The idea that we are reaching a population crisis, that is as a species humans are overpopulating the planet, is becoming an increasingly held opinion. This would appear not to take into account that global population limits are dictated in large part by our social behaviour.
“If we don’t halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity – and will leave a ravaged world.”
Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall
There are also plenty of facts to support the idea that our population is putting insurmountable strain on our planet.
Our world population has grown more since 1950 than it has in the previous four million years. With these additional people come additional demands on our earth: 80% of the original rain forests have been cleared or degraded; one-third to one half of the Earth’s land surface has been transformed.
Currently, 505 million people live in countries with water-stress or water scarce conditions. By 2025, almost 48% of the Earth’s population, between 2.4 and 3.4 billion people, will be living in areas of water stress or scarcity.
Only 0.3% of the planet’s water is available for human use. Due to mismanagement, over 40% of the groundwater in the U.S. is contaminated by industrial, agricultural, and household pollution, making it extremely difficult and costly to purify.
80% of the earth’s original rainforests have not been clear cut or degraded due solely to population growth, it is the way in which we as a population are choosing to live in a consumption driven economy. If we were more intelligent about the way in which we consumed our finite resources I would expect the use of those resources to decline significantly and without a reduction in our standard of living. In fact I would propose that fundamental changes to the way we operate on an economic level would result in a increasing of the standard of living for our entire human family.
Only 0.3% of the planet’s water is available for human use. Due to mismanagement, over 40% of the groundwater in the U.S. is contaminated by industrial, agricultural, and household pollution, making it extremely difficult and costly to purify. Yet again we are not experiencing water shortages because we are drinking it all, but rather because of poor management and industrial pollution.
The point here is that we can look around and claim that all the ecological problems we are facing are directly tied into overpopulation, without consideration for the way that population is behaving.
Do we really require multiple brands of any product, or is it intelligent to operate a society based on continual consumption and growth on a finite planet?
Of course not.
We could reduce our resource use significantly simply by concentrating on producing only the highest quality products with focuses on durability, functionality and the ability to upgrade and recycle when necessary.
I have also heard it claimed that the effect known as an urban heat island is directly correlated to population; this is an inaccurate understanding of the term urban heat island.
The term urban heat island refers to the tendency for a city or town to remain warmer than its surroundings that is to say that a large city centre, such as New York, will have higher temperature readings than the surrounding suburbs. It is not caused by the population of the city but by the design of the city, sunlight is absorbed by man-made structures: roads; parking lots; and buildings. With little or no water to evaporate, the sunlight’s energy goes into raising the temperature of those surfaces and the air in contact with them.
This effect is caused mostly by the lack of vegetation and soil moisture, which would normally use the absorbed sunlight to evaporate water as part of photosynthesis, a process called “evapotranspiration”. This is also the reason why forests are cooler than deserts.
Now of course it could be argued that population growth has created more area susceptible to the urban heat island effect, however I would argue that we could counter act this effect with intelligent design. As opposed to covering acres and acres with concrete and asphalt that absorb sunlight and re-radiate the heat we could have more grass and trees to aid in the process of evapotranspiration.
There are also of course other factors to consider when discussing an urban heat island such as: the many vehicles and machinery in use. Again this is not due simply to population size but how that population has chosen to conduct itself, we could be using electric vehicles and reducing the amount of materialistic goods we are producing just as broad brush examples.
Population levels on a finite planet certainly are an issue and I am by no means saying that they are not, are they a problem right now? Not yet, in the future they certainly could be but that will depend on several factors including general social awareness of our environment. We must begin to understand the carrying capacity of our planet, but we also need to start making decisions about how we function as a society. The population limit for a society that is focused on an economy of infinite growth and one that is concerned with an intelligent systems approach to providing a high standard of living for our entire human family coupled with biosphere sustainability is two completely different things.
In short we can continue to exist in an infinite growth paradigm and struggle with all the environmental and social problems that arise as a result, or we can challenge our current social model in its entirety and come up with practical solutions to the short falls we find. It may be difficult for many of us to question everything we have been raised to understand, but it will also be difficult to live on a planet of ever decreasing biodiversity.