Overpopulation and the Environment


Not too long ago, we would say that there were 6 billion people on the planet, and we did so because the number was closer to 6 billion than it was 7. Now, with 6.7 billion people on the planet, that is no longer the case. The rapid rise of population over the last few years is simply staggering, and way beyond the ability of the earth's natural resources to cope with. In 1961, there were 3 billion people on Earth, whereas in 1986, when the Earth's population was 5 billion, we reached a watershed, since that was the year when we reached the Earth's carrying capacity.

In the UK alone, it is understood that the population could rise sharply to 90 million by the middle of the next century, adding 50% to the current population. A more moderate expectation (although still large enough to be concerning) is around 79 million by 2056.

It is evident from this that the human population cannot continue to grow at the rate it has done in the past. Most predictions have it levelling out around 8 or 9 billion, which must happen because there simply are not enough resources to go around, the two most obvious shortages being water and food.

Water Shortages

Wetlands are invaluable to human beings, although they are currently seriously under threat. Not only do they help prevent floods and droughts, but they purify the water for us to drink. The reason that wetlands are under such threat is because of the need to provide water for 6.7 billion people, which leads to water tables dropping, rivers running dry, and wetlands themselves shrinking by somewhere between 25% and 50% over the last 100 years.

The problem for humanity in terms of water consumption is that we only know of one way to quench our thirst when the water runs out - try to find it somewhere else. But the water cycle is a finite resource, and around the world we are discovering this the hard way. In short, "we're pumping out more water than nature is putting back in." Many rivers no longer even reach the sea because they have been dammed or diverted to suit our needs. This has serious ecological consequences, because one purpose of rivers is to carry nutrients and sediments down to the Deltas at the end of the rivers. As the rivers dry up, these nutrients are no longer delivered.

Because change in weather patterns tends to be quite quick, this will also affect water-intensive industries, such as paper and electronics manufacturing, leading in turn to economic losses.

As concern about water grows, local and global instability also grows. Already, for example, Israel imports its water from Turkey and, as part of a peace deal, it delivers some water each year to Jordan and to the Palestinian Authority. But with Israeli aquifers now at critical levels, questions are being asked as to whether these exports will continue to be viable. While some wars in the past have been fought over oil, governments around the world are preparing themselves for local conflicts based around water resources, since the fallout from these conflicts could have far-reaching consequences. "Globally, the UN expects water stress to spread dramatically. Although today 92 per cent of humanity has a relatively sufficient supply of water, by 2025 this is anticipated to drop to just 62 per cent." Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, told the first Asia-Pacific Water Summit that "throughout the world, water resources continue to be spoiled, wasted and degraded. The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict." The comments are made as 46 countries, housing 2.7 billion people, were identified as countries where water-related crises will create a high risk of violent conflict "15% of the world's present food supplies, on which 160 million people depend, are being grown with water drawn from rapidly depleting underground sources or from rivers that are drying up. In large areas of China and India, the water table has fallen catastrophically."

"Water will be the first of the critical resources to be affected [by climate change], for it is heavy, commands a low price, and thus is unprofitable to transport long distances. This means that most cities source their supply locally, in areas small enough for mild climate change to have an impact… Food such as grains, in contrast, is easily transported and if often sourced from afar, which means that only truly global disruptions would cause shortages in the world's cities.

Food Shortages

Around a third of all the land on the Earth is currently used for agriculture. With soil quality constantly decreasing, we either have to grow less (which would be impossible) or grow more food elsewhere. A large potential problem with this is that not all the Earth's surface is suitable for agriculture - deserts and mountains being obvious locations where large-scale agriculture is impossible without extraordinary usage of water.

Food shortages are nothing new to our world. We were all moved in 1984 when images of the famine in Ethiopia were beamed into our homes, although it is widely accepted that there was back then, and still is, enough food in circulation to feed everyone on the planet. Part of the problem is distribution and the markets. Often food is dumped in order to keep prices high (the less available something is, the more people will pay for it). Added to this problem we find the recent conversion of crops into biofuels has led to a rapid hike in basic food costs, causing shortages and riots in some countries. In 2007, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said that food prices had risen 40% in 2007, leaving 37 countries facing food crises. The report said that biofuels was one of the causes of this price hike. One serious economic concern is that Malaysia, for example, can produce biofuel at $54 per barrel, compared with the current price of £130 per barrel for crude oil. This means that more people companies will want to invest in biofuels, which in turn will lead to more environmental degradation. Some companies have tried to suggest that there can be "sustainable palm oil," although the Advertising Standards Agency recently upheld a complaint by Friends of the Earth regarding an advert by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. The advert claimed that their palm oil was sustainable, but the ASA ruled that this was a contradiction in terms.

It is therefore not just available land that leads to food shortages, but also the way we consume. "The population has quadrupled from something like 1.6 billion at the turn of the twentieth century to about 6 billion at the end of it. However, the amount of consumption has increased by a factor of 16. That surely is not sustainable, and the growth was utterly dependent on a source of energy that is non-renewable, namely oil. If we consider all the ways that oil has supported the increase in human population and recognize that oil is no longer going to be nearly as freely available, we can expect a serious population crunch at some point in the foreseeable future."

Food shortages, like water shortages, are also a security issue as much as an environmental issue. As land is degraded, crops can no longer be grown in that location, and to feed a people, that people have to find new areas to grow food. "The UN millennium ecosystem assessment ranked land degradation among the world's greatest environmental challenges, claiming it risked destabilising societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty. Some 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded." In this context, in June 2007, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, produced a report detailing the environmental roots of the conflict in Darfur. He said that "people are being pushed into other people's terrain by the changing climate and it is leading to conflict." "Twenty years ago, the economist Amartya Sen noted that democracies - in which leaders have to be responsive to people who can vote them out of power - do not produce famines. The 20th century is full of examples of undemocratic regimes failing to protect populations at risk of drought, floods and other weather-related phenomena. Populations in undemocratic states will be particularly vulnerable to the humanitarian crises induced by climate change."

The rise in population growth is particularly problematic when one assesses the changes in our diet. "Even as the world's big farmers are pulling out of producing food for people and animals, the global population is rising by 87 million people a year; developing countries such as China and India are switching to meat-based diets that need more land; and climate change is starting to hit food producers hard. Recent reports in the journals Science and Nature suggest that one-third of ocean fisheries are in collapse, two-thirds will be in collapse by 2025, and all major ocean fisheries may be virtually gone by 2048….In seven of the past eight years the world has actually grown less grain than it consumed… World stocks of grain - that is, the food held in reserve for times of emergency - are now sufficient for just over 50 days."

The Future of the Population Problem

It is clear that population is a matter of environmental concern. "If we had to find a way of creating a sustainable future for a billion people, I can assure you it would be a great deal simpler and a lot better for the natural world than trying to find a solution for 6 billion people, let alone 9 billion people." The destruction of habitats around the world is caused not just by how we use the Earth's resources, but by how many of us use the Earth's resources. The waste from 6 billion people is also significantly less than the waste from 7 billion people. It should be noted, though, that consumption differs across the world - if everyone on Earth lived according to the average American, for example, we would need three Earths to support our current population.

It is widely assumed that the number of people in the world will naturally level off, although it is not understood how that may happen. Indeed, Aubrey Meyer notes that very often solutions to climate change effectively point towards the "'murder of members of the world's poorest populations,' whose lives by the economists' estimates were worth only a fifteenth of that of a rich person." If there is a sharp decline in resources available, it seems evident that the poorest nations will suffer the greatest.

China already has a population policy, and there are a growing number of people who recommend at least discussions about similar policies being adopted around the world, policies that may include, for example, the education of girls and the empowerment of women (both of which typically lead to smaller family sizes). This may certainly be a more sensible policy than waiting for oil to become less accessible and therefore forcing a dramatic change in agriculture which could even lead to what James Lovelock describes as a "most dreadful cull" to be expected this century.

Ultimately, it has long been known that we are living far beyond our means on this planet. The sustainable number of people on Earth is around a half of what it is today, a number which would lead to better quality of life for all. "Choosing how to get from where we are to where we need to be is the crunch."