World population growth is a highly contentious environmental issue.
Not because it might not be real, for we know that the size of the human population is a little over 7 billion and we also know its rate of change rather well. We also know global population is actually one of our better metrics.
More contentious are the diverging views on what this means.
Population growth is currently running at 1.096% of the total — this is roughly 8,700 an hour.
When you count the babies born and subtract the number of people who passed away there are 8,700 more births than deaths every hour of every day.
Or if you prefer, that is an increase in the number of people alive of
This annual increase of 76 million is 4x the number of people living in Shanghai and 9x the population of New York City’s [or a little less than all the people living in Germany].
The percentage world population growth rate of 1.096% has been declining for a while and is nothing like the 3% of the 1970’s. But a small percentage of a large number is still a large number — and for population growth that means a lot of people.
prosperous villagers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea where the population is growing at 2.2%
Today there are two people alive for every one that was around in 1970.
Given that all these people need food, water, and shelter it is easy to see the pressure such sustained population growth puts on resources.
The key phrase here is ‘sustained growth’ and it should sound familiar. It will because it is the mantra of modern economics. Success is measured by sustained economic growth, and more people helps.
All the extra people need houses to live in that must be built and they can then settle down to buy goods and services. What could be better than population growth to drive demand?
Politically of course extra people need jobs, education, and health services that they expect will provided. Economic success then becomes essential.
Here is the root of the conundrum created by the conventional wisdom on world population growth — more people means more resources are required that puts pressure on the environment but without more people economies stagnate.
Manokwari is the main town in West Papua, Indonesia that was once a small fishing village
Not everyone will agree with this version of the conventional wisdom. Depending on how you prefer to view population growth you will see it in opposing colours.
‘Malthusian red’ sees resources depleting and because they are finite eventually resulting in collapse. This is the limits to growth paradigm that began with Thomas Malthus contemporary of Darwin.
‘Capital Brown’ sees growth as just more opportunity for commerce and mobilises capital to generate more goods and services. In this view, more people are simply good for business. Some politicians in less populous countries use this argument to call for increasing numbers of people. China realized what it really meant and did the opposite introducing their one child policy.
‘Sustainable Green’ would adopt changes to make what resources we have go further, take a more frugal approach to natural resources and to relieve some of the pressure on the environment. And if done well, this could make resources stretch to accommodate more people.
‘Technology blue’ is seen by believers in our extraordinary capacity to innovate, especially when the pressure is on. We have had one green revelation built on engineering crops and manufacture fertilizer using fossil fuel energy. Smart engineering minds helped along by entrepreneurs with an eye to a profit will invent and market new technologies from aquaponics to fusion power that will make lack a thing of the past.
It is worth pausing to think through the environmental pressures that accompany world population growth.
Each human being is a chemical factory that burns carbohydrate to fuel activity. The engine also needs sufficient water that we mostly take as tea, coffee or famous soft drinks. Modern humans also need some protection from the elements.
In raw numbers we need around 2,500 calories and 2 litres of water per day for basic maintenance.
Multiply the basics by 7 billion, add all the extras required because we actually drink Coke, eat burger and fries, and must move around everywhere, and it is easy to see the requirement for space and energy.
And where we get it all from is the environment or at least the version we have modified for this purpose.
The environment gives up land, water, fossil fuels and mineral resources for our benefit.
Appropriation and modification is what all organisms do. It’s just that humans are both individually and now collectively a very large organism. Whatever we do from here on will continue to have environmental impacts.
Many of the environmental issues will find their source in growing human numbers.
Whatever we choose to do about the issues we are stuck with this world population growth.
We cannot loose those that are alive.
And even when percentage growth rate is small, so long as it remains positive there will all ways be more people around at the end of the day than at the start.
Demographers tell us that world population growth will slow, and even turned negative in time. We will reach a peak of 9 to 12 billion [12,000,000,000] souls before falling towards maybe 5 billion by the end of the century — the so-called demographic transition.
And we already on the transition track, whatever we choose to think or do.
There are two things we have some control over
The problem is that the best solution we know of to speed up the transition is economic development — people have fewer children when they are more secure in their economic future.
And this solution makes managing the environmental impacts more difficult because historically as economic activity increases so do environmental issues.
there are now vast cities to house everyone | view of CBD, Sydney, Australia
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