We talk a lot about CO2, deforestation and pollution. But is human overpopulation killing the planet more than anything, really?
By Jody McCutcheon
Facebook pages are full of joyous announcements. Gossip columnists live for stories on the subject and economists say we need more to support an ageing population. But we need to ask ourselves: Should we be happy about people having babies?
The twentieth century was a bonanza for the human population, which grew from 1.5 billion in 1900 to six billion by 1999. That number grew to seven billion in the twenty-first century’s first decade. According to the US Census Bureau, our species has a net gain of one person every sixteen seconds. Given how much we consume as a species per person, this seems to be too many.
Unless you’re a large corporation that needs unskilled workers, that is. It’s thought by some economists to be behind global economic injustice to some extent. It’s pretty difficult for workers to demand better conditions and higher wages when companies know there are virtually millions of other people waiting to take the place of any employees who start to demand too much.
Urban sprawl and mountains of garbage, industry and industrial agriculture, extinction-inducing levels of hunting, poaching and fishing. These are but a few notorious trademarks of the twentieth century, along with an ever-accelerating human compulsion to consume, consume, consume. Our growing numbers mean this is simply no longer sustainable. As of 2021, we have been gobbling the equivalent of 1.7 Earths a year to support our collective habits. This means the planet requires eighteen months to regenerate what we consume in twelve.
Is Human Overpopulation Really a Problem?
However, whether this is a problem of consumption habits or sheer numbers is the question. Writer George Monbiot, for example, is passionate on the point that there is no need to reduce human numbers whatsoever. IF we all drastically reduce our consumption. But given the grave economic implications this would have–think unemployment, recession, and a completely different lifestyle to the one that most of us in the developed world are used to–this seems highly unlikely. Which means the only realistic solution is to gradually reduce the number of humans on the planet.
Moreover, even if our consumer habits were curbed, an increasing–and increasingly affluent–population demands ever more food. The farming for this requires more cleared land. And this means deforestation, which releases tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere–about three gigatons (three billion tons) annually, according to one collaborative study.
And let’s not forget about pollution. The average two year old human will generate an incredible amount of rubbish in the West! He or she will go through a whopping 6000 plastic diapers, dozens, if not hundreds -of plastic toys, dozens of bibs, clothing and shoes. And don’t even get me started on bedding, car seats, strollers and other furniture. That’s just the first two years of life!
In short, with every child we have, we’re at least doubling the impact we have on the planet.
Sure, the blame lies largely at the feet of wealthy countries, which create larger carbon footprints than do developing countries. One Briton, for example, wields the carbon footprint of 22 Malawians, and Qatar has the highest carbon footprint per capita in the world. But the developing world is catching up. And it’s pretty hard to lecture them on this issue. They’ll quite rightly argue: who are we to judge?
More Humans, Fewer Other Life Forms
So, is human overpopulation killing the planet more than any other factor? It certainly seems to be so. And while we reproduce like, well, rabbits, wildlife isn’t faring well.
Human pollution, destruction of wildlife habitats and overfishing are bringing devastation to wildlife populations that’s actually leading to the sixth major extinction. Scientists are lumping the twentieth century’s unprecedented reduction of biodiversity into what they call the Holocene extinction. They estimate as many as 140,000 species disappearing annually, due to human population expansion.
And the worst part? Where there is currently the most biodiversity (Africa), so is the greatest population growth. Which means elephants, giraffes, hippos and other majestic African animals may soon become extinct, due to rapid African birth rate expansion (+700% year on year in some countries, such as Niger, according to UN statistics).
Speaking of overpopulation in Africa, it is already affecting 750 million people worldwide who have no access to potable water sources. 2.5 billion are without proper sanitation. Many believe we’ve passed or are in the throes of a peak-water situation, meaning voracious demand has outpaced renewable supply. Ecological costs outweigh the benefits of extraction.
Besides industrial pollution, much of the water crisis is due to intensive agriculture designed to feed a growing number of humans. The latter half of the twentieth century saw irrigation systems nearly triple worldwide, from 100 million hectares in 1950 to 280 million hectares in 2000, to feed the burgeoning population.
Consequently, many nations have dipped into non-renewable underground aquifers as global water supplies have been polluted or strained. The United Nations states that by 2025, 1.8 billion people may inhabit areas of “absolute water scarcity” (less than 1,000m3 of water available per person per year). Two-thirds of the global population may be living in “water-stressed” regions (less than 1,700m3 of water available per person per year).
Not How Much, But What We Eat
Many sources (such as here) suggest enough food exists for ten billion people. That’s a number that’s close to the UN’s estimated 2050 population of 9.6 billion. Yet in the last decade, many factors have caused rising food demand to outpace production.
It’s not so much that there’s not enough food for us all. It’s more about what we are eating not being efficient. And what we are eating is too much meat and dairy.
We need to grow corn and soy to feed the animals we eat. These resources, which are not only heavy consumers of water and land, but are also normally GMO, thus heavily sprayed with pesticides, deplete the earth’s soil and resources.
As anyone who has seen Cowspiracy knows, each year, we kill over 70bn farm animals. That’s around ten times the human population! If we can afford to feed 70 billion animals, surely, if we stop animal agriculture, we can afford to feed 7bn humans?
The problem is: as people in developing nations like China and Nigeria get richer, they want to eat more meat. No wonder food shortages are expected to get worse.
Earth: The Next Generation
So how can we protect our species? Quite frankly, we need to reduce our numbers. I don’t care how vegan you are or how little you consume: if you have kids, your contribution to the destruction of the planet is bigger than anyone’s who never had children. This is not to shame anyone; it’s just to state a fact few wish to acknowledge.
But there is hope.
- Population control is certainly possible, through re-education, the championing of women’s rights and changes to government policy. Some 220 million women worldwide lack access to family planning, with a whopping forty percent of pregnancies being unintended. It’s encouraging to know the promotion of family planning and gender equality leads to more sustainable birth rates.
- Furthermore, governments should nix childbearing incentives, like baby bonuses, rent and tax breaks. Instead, they should increase the tax burden on childbearing families. And what about tax breaks for childless couples?
- We must break the taboo of discussing the importance of not having children. We must acknowledge it’s the single-most important contribution anyone who cares about the planet can make.
The transition to more sustainable reproductive behaviour won’t happen quickly or easily. But it must happen. For the double-helixed sakes of our planet and all life on it, including ours.
Is human overpopulation killing the planet in your opinion? We’d love to hear from you in the comments, below!
Images: 1. Wikicommons 2. Seppo.net 3. World Resource Institute