Population – Humanity’s Greatest Challenge

Posted by on March 29, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments



There are currently over seven billion people on this planet. Experts predict that this could top nine billion by the end of 2050. But what does this mean for humanity? How does population compare as a problem against climate change, global warming, or the diminishing availability of fossil fuels upon which we so heavily depend? As always, there are more than one side to the story, and as always, the waters of information versus emotion are muddied, because this issue is an emotive one. It it taps into the righteous indignation from individuals saying we have no right to tell others what to do with their bodies, or how and when they are allowed to breed, and also the post-colonialist problem of not allowing those in developing countries have the spoils and riches and advantages that people in first world nations take for granted. People get angry, and rightly so too, because as with climate change, the population problem is one we have to face immediately and act on quickly, or it could spell the end of civilisation as we know it.

Overly dramatic I know, but civilisation “as we know it” is under threat from many angles. And civilisation “as we know it” will change regardless of what we do, because we are always in a state of flux, ever changing and growing, but within this lies one of our greatest threats: Growth.

Growth in most situations is seen as a good thing. Raising vegetables, for instance, is dependent upon growth, and the more growth the better for most plants. Plants, like humans, depend upon the earth for their sustenance, and the growth of any plant is limited by its ability to gather the needed nutrients and radiation from the sun. In a situation where the plant has reached its potential for growth and repair, the plan ceases to grow, and dies. We see a similar situation here on earth with the growth of the human species. The human population has gone from two billion to seven billion in under 200 years. According to the site Worldometers, which updates the human population “on the fly”:

A tremendous change occurred with the industrial revolution: whereas it had taken all of human history until around 1800 for world population to reach one billion, the second billion was achieved in only 130 years (1930), the third billion in less than 30 years (1959), the fourth billion in 15 years (1974), and the fifth billion in only 13 years (1987).

It is estimated that there will be ten billion people on earth by the turn of the century, and while most of us will be long gone by that stage, the burden on the planet and its resources can never be more plain. Think about how difficult most of the world’s population find it already. According to the charity organisation Oxfam, one in six humans lives on less than one dollar per day. And while in countries like Malaysia, where an Australian dollar can buy a huge hand of bananas (i.e. the dollar can buy much more), this is still pittance compared to what is required for a person to live beyond mere existence, and to thrive. Seventy percent of the 1.3 billion people who live in what is termed as “extreme poverty” are women and girls. And poverty will increase, even as countries like China and India increase their standards of living toward what we in developed nations consider to be acceptable.

But money is not the only problem here. There is enough money in the world to feed everyone for their entire lives, that is, if it were money that people were eating. Money is an abstract concept, and is only a “stand-in” for the actual trade of goods. Money doesn’t sustain us, money just allows us access to the things we need to survive, which can then be traded further down the line for things that sustain others. The problem is space and resources. While it is true that we as a species are successfully raising people out of poverty, we are in turn increasing the demands upon our production of food and resources exponentially, and this carries with it great ongoing problems for the future.

The access to clean water is among the greatest concern, because water is the most basic of needs for the human species, and unclean water is, in turn, one of the biggest factors in carrying disease and causing illness worldwide. While currently the world is obsessed with the harvesting of fossil fuels to keep the engine of humanity chugging along, it has been said that as the population increases worldwide, the probability of wars being waged over access to water increases. Climactic changes on earth have shifted the availability to water from once rich sources, and we are already seeing the striving for clean water sources causing conflict in The Middle East. A report from Al Jazeera in 2012 says:

“Water scarcity is an issue exacerbated by demographic pressures, climate change and pollution,” said Ignacio Saiz, director of Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a social justice group. “The world’s water supplies should guarantee every member of the population to cover their personal and domestic needs.”

It is a hugely sensitive area of concern, touching on the rights of individuals, and the wants and needs for populations and groups. Sir David Attenborough, famous for his lifetime of nature documentary making,  recently said in an interview with The Telegraph:

“… it is the individual’s great privilege to have children. And who am I to say that you shan’t have children? That’s one thing. Then the next thing is that there’s a religious one, in the sense that the Catholic Church doesn’t accept this. That you should control the population. So that’s another huge area of concerns. And the last sensitivity – and the most tricky of all – is the fact, when you talk about world population, the areas we’re talking about are Africa and Asia…”

But this is not just about pressures we find ourselves under as humans. The pressures we put upon the planet are of extreme concern, so how can we balance our need to cut back on the production of greenhouse gasses and still maintain a decent quality of life for every creature on earth? The “OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030” (pdf) highlights most of the major challenges facing the planet, including the results of inaction on climate change, the inevitable extinction of species, affects upon agriculture, deforestation and the clearing of natural land for the purposes of mining and natural resources, and population stresses upon water availability and other resources. As we see from this report, the OECD nations (a full list of which can be seen here) are responsible for the use of most of the world’s resources, and are also responsible for a disproportionate amount of the world’s pollution and waste. This highlights our responsibility in this matter, and it comes at a cost; We, in developed nations, must learn to cut back on consumption, and learn to live simpler lives. Unfortunately, barring a scarcity in availability of consumer products, I fear we are stuck in an addiction for more, an addiction to collecting products, and an addiction for consuming, a cycle that will be nigh on impossible to break.

In theory we could feed a planet of 10 billion people. If the right resources were pushed in the right direction, if the right initiatives were implemented in the right places, and the right attitudes were adopted by everyone, we could meet these challenges with some kind of optimism for the future. Many nations see this as an imperative, to create better, cleaner and more sustainable ways of living. For us in the developed nations, however, we are yet to be convinced that this is the way forward. The advantage of sustainable energy and farming practices are many, and not the least of which include: 1. We create a cleaner environment for the planet. 2. We consume less and burn less fuel, curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. 3. We develop farming methods that are self sustaining and actually beneficial to the environment, using less land and removing the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides. And 4. We help to sustain the remaining biodiversity of the planet, rather than clearing more land for cattle. This is regardless of whether anthropogenic climate change is a reality (which I am convinced it is). We in Australia, North America and Europe must lead this charge to sustainability, and with it, we can help create a world where population growth can be controlled, and have the added benefit of being able to feed, clothe, shelter and educate every human on the planet.

What this means is that we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the rest of the world, to attack this challenge as a collective of nations, a borderless society, as a species of like-minded individuals, with the foresight to move ahead and forget the things that divide us. We can’t do this if we continue to see the bottom-line dollar value of our actions.

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  1. Great blog Martin. I’ve been having the same concerns for quite a while now. 
    The problem I find is when you bring up population and how to control/reduce, people look at you as a mad/evil person. 
    I personally have decided not to have children of my own. Would I love to have a mini me running around? Definitely, but this is my decision and many others like me have made the same.
    I hope for the generations to come, we don’t screw thing up too much.

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  2. @Vickie Lautrec

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  3. @Vickie Lautrec   Good riddance. http://www.vhemt.org/

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