Bill Ryerson’s Introduction to “OVER”

March 27, 2015 • Daily Email Recap

Introduction to Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot, by William Ryerson.


MOST CONVERSATIONS ABOUT POPULATION begin with statistics-demographic data, fertility rates in this or that region, the latest reports on malnutrition, deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change, and so on. Such data, while useful, fails to generate mass concern about the fundamental issue affecting the future of the Earth.

In reality, every discussion about population involves people, the world that our children and grandchildren will live to see and the health of the planet that supports all life. In my roles as president of Population Media Center and CEO of the Population Institute, I spend most of my time in developing countries, where many of my friends and acquaintances are educated and prospering. But I also know individuals who are homeless, unemployed, or hungry. The vast majority of people in these societies, regardless of their current status, do not enjoy a safety net. They live from day to day in hopes that their economic circumstances will improve. Abstract statistics on poverty are irrelevant to families struggling to secure the food, water, and resources needed to sustain a decent life.

Those who blithely dismiss the challenges posed by population growth like to say that we could physically squeeze 7 billion people into an area the size of Texas. They don’t stop to consider the suffering already caused by overpopulation. The population debate is not about the maximum number of people that could be packed onto the planet. The crucial question is: How many people can the Earth sustain, at a reasonable standard of living, while leaving room for the diversity of life to flourish? There is no precise answer to this question, but the facts overwhelmingly support one conclusion: We cannot go on the way we are going. We are already doing severe and irreparable harm to the planet. Something has to give.

If we cannot live sustainably with 7.2 billion people, how are we going to support billions more by the end of this century? The United Nations’ latest “medium-variant” projection indicates that we could have 10.9 billion people by 2100, but that may be an underestimation. Fertility rates in many parts of the world are not falling as fast as previously anticipated. In some countries, both developed and developing, fertility rates are actually on the rise again. In 2014 the global total fertility rate-the average number of children born to each woman during her lifetime-was 2.5. If this rate were to remain unchanged, demographers suggest that we could have 27 billion people on the planet by the end of the century. Given our limited inheritance of soil, water, and arable land, sustaining a global population of that size is not even remotely possible.


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