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.”
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.
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.
Consider the current imbalance of resource consumption (taken from here):
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!
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.