Sunday, 31 July 2011

We are too many ... the last taboo?

Post by Ian
"Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many." ~ Opening to Serenity, Joss Whedon

This year, the population of our world will pass 7 billion. The population passed the 6 billion mark in 1999, only 12 years ago. In 1960, the population was around 3 billion. By 2050, human population is predicted to have passed the 9 billion mark. These numbers don't necessarily mean a lot. However, what they represent is a global catastrophe waiting to happen. They represent an increase in population density, an increase in resulting pollution, an increase in the causes of climatic change, a decrease in biodiversity.

The fact of population growth has an effect, more pronounced for the poorer people of the world. The current crisis in Somalia, for example, is partly caused by a semi-arid region struggling to support a population that has outgrown the carrying capacity of the land they populate. A drought has caused this problem, but what makes it a humanitarian disaster is the number of people that it affects. Compassion dictates that we must act, but we are likely to see an increase in such humanitarian disasters as an increasing population put ever more strain on our planet.

As population grows, we convert more of the planet's biomass to our own biomass. This is the way it has to happen, there is only a finite amount to go around. The current rate of consumption is around 1.5 Earths. We are consuming the resources of the planet at an unsustainable rate. In doing so, we strip the habitat of numerous species - thereby, reducing the biodiversity of our planet. The Optimal Population Trust (OPT) states: At a 1990 per capita emission rate of about four tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, the world's theoretically environmentally optimum population level would not be much higher than two billion, living at an average 1990 lifestyle, in order to stabilise carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.

In a recent speech, Sir David Attenborough commented that there seemed to be a taboo on naming population growth as a factor in the problems we faced today. He called on people to break that taboo. For a number of years, many people have attempted to warn of the effects of over-population.

In 1971, Dr Paul Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb". In this book he warned that the human population would grow to a size where we would be unable to feed the growing population. The lowering of the global death-rate through advances in medicine and sanitation has meant that the difference between birth-rate and death-rate has increased. This has caused a different problem, one slow to emerge yet potentially devastating. As Sir David states in his speech, there are two ways in which human population growth will come to an end. Either we decide to control our population and keep it to sustainable levels, or the death-rate will control it for us.

We are seeing the emergence of drug-resistant disease and an increase in instances of natural disasters (such as floods and earthquakes) affecting more and more people as years go by. We could see this as a warning that, unless we do something to curb our numbers ourselves, nature will find a way to control our growing numbers.

I will close with some words from Daniel Quinn:

"For ten thousand years we've been increasing food production to feed an increasing population—and for ten thousand years our population has grown. Every single "win" in food production has been answered by a "win" in population growth. Every single one. But, according to our cultural mythology, this doesn't have to happen—and one of these years, magically, it will not happen. The magic will presumably be that all nations will achieve improved social and economic conditions and adopt effective, voluntary family planning, just like the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends. This magic didn't happen last year or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that—but one of these years, by God, every guy on earth will put on a condom and super-glue it in place and it WILL work. One way or another, there will come a year when we increase food production—and miraculously there won't be an answering increase in population to consume it.
Our cultural mythology explains why it was vitally important for us to increase food production last year. We HAD to, in order to feed the starving millions. Everyone knows that. But, oddly enough, we increased food production to feed the starving millions, and guess what? The starving millions went on starving. The population went up—but the starving millions didn't get fed. And of course we know why it's vitally important to increase food production THIS year. We've got to do that in order to feed the starving millions. We WILL increase food production this year—there's no doubt of that—but is there anyone in this room who believes that the starving millions will be fed, this year, for the first time in living memory? I guarantee you, my friends, that by year's end this year, the starving millions will still be starving—and I guarantee that our population will have grown by two percent." ~ Extract from an address made by Daniel Quinn, Kent State University, Earth Day, 1998


  1. Planet Earth (Gaia) has a way of dealing with problems like homo sapiens, who as a species are getting too numerous and greedy at the expense of other life forms.

    The four horsemen of the apocalypse will be sent to put things back in balance.


    Sadly we humans just don't see them coming - apart from a few, whose voices are either not heard or just ignored.

  2. Here's a tip for Ian & Cynic:-

    "Always look on the bright side of life - de-dum-de-dum-de-dum" !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Optimist, I am looking on the bright side. I live with the hope that people will recognise the problem and that we will work toward a sustainable population over the next few generations. I find the alternative too horrendous to think about.

    There is only one humane way for this problem to resolve itself, and that is for us to do something about it ourselves. Otherwise, we will eventually hit a wall at vast speed.

  4. A most persuasive argument, Ian. This coupled with the speech by David Attenborough, which you quoted and which I have just listened to, should be enough to convince anyone that this is probably the world's greatest problem. Unless it is tackled, disaster clearly looms.
    Graham (not 'Anonymous'!)