Already straining to host seven billion souls, Earth is set to teem with billions more, and only a revolution in the use of resources can avert an environmental crunch, experts say. As early as 1798, Thomas Malthus gloomily forecast that our ability to reproduce would quickly outstrip our ability to produce food, leading to mass starvation and a culling of the species.
But an industrial revolution and
its impact on agriculture proved Malthus and later doom sayers wrong,
even as our numbers doubled and redoubled with accelerating frequency.
alarmist predictions, historical increases in population have not been
economically catastrophic," notes David Bloom, a professor in the
Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard.
Today, though, it seems reasonable to ask if Malthus wasn't simply a couple of centuries ahead of the curve.
October 31, the world's population is officially scheduled to hit seven
billion - a rise of two billion in less than a quarter century.
Over six decades, the global fertility rate has roughly halved, and amounts to a statistical 2.5 children per woman today.
this varies greatly from country to country. And whether the planet's
population eventually stabilises at nine, 10 or 15 billion depends on
what happens in developing countries, mostly in Africa, with the fastest
As our species has expanded, so
has its devouring of the planet's bounty, from fresh water and soil
richness to forests and fisheries.
At its current pace, humankind
will need, by 2030, a second planet to satisfy its appetites and absorb
its waste, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) calculated last month.
through the coal, oil and gas that drive prosperity, we are also
emitting greenhouse gases that alter the climate, potentially maiming
the ecosystems which feed us.
"From soaring food prices to the
crippling effects of climate change, our economies are now confronting
the reality of years of spending beyond our means," GFN's president,
Mathis Wackernagel, said.
French diplomat Brice Lalonde, one of
two co-ordinators for next June's UN Conference on Sustainable
Development, dubbed "Rio+20," said Earth's population rise poses a
fundamental challenge to how we use resources.
"In 2030 there will be at least another billion people on the planet," Lalonde said.
question is, how do we boost food security and provide essential
services to the billion poorest people but without using more water,
land or energy?"
This is why, he said, Rio+20 will focus on
practical things such as increasing cleaner sources in the world energy
mix, smarter use of fresh water, building cities that are
environmentally friendlier and raising farm yields without dousing the
soil with chemicals.
But such options dwell far more on the impact of population growth than on the problem itself.
Somalia - seven children
fertility rates would help the human tally stabilise at eight billion
and haul poor countries out of poverty, ease the strain on natural
resources and reduce climate vulnerability, say advocates.
For some experts, voluntary birth control is the key.
Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Programme at
the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, cites Somalia as a case study
of what happens when women have no access to contraception.
by civil war and poverty, its population is projected to grow from
about 10 million today to 22.6 million by 2050. It has the
eighth-highest birth rate in the world and an average of seven children
Even before the country fell into a full-fledged
crisis, a third of its children were severely underweight, according to
UNICEF. Ninety-nine percent of married Somali women have no access to
Many economists, though, argue that the answer lies more in reducing poverty and boosting education, especially of women.
2010 study in Colombia found family planning explained less than 10
percent of the country's fertility fall. The real driver was improved
standards of living.
Even so, at summits that seek to shape Earth's future, tackling population growth head-on is almost taboo.
I attended the UN environment conference in Stockholm [in 1972], the
No. 1 item on the agenda was out-of-control population growth," recalled
Paul Watson, head of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a radical green
"When I attended the 1992 conference [in Rio], it wasn't even on the agenda. No one talked about it any more."
Demography was similarly absent from the UN's 2002 Johannesburg Summit, when Earth's population had climbed to six billion.
Why does "how many is too much" remain absent from the top tables?
perceived reason is the opposition by religious conservatives to
contraception or abortion. Politicians, too, may see no mileage in
addressing an issue that will only cause them headaches and yield
benefits several decades away.
But for some critics, population
measures are synonymous with the mistakes of coercive sterilisation in
India in the 1970s or China's "one child" policy, which has led to a
gender imbalance in favour of boys.
News Source: News 24