Population: An Underlying Theme in Addressing Some of the World’s Most Challenging Problems
The world’s population is now more than 7 billion and continues to grow by 82 million people per year. During the last half-century, the world’s population more than doubled. Between 1960 and 2010, the world population rose from 3 billion to 6.8 billion. In other words, there has been more growth in population in the last fifty years than the previous 2 million years that humans have existed. Currently the rate of population increase is 1.2% per year, which means the planet’s human population is on a trajectory to double again in 58 years.
The true enormity of a “billion” is important to understand when thinking about human population. For example, if a person is fined a million dollars and ordered to pay $100 dollars per day towards the total due, it would take 27.4 years to pay off the debt. If however, the fine were a billion dollars, the time required to pay off the debt would be 27,397 years. When discussing a billion of anything, one should take a moment to appreciate the titanic size involved.
The extreme growth in human population – now counted by an additional billion people every 12 to 13 years — is mortally taxing the Earth and its resources. Each individual person has a unique impact on the planet’s environment. Some people may be relatively less damaging than others, but no living individual is without an ecological footprint. In other words, each person needs basic resources and almost all people aspire to utilize significantly more resources than are required by their basic needs. As these needs and aspirations are multiplied by a factor of 7 billion, day after day and year after year, the stability of the planet’s ecosphere has been, and will continue to be, severely compromised.
As a result, the Earth is attempting to impose its own checks on human population. We can witness these “checks” in the form of widespread disease and the emergence of new disease strains, food and water shortages, poor harvests and violent and destructive weather caused by climate change. While it should be obvious that the Earth is a finite sphere and cannot endure infinite growth by any single species, we should also remember that Earth’s current web-of-life is the result of billions of years of complex evolution. It is irreplaceable.
Beyond the dour environmental implications of current and future global population growth, there is a human tragedy in process as well. When we look forward to the next 40 years, the most significant population increases will take place in the areas of our world where natural resources and the infrastructure of modernity are already the scarcest. Ninety-five percent of human population growth is occurring in countries already struggling with poverty, illiteracy and civil unrest. In fact, developing countries are in need of approximately $1 trillion per year in new infrastructure (school rooms, for example) to accommodate the dramatic increases to their populations. This figure is effectively impossible to meet, which means the continued expansion of human population will result in an increase in the number of people living in poverty, unemployment and with inadequate health care.
The median projection of population size by the U.N. Population Division suggests that population growth rates will decline over the coming several decades, with a possible stabilization around the year 2050. But achieving this will take an enormous amount of hard work, creativity and financing – it is by no means a fiat accompli. And, even if population is stabilized between 8 and 9 billion, a scenario which becomes less likely with each passing day, the increase to human population will still be between 20% and 30%.
That magnitude of this increase, coming on top of the unprecedented growth that has occurred in the last half-century, will be felt in all aspects of life. It will further stress already strained ecological systems and worsen poverty in much of the developing world, thus aggravating threats to international security.
Population growth is not the only threat facing humanity, but it will be a major contributor to the crises that await us and the planet in the coming century. Overpopulating the planet puts us all at risk of extreme environmental and social consequences that we are beginning to witness today.