With this Halloween came a scarier scenario than the whole gaggle of monsters, killers, and zombies combined: the likelihood that the planet’s 7 billionth human was born that day. Anticipated for years, the event marks a dangerous milestone in the Earth’s trend towards human overpopulation. The Earth Policy Institute warns that “we are far overshooting the earth’s capacity to support us, even as some 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty.” Without a sharp reduction in the human population, either stemming from dramatic controls on our rate of growth, the Institute cautions, the risk remains that we will experience a population crash anyhow due to an abundance of scarcity, wars, and global calamity.
The birth of the 7 billionth living human is indeed a cause for alarm. Seven billion, as CNN notes, is a really, really big number – if you stacked all the humans on Earth head-to-head, the population would reach 1/14th of the distance to the sun. Our rate of reproduction is rapidly accelerating as the world gains greater access to modern medicine. By 2050, the planet will likely have a global population of 9.3 billion. Jason Clay, an expert for The World Wildlife Fund, claims that at this rate, we’ll need to grow more food over the next 40 years than we did for the previous 8,000. India alone needs to build the equivalent of a new Chicago every year to house enough commercial and residential space for migrants moving into its ever-denser cities.
With all the doomsaying, it should be no wonder that many feel the 7 billion milestone is grounds for panic.
As Bryan Walsh noted, “the usual Malthusian worries” reared their head; Malthus, who saw the decline in 19th century English living standards, proposed regulating the family size of the lower classes to prevent the degradation of cities into crime-filled, poverty-ridden slums. Historically, concern about overpopulation is nothing new, but the rapid pace of development across a globalizing world has introduced worrying new factors that any Malthusian analyst should be inclined to take into account. In industrialized nations, the percentage of the population aged 65 and over is expected to increase from 16% to 26% by 2050. Inversely, these same rapid advancements in health care have resulted in the share of the population below 20 in developing countries reaching almost 40%. These two factors will likely result in stagnation in the developed world and increasing instability in poorer countries without a massive shift in global management priorities.
Author Joel Cohen suggests that we have three options: Increase the amount of available resources, reduce demand through population reduction and family planning, or reform our current, wasteful attitudes towards the environment. Earth’s future denizens will likely have to rely on a combination of all three.
Bryan Walsh suggests that our future quality of life will have less to do with absolute numbers than how we manage resources, education, and population patterns. The optimistic futurists, or Cornucopians, believe that with adequate preparatory measures, increases in the planet’s population will be as manageable as it is today, even if the process of sorting the planet into order will be messy and painful. The Earth has theoretical carrying capacity for several billion more humans, but the load needs to be spread evenly to avoid massive pockets of overcrowding.
The truth is that there is little evidence that without massive intervention the planet is headed for anything less than a systemic collapse of the human support network. Dr. Richard Muller, one of the preeminent global warming skeptics, recently admitted that an intensive two-year review of climate change confirmed that the Earth is rapidly warming. Climate change combined with potential regional overcrowding is a deadly proposition for international stability and the ecosystem.
The solution has to be a mixture of the Malthusian and Cornucopian approaches. Governments must encourage access to family planning and contraception as ways of preventing population explosions. They must also invest heavily in renewable energy and pollution controls as well as lower barriers to immigration and emigration, to encourage equitable and stable development. The alternative – a continued refusal to acknowledge that there needs to be fundamental change in the way we approach population control and international development in general – is a scary future, one marked by an unstable world characterized by artificial scarcity, wastefulness, and the looming specter of conflict over energy.
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