In the year 2000, the population of earth was 6.11 billion people.
According to the US Census Bureau’s World Population Clock, that number is now 7.49 billion.
The UN anticipates world population to increase to just shy of 10 billion people by the year 2050.
Without any context, those numbers are just that, numbers.
However, framed against the backdrop of earth’s finite resources and whether the planet can sustain a species that consumes faster than it can replenish, it’s clear why overpopulation is a growing concern for many.
But is overpopulation, with the many other challenges we face every day, really something that humans should worry over?
We’ve made it this long, so why wouldn’t we be able to continue to stretch the resources and technology available to accommodate our growth.
To adequately answer that question, let’s explore where this rapid rise in population originated, the potential impact to our planet, and ultimately if the earth can sustain us.
The Population Goes Boom
In broad terms, overpopulation relates to whether our planet is capable of sustaining humans as our numbers increase and resources decrease. Overpopulation though can also occur at a micro level.
Individual countries can experience overpopulation, and many developing areas face the hardships that come with this crisis more so than developed nations.
Make no mistake though, whether it’s just one individual or 1 billion or a modern country or one that remains underdeveloped, we all need the optimal conditions that earth provides to survive.
How did we get to this point of stretching our only home so thin? There are several factors.
Birth Rate Versus Death Rate
First and foremost, the population of earth is a simple numbers game.
Let’s go back to the US Census clock and take a look at US numbers. In our country, there is a birth every 8 seconds. Every 12 seconds a death occurs. Not accounting for immigration, that means we are adding 2½ people every minute to the populace.
On a global scale, the numbers are higher. Four births each second versus two deaths, means 30 people are added to the world’s population every minute.
Though global births have seen a decline over the past several decades, they continue to outpace deaths at a steady rate.
Modern Medicine, Longer Life
Medical technology is arguably the most significant contributor to the increase in human life spans. In 1900, the average lifespan of a person from the US was 47 years. In the year 2000, it was 77.
From the eradication of diseases that once consumed large swaths of people to developing vaccines and drugs that treated countless other ailments, medicine has been the primary driver in prolonging life.
Beyond that, technology has also pushed fertility rates (while also reducing maternal mortality) to greater numbers, again with medicines that benefit women who once we unable to conceive.
Poverty and Immigration
Both poverty and immigration are hot-button issues in almost every corner of the world. Though the fervor and nature of the conversation of each vary from place to place, both problems contribute to overpopulation.
With poverty, infant mortality rates tend to be higher among low-income families, especially in undeveloped countries. In this environment, large families would emerge from the necessity of having enough able bodies to do the work necessary for survival.
Also, those that live in poverty in developing nations lack education and are often illiterate. They do not grasp the concepts of family planning or sex education and the strain that large numbers of people put on resources and the related consequences.
Immigration, for its part, is often a concern for the resources for developed nations. To escape the hardships of their native countries, immigrants will seek out refuge in places that can best support their needs.
Hospitals, schools, and jobs are all beacons to draw those looking for a better life. The inevitable downside though is the stress placed on the infrastructure of a country. Higher demand for resources will in most cases lead to a shortage of those same needs.
An Exhausted Planet
Arguably the most significant impact to an area that is overpopulated, whether its a city, country or the planet as a whole, is the potential drain on resources.
It’s hard to refute against the reality that the more of us there are, the more resources we consume and the less there is to go around. This creates several issues that can put many at risk in ways that might not immediately be clear.
Scarcity of Water
We could fill this section with any number of strained natural resources that prove vital to everyday life across the globe.
Oil, natural gas, or other earth elements that play a role in the systems we take for granted every day. However, the one resource that warrants the most attention is water.
More specifically, freshwater.
The earth, of course, is awash in water. The problem, however, is that of the 70% of the water that covers our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh. To complicate the numbers even further, just 1.7% of the freshwater total is easily accessible.
The scarcity of fresh water only increases once you look at the developing world. Countries such as India are already facing critical shortages against a backdrop of a booming population.
According to one estimate from the World Health Organization, over 2 billion people cannot easily access safe drinking water. Another 4.5 billion, or more than half of the world’s population does not have what developed nations would consider acceptable sanitation.
Beyond the depletion of natural resources such as fresh water, overpopulation can also inflict direct physical harm to ecosystems spread across the globe. Even if you sidestep the debate on whether or not climate change is real, there is no escaping the damage humans have done to the environment.
Air and water pollution from automobiles and factories.
Harm to sensitive ecosystems and food supply through disasters such as oil spills.
Deforestation and hunting food sources to dangerously low levels.
Stripping or polluting the environment for our immediate needs will also hasten the potential environmental catastrophes that future generations will face.
Imagine yourself jammed into an elevator with a dozen or so other individuals. Your first, and in some cases only instinct, is to stake your claim to what little space you have.
Now picture the earth as one big elevator, with 7.5 billion of us all fighting for a spot.
Whereas we fought wars and conflicts of the past over ideals or to protect from aggression, future struggles will be over resources and basic tenets like oil, water, and fertile lands.
A 2013 World Bank report estimated that over 750 million people lived beneath the $1.90 a day international poverty line. In many parts of the world, the struggle to feed a family, find work or tend a viable farm, or access a decent water source may drive many to desperate measures and in turn, inciting violent conflicts. This is a real possibility even in developed nations.
Can the Earth Sustain More of Us?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a straightforward as one would hope.
According to a 2012 report commissioned by the UN, encompassing 65 different estimates, Earth’s human capacity could vary anywhere from 2 billion people to upwards of 1 trillion. Below is a quick recap of the vast disparities of the individual studies:
- 6 studies estimated 2 billion
- 7 studies estimated 4 billion
- 20 studies estimated 8 billion
- 14 studies estimated 16 billion
- 6 studies estimated 32 billion
- 7 studies estimated 64 billion
- 2 studies estimated 128 billion
- 1 study estimated 256 billion
- 1 study estimated 512 billion
- 1 study estimated 1 trillion
Although a clear majority puts the Earth’s sustainable carrying capacity at 8 billion, a total we will quickly exceed, the real takeaway is that the exact number is difficult to know.
These studies, while aiming to measure the same thing, take different approaches and focus on variable factors to reach their conclusions.
As the UN report also points out, there are certain factors about the earth that we do not yet understand.
How long until the release of CO2 into the atmosphere reaches a tipping point?
What is the temperature at which the Arctic ice sheets ultimately fail?
Just how much food, medicine, water, and other basic necessities will future humans need to survive reasonably?
All vital questions. All of them without clear answers.
Can We Lighten the Load?
Let’s return to our original question and if the global issue of overpopulation is a concern for now.
As one of the few global problems that have the potential to impact every human on earth, understanding overpopulation and then working to ease the stress on our planet is a necessary undertaking.
Though we cannot ethically stem the population increases immediately, small steps can put us down the right path to ensuring a reasonable population level and sustainable earth.
Education, particularly in developing countries, will help people understand the consequences of overpopulation. We must also place a heavy emphasis on women’s empowerment, family planning, and sex education.
In addition, smarter and more efficient use of our resources is a must. This is especially true in developed nations where resource use far outweighs the actual need. The goal is that our consumption doesn’t outpace replenishment.
So yes, we do need to concern ourselves with finding a sustainable balance between our growth, what we need to survive, and the interaction we have with our planet.
If we don’t, the consequences could be dire.
If we do, then the earth will be ours to call home for many more years to come.