwise intelligent persons to get grip upon we have a finite boat contraception in its various forms is needed but a really more satisfying solution is the monastic ideal many religions east and west have affirmed the causative link between attaining high spiritual attainment up to and inclusive of nirvana or the kingdom of heaven and celibate spiritual practice population growth in europe and in india both accelerated with the destruction of monastic life.

very humbly submitted

swami tapasananda aka rev peter w chilstrom

Posted by reverend peter w chilstrom on 21 Jul 2011


Clearly wise people, including Garrett Hardin (’The Tragedy of the Commons’, 1962) realise there are many real problems like the commons and population is one of most importance. Still these problems remain logically and mathematically unsolvable. In life many problems are this way. You can still proceed and even succeed but you have to allow for design and thinking outside the square.

Note Australians have “voted with their feet” (Tim Flannery) and limited the number of children. Now they should
1)      remove the baby bonus,
2)      limit the net immigration to ~70,000 (Kelvin Thompson)
3)      stop the worship of growth

Posted by Bill Scott on 21 Jul 2011


Excellent article.
However I am constantly amazed, in reading comments to population articles like this one, at how often two obstacles are placed in the path of future sustainability: 1) the assertion that it is consumption, not overpopulation, that is the problem, and 2) the assertion that we cannot rely on what couples are going to do, or not do, in their bedrooms.

The critical criteria for human sustainability is food, and that is reaching short supply. The amount of per capita arable land will soon reach a unacceptable level, which means, even if the wealthier countries adopted the diets of poorer countries, there will not be enough, while in the meantime, resources needed to produce food are depleting.

As for family planning, voluntary programs have been in place for 50 years, bringing down fertility rates; there is still a large unmet need for contraception; there is not enough funding to meet this need; and we are not pushing something on people that they don't want.

overpopulation.org

Posted by Karen Gaia Pitts on 21 Jul 2011


Seventy years ago in college we discussed population growth and its inevitable disaster. At that time the World Health Organization of the United Nations was brutally criticized for stating that they really did not want to go into third world countries to improve sanitation and health, resulting in longer life for those already alive, unless something were to be done about birth control.

Oh, what a horrible thought!! Why the world would always be able to feed an unlimited population!!! So here we are in 2011 with nothing done about population growth, and now we have climate warming, a upcoming lack of water, while we groom lush green lawns, desire vacation homes, must have two or three cars, etc. etc. And consumption is the only thing that will revive our depressed economy??

What ever happened to "Zero Population Growth?" Did that group just give up?

Posted by Dorothy J. Clazie on 22 Jul 2011


Dorothy, fyi, Zero Population Growth still exists. They changed their name to Population Connection. I think it sounds a lot less eugenic and frightening to conservatives.

Kudos to Engelman and all the above commentators for talking about the elephant in the room and looking for solutions. I've heard some really great ideas here. Now we have to get some mainstream press coverage for this issue, and I don't mean Fox News.

My poor mother had 3 kids and none of us gave her a biological grandchild. I have no maternal instinct, I think it's been educated out of me (thanks, Delaware public schools!) She feels that "the wrong people are having children". My feeling is, what makes me so great that my genetics will benefit the world? The best thing I feel I can do is to conduct myself with consciousness of the world's limited resources, do my best to make the world better, and for God's sake and the sake of humanity, NOT have any children. Sorry, Mom! We would be better off helping to educate the children that are already here. Does it matter that they are not of our own DNA?

Posted by Kate Jamal on 22 Jul 2011


"Why is Man failing?" is the question. Of course, there are likely many recognizable, understandable and acceptable responses to that query. Having made this acknowledgement, I remain dumbstruck by one glaring and willful failure. It is the conscious and abject failure on the part of many too many top ranking professionals with appropriate expertise and extant scientific evidence to respond to one central question, the rejection of which appears to be allowing ' the stage to be set ' for big trouble that takes its shape in the form of some unimaginable sort of colossal, human-induced global ecological wreckage.

**** Is the population dynamics of the human species essentially similar to or else different from the population dynamics of other species? **** The implications of the correct response to that single query appear profound.

Let me be crystal clear when I say that the global predicament is too huge, too complicated by a dizzying array of interconnected variables, too imminently oppressive and too threatening for any one of us to believe either that is one 'answer' to the questions being raised or that movers-and-shakers of the global political economy can be exempted from helping the rest of us respond ably to the colossal global ecological mess which the rich and powerful have had so large, robust and determinative a role in causing.......even to the extent of risking the destruction of the Earth as a fit place for children everywhere to inhabit.

Posted by Steven Earl salmony on 22 Jul 2011


Super article and comments. I'd like to add to Kevin Schmidt's perspective. It's the idea that imaginative environmental living arrangements universally applied could greatly lessen the ill effectsof our large population.

I think the "solution" is at once simpler and more complex. The world of human affairs is way too complex and fractious for any set of "to-do" prescriptions to be accepted, however sensible they are. So I propose something far more general and seemingly impossible. I see it only a partial solution, but maybe the most important:

Let us start thinking about how to shrink the human FOOTPRINT on Planer Earth. It can be done by (and ultimately requires) slowing and reversing population growth, but it could also be done though returning Earth's denuded surfaces to vegetation. The beauty of this plan is that there need not be any demolition of the built environment. There merely needs to be new planting in every conceivable space.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 22 Jul 2011


Actually, we are going through a demographic winter. There is plenty for all if we each grow our own food with some to share, and teach others to do the same. For crimes against humanity, prosecute evil entities and corporations that genetically modify food, or drain aquifers by stealing water and selling it for outrageous amounts, or control the weather and chemically contaminate our air and ground, or the dis-ease industry and big pharma who hurt and kill people for profit while natural low cost cures are available and plentiful, or silence those with witty inventions that provide free power and transportation, or those who insight war for monetary gain. Namaste, bliss, blessings, and healing to all the world.

Posted by growyourownfood on 26 Jul 2011


In answering the question below do not consider the problem of enforcing the right. The question below only relates to the right of society to control population and does not consider how that right will be enforced.

Does society (however you define society) have the right/duty/obligation (use whatever word you desire) to limit the number of children a person produces by force/coercion/violence (use whatever word you desire) if the production of excess children (leaving aside the definition of excess children as the definition is not important in answering the question) may/possibly could/probably could/almost certainly could/would absolutely cause (use whatever phrase you desire) the untimely and horrific deaths of hundreds/thousands/millions/billions (use whatever word you desire) of human beings or is the right to determine how many children a person produces absolute and society cannot in any way infringe upon that right?

Your answer would be most appreciated. Thank you. Jason G. Brent

Posted by Jason G. Brent on 29 Jul 2011


"In answering the question below do not consider the problem of enforcing the right. The question below only relates to the right of society to control population and does not consider how that right will be enforced."

I wouldn't so much say that society has the "right" as the obligation to limit population. Earth's population tripled since 1950, and our use of natural resources has likewise escalated. With the explosion of consumerism as developing countries take on the Western lifestyle, the depletion of natural resources will escalate exponentially, possibly threatening the very existence of humanity itself. So I don't see that there is any choice but to limit population. My own efforts in that direction have to do with promoting structural changes in how we live, so that population will tend to decrease on its own. But I begin, not with population directly, but rather the effects, and how to reverse them, of the human footprint (see above).

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 31 Jul 2011


I appreciate all the steps which we need to take but one thing i want to add that increase in population in most of the nations is because of social, religious factors(China & India) and number of orthodox families. I want to add that education not only to women but all masses can solve the population problem because families which are uneducated adding more to world population.

Posted by Dinesh Kumar Mamotra on 31 Jul 2011


In the name of scientific integrity will someone with appropriate expertise, please, pray tell us, what scientists and professional researchers with appropriate expertise have known, based upon the best availabile scientific evidence, about the population dynamics of the human species? During my lifetime, what did so-called experts know and when did you know it? Why the worldwide conspiracy of silence concerning human overpopulation issues in the past 66 years?

The family of humanity as well as much of life as we know it are now here inhabitants of a finite planet with a frangible environment that is failing fast. What really matters is being inadvertently ruined on our watch by the human population, but is not being openly discussed. My ‘blood boils’ in the truth that we have possessed knowledge of so much about ourselves as human beings with feet of clay and acknowledged so little about what has been known for so long about our distinctly human creatureliness, based upon extensive empirical research and unchallenged scientific evidence. Elective mutism and silent consent in the face of the reckless degradation, relentless dissipation and willful sell-off of what everyone knows to be sacred looks to me like the worst of all precipitants of the colossal ecological wreckage that appears in the offing.

Inside and outside the community of top rank scientists, as well as among first class professionals in demography and economics who claim appropriate expertise in issues concerning human overpopulation, one issue is not being discussed by anyone. A worldwide conspiracy of silence continues to prevail about the population dynamics of the human species. The last of the last taboos is the open discussion of extant scientific research of human population dynamics. The implications of this astounding denial of what could somehow be real are potentially profound for the future of life on Earth, I suppose.

Within the human community a tiny minority of self-proclaimed masters of the universe hold the ‘destiny’ of all in their hands. This elite group is operating behind the scenes these days and “growing” the global economy to such a colossal scale that it could soon become patently unsustainable on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth because our planetary home is not, definitely not “too big to fail.”

Hurry up, please, it is time for speaking out loudly, clearly and often before it is too late for human action to matter. Like it or not, ready or not, intellectually honest and morally courageous scientists have unassumed responsibilities to science…. and unfulfilled duties to humanity that must be performed.

Posted by Steven Earl Salmony on 01 Aug 2011


Brilliant article. I share your view on overpopulation, but unlike you, I don't have the ability with words to express it properly. So thank you for this article, maybe it will do what I couldn't do, convince people that overpopulation is a serious issue.

Question: Do major religions have an impact on overpopulation? Because with their "no contraception" mentality, I'm not sure if they help... If they appear to be linked to population growth, a big reform will be needed.

Posted by B.D. on 01 Aug 2011


An essay everyone should read!

I believe there are ways to mitigate some of the problems of overpopulation through education and as Steven Earl Salmoney mentioned before me, religion can play a part to influence communities.

But I also believe that change will have to come with a crisis. Or rather, as the crisis becomes the norm rather than an "emergency event", these unstable times and disruptions will urge necessary reforms and changes from politics and behaviors alike.

Posted by Ben Boeglin on 07 Aug 2011


This article was both informative and clearly written and makes a point that should be addressed internalized by all. However I must say I agree with Ben that significant change will only come from a significant event. I do not believe that change will result from merely informing or even revealing the effects of our population to citizens of this world. I believe change must come about by a uniting experience that will affect the vast majority of this planet personally and bring forth a genuine motivation to make a difference.

Posted by Joshua Coleman on 19 Aug 2011


Dear Robert,
Some answers on your question can be find in book by JONATHAN FRANZEN: FREEDOM, i.e. discussion between Walter, and others...

Posted by KEMO on 06 Sep 2011


There’s a good gadget that gives you the population of the world and countries.

http://www.scopulus.co.uk/tools/population.htm

Posted by Carloss on 07 Sep 2011


The discussion focus is all about population control; science has given us the tools to reduce births as well as increase longevity- following this line will no doubt reduce populations, but will leave us with increasing numbers of old people with no one to look after them-a dismal scenario, the logical ending of which would be state sponsored death ceremonies.
The good old joint family system of india [and of the west earlier] taught simple living, adjustment and frugal use of resources; if we do not evolve a system in which there is always a higher percentage of youth [working population] life will become miserable and perhaps all mankind has to adopt the Terra del fugo solution of eating our elders described by Darwin. The great thinkers on population should ponder over this enigma.

Posted by rkrao on 08 Sep 2011


Unfortunately, the highest population still comes from the least developed and poorest. where is the balance?

Posted by Roshan @nepalsites on 23 Sep 2011


Sir....the author has got it right for the first half of this century. Population increase needs to be decreased, and this is happening. The richer nations have reached 2.1 and their chief problem at mid-century will be to sustain the older portion of their societies. China will have it under control. India will soon follow. This leaves Africa and So.

America where women still have too many children. The answer is to make them all rich... of course...prosperity. And this is moving along, also. So the World will come to a peak, soon. Say 8 billion, and then slowly decrease. This should be sustainable, so let's don't be so pessimistic...we're on the way.

The good news is added CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing crop yields and forest yields, too. Agtechnology is taking advantage of this on a world-wide basis. These richer plants need less water to live and prosper, too. And higher temperatures across Canada and Russia will lengthen the growing season...most welcome..! And the research going on on climate change will prove up what is "ideal" soon...say by mid-century.

We're on the way to sustainability for 8 billion..!

Posted by Vernon A. on 20 Oct 2011


I don't think that people understand that we're not necessairly destroying the environment. Nature and the environment existed long before humans set foot on Earth and it will continue to exist, albeit extremely altered, long after our species becomes extinct. The only thing capable of destroying the entire planet is the Sun, when its hydrogen energy source has long been converted to other elements and it implodes on itself sucking up everything in its path, including the Earth.

The perspective people fail to take is in understanding that in reality destruction to the environment is destruction unto whole human kind including generations to come. Everyone talking about how population growth isn't a problem are only deluding themselves. It has been scientifically shown that any population that grows bigger than can be sustained by its environment suffers dire consequences, namely displacement, death and disease. In essence, by destroying our environment we are only robbing future generations of their livelihoods and that includes your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond.

My whole attitude on this issue is of indifference. I try to do what I can to reduce my impact on the environment, but that alone won't stop the disasters headed our way if we don't make some radical changes soon. If people want to bring more humans into the world so that they can suffer living in a planet with fierce resource competition in the future, then go ahead. As for me I'll spare my potential children this hardship by not bringing them here in the first place. My concern is for those being born into this whole mess, it makes me feel terrible to know what type of messed up world we are leaving them to inherit. It's an issue of ethics and social justice and I don't think very many people view it as such, at least not in terms of future human populations. So sad, maybe it won't be so dire, but who knows?

Posted by MaxineL on 21 Oct 2011


This has been going on too far. We MUST do something about our population SOON. If we dont act, our wild life will be gone. Inspiration to many people will be destroyed by our own. We are living like ants. If we do not control the world's population we will take over the whole world and starve ourselves. We will end up just like deer. Clueless people, sad to say.

Posted by Sarah Hoffman on 13 Dec 2011


The skyrocketing population of the past 200 years is a direct result of the fossil fuel revolution that enabled food production to feed an exponentially growing population. We are coming to the end of the era of fossil fuels, having already passed peak oil, and soon to reach peak coal, probably within another 20 years, if China's oil and coal consumption is any indication.

Malthus was 100% right, just a bit early. when our food production no longer supports world population, population will shrink accordingly.

But only then will it shrink. To think otherwise is simply delusional.

The real hockey stick: http://bit.ly/AEXeNv

Posted by sas on 12 Feb 2012



 

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