Today, world population stands at seven billion — about 1,700 per cent more than the 370 million during the Middle Ages. Will it ever be too much?
Written by Rebecca Ferguson, Staff Writer
Seven billion people rushing about the globe is an undeniably overwhelming thought. There is no arguing the fact that it is an absolutely enormous number. But is it too much for the earth to handle? With its current growth rate, the world’s population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050. What then?
The idea of overpopulation in was first thought of by British scholar Rev. Thomas Malthus in the late 1700s. Back then, the world’s population was only one billion and he already believed that number far outstripped the planet’s resources. Malthus’ theory stated that once the Earth reached its food production limit, it would stabilize by wiping out large numbers of the population with famine and disease.
But, of course, Malthus did not account for the Industrial Revolution some hundred years later. Efficiency in food production has increased exponentially since then. In the last 50 years alone, the amount that we can harvest from one acre has increased by more than two-and-a-half times. But the world’s population is now seven times larger than it was in Malthus’ time. The debate surrounding overpopulation thus continues.
With its current growth rate, the world’s population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050. What then?
Overpopulation believers state that the Earth is already full and that we need 1.5 Earths to sustain the current economy. Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding, says that the system is already breaking down. The former executive director of Greenpeace International claims that Occupy Wall Street, the fiscal cliff fiasco and rising oil prices are all interconnected issues that prove the world is heading towards imminent collapse.
In the other hand, the Population Research Institute, an international non-profit, says that the growth is slowing; within 30 years, the population will peak before declining. They also say that our ability to innovate will result in the creation of new, species-preserving technology.
It is nearly impossible to know which side is correct, but evidence increasingly points to truth being somewhere in the middle. Overpopulation is a myth in the sense that the planet is not running out of physical space. If you stood everybody side-by-side, the world’s population could fit into Los Angeles. The problem is not of literal overpopulation, but space and resource allocation.
By 2050, more than half of the world’s population will be living in developing countries. That poses a problem that cannot be ignored. With vaccines and better sanitation, the developing nations are facing booming populations, but the distribution of the world’s resources is stacked very unfairly against them.
Water may cover 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but only one per cent of that water is drinkable. Over 3,000 children in developing nations die every day from lack of access to clean drinking water. (Fun fact: In North America, more water is used for front lawns than all of its corn combined.) Increased population will not result in the exhaustion of the world’s resources, but the consequences on developing nations are dire.
Over at the developed world, the bulk of the world’s resources are being consumed. The number of births in developed nations is declining, but a person in Europe, North America or Japan consumes as much resources as 32 Kenyans.
And even in the developed nations, demand is fast outstripping supply. In the last 40 years, the average growth rate of yields per acre has dropped to two per cent from three. A barrel of oil – $16 for more than 100 years – now costs $75 – a stark testament to its increasing scarcity. Our infrastructure has also expanded so much that we are putting pressure on almost all other species. The only animals not experiencing a drop in population are ones that humans either eat (cows) or keep as pets (cats and dogs).
Overpopulation does not mean overcrowding; it refers to the Earth’s ability, or lack thereof, to sustain its people. But that ability is not the problem per se. Despite Mankind and its massive expansion project, the Earth currently still has enough food for 11 billion people – nearly twice its population. The problem is allocation; and that problem is real. Despite all the food we have, more than a seventh of our population is still starving.