By Adam Byrnes, Erb Institute, University of Michigan
One of the most surprising themes of the conference was that it may already be too late to deal with overpopulation. Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a think tank for ecological research and advocacy, put it this way:
It is often tempting in the discussion around sustainability to say ‘oh population is the ultimate cause so let’s attack that’ when in fact it is too late because we are already committed to nine billion people. The girls [who will give birth to the next two billion people] are already born. You can’t change culture that fast, meaning there is no way to avoid the coming nine billion.”
One of the main concerns with overpopulation is that it can create a “runaway growth” scenario, where overpopulation leads to future overpopulation as more and more people procreate. But that’s only a fait accompli if people continue to have children and survive to adulthood at the same rates.
The second issues is whether all of these new people will continue to consume our limited resources at the same rate as the population rise.
Isn’t population stabilizing?
The argument goes like this: there is a saturation of population growth, which is natural, and growth giants like China and India will naturally decrease in population over time. This will result in an overall global population decline.
So, is population a problem or not?
Let’s look at the numbers. When I started writing this article, we had 7.186 billion people in the world according to this calculator. When I finished writing this article less than a week later, we had 7.188 billion people in the world, a 1.2 million-person increase in six days. According to a United Nations report, we will have nearly 9 billion people by 2040, which will include an additional 3 billion people in the middle class (my italics).
Therein lies the issue: the earth may not be able to host that many people. The carrying capacity, or the ability of the earth to provide the necessary means for human survival (think about it like a maximum occupancy – you can fit more people in a room, but it isn’t recommended), is estimated at or below 8 billion people according to a survey of the 65 studies that have estimated the Earth’s carrying capacity. So, regardless of whether the population stabilizes, we are currently on a trajectory to a time when the supply of earth’s products (breathable air, clean water, usable energy, abundant food supply, etc.) is outweighed by the demand of human necessity.
Whether the population will stabilize then is really a question about how big the problem will be once we go above the 8 billion mark. There is some disagreement on this point. The United Nations first projected that the global population would stabilize at 9 billion, then recently revised its projections up to 10.1 billion. Other models, including one done by the Sante Fe Institute, argue that a stable population will depend on access to energy and food sources and ominously suggest that we could be in for another period of “strong [population] growth.” In other words, it depends on what projections you believe. The Sante Fe Institute argues that the U.N. is simply using past trends to predict the future, which can lead to errors in prediction (anyone remember when people thought that the housing market would never lose value because it never had?). Either way, there is some consensus that population may stabilize, but it will likely be over Earth’s occupancy limit.
Does population growth necessarily mean an increase in resource consumption patterns?
That 8 billion carrying capacity assumes that humans will all consume at the same rate, but that is not what is happening. The world’s wealthy (myself included) consume far above our means. This is a problem in and of itself, but the problem is about to get worse as those 3 billion people rise out of poverty over the next 30 years and join the ranks of the middle class. This is what Johan Rockström meant: overpopulation is a problem, but the bigger problem is that people who currently use fewer resources (aka the poor) will soon use a lot more as they become more affluent.
Consider the current imbalance of resource consumption (taken from here):
- Currently, 20 percent of the people in developed nations consume 86 percent of the world’s goods.
- 12 percent of the world’s population uses 85 percent of its water.
- Globally, 20 percent of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of total private consumption expenditures. The poorest 20 percent account for a minuscule 1.3 percent.
- The richest fifth (1/5):
- Consume 45 percent of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth consume 5 percent.
- Use 58 percent of the total energy, the poorest fifth use less than 4 percent.
- Have 74 percent of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth have 1.5 percent.
- Consume 84 percent of all paper, the poorest fifth use 1.1 percent.
- Own 87 percent of the world’s vehicle fleet, while the poorest fifth own less than 1 percent.
Outside of the social and ecological justice issues inherent here, you can start to see the problems that will arise when an additional 3 billion people start vying for the same, finite resources.
Myfootprint.org has a calculator that calculates how many Earths it would take to support human beings if they lived at the same level as you. I took the test and, if everyone on earth lived as I do, it would take two and a half planet Earths to support the human race if everyone lived as lavishly as I do… and I am a starving graduate student!
Technology will save the day – it always has!
Some argue that the way out of this conundrum is to do what we have always done: invent new technology. Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland made that argument in a recent New York Times op-ed. The Earth, he argues, doesn’t have a static carrying capacity because we keep inventing new technology to increase its resourcefulness. To some extent he has a point. We have been able to support human life on Earth because of our technological advancements, such as Norman Borlaug’s invention of dwarf wheat that produced twice as much yield and fed millions.
The problem with this thinking is two-fold. First, it assumes that we will always be able to create technology that will save the day. That is a very large assumption. Should we also assume that whomever invents this technology will benevolently allow the world to use it? Or should we assume that the inventor would use it as a source of control (see: OPEC)?
Second, it assumes that we can just go on living the lives we live without fear of the consequences. Unfortunately, that mentality has gotten us into the difficult spot we find ourselves in with increasing levels of ocean acidity, a broken Nitrogen cycle, increasing biodiversity loss, and on and on (for more on these problems watch Rockström’s TED talk here. For the specifics of how we are quickly scaling our planetary boundaries, start at around the 10-minute mark).
Ellis is asking, and thus answering, the wrong question. He is asking, “Can we preserve our current lifestyle?” The answer to that question is a qualified “perhaps.” What he ought to ask is, “Should we continue to preserve our current lifestyle?” The answer to that question requires some soul searching.
In the end, we may have to live with the idea that just because we can do something, does not mean that we should.
Adam Byrnes is an MBA and MS candidate at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. He has experience in various private, public, and nonprofit sector roles including: working on multiple (mostly successful) political campaigns, developing public policy at multiple government levels, managing relationships with over a hundred elected officials for a large electric utility, and developing a strategic plan for an urban ecology nonprofit in San Francisco. Passionate about technology commercialization, Adam has recently worked for three early-stage startups, including Simpa Networks, a Bangalore-based startup working to provide renewable energy to people without access to electricity.
Adam attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2013 in Dalian, China through the Student Reporter conference reporting program. Student Reporter is a journalism incubator and online media outlet for business, economics and sustainability stories.