What effect is a rising population having on the planet? Helena Jones looks at how we can survive sustainably
On October 31, 2011, the world population reached 7 billion-and today this figure continues to rise. As United Nation (UN) projections expect the global population to reach as high as 10 billion by 2050, are there just too many people? And can our planet cope with this massive increase in the world’s population?
By far the biggest population growth is occurring in the global South, with Asia accounting for 60 percent of global population growth, followed by Africa with 15 percent. So, with their limits to infrastructure and economic growth, will developing countries struggle to deal with the challenges and impacts of more people on the environment?
As it is, one in three people face water shortages across the globe. The WWF estimates that 12 to 15 million hectares of forest are lost each year and 80 percent of the world’s energy is reliant on fossil fuels and their resultant carbon emissions.
Whilst there is clearly a great strain on the earth’s resources, many argue that our lifestyle habits, as much as sheer numbers, are the real culprits. So is population growth itself really to blame for increased pressure on the natural world or is it our lifestyles?
Why are so many people a worry for the earth?
Concern about population growth has historically been linked to fears that it will lead to mass food shortages and famine. Along with this, increased populations in areas with huge water scarcity put great pressure on the most basic of human needs. More recently, soaring populations have been blamed for increased burning of fossil fuels and deforestation that could intensify unsustainable rates of climate change.
Prominent figures in natural history have voiced strong concerns about exponential population growth, such as Sir David Attenborough, a patron of The Population Matters Movement, who said: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.”
Those concerned with population growth often fall into two camps over how to deal with the issue. One side focuses on reducing the numbers of people being born. For example, China famously introduced their one-child policy in the late 1970s, which limited families to only having one child, and is currently being phased into a two-child policy. Others believe improved technology can solve the crisis. So technological innovation in farming which increases productivity may ensure there is enough food for rising numbers of people.
However, both these solutions have their pitfalls. Government limits to family sizes place curbs on personal liberties and technological innovation may not be affordable in developing countries and may cause a lot of damage to biodiversity through mono-cropping and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. With this in mind then, is a focus on too many people appropriate or are there other ways to address humanity’s harmful impacts on the environment?
Are too many people really to blame?
Rather than too many people putting pressure on the earth’s resources, we can see a clear link between environmental degradation and the world’s richest countries, where populations are stable or even in decline.
Whilst China and India have the two fastest growing populations, China is only ranked 55th in the world’s highest emitters of carbon dioxide per head and India is 133rd, despite having the second largest growing population in the world.
Instead the world’s top polluters correspond much more with affluence. It seems to be no coincidence that some of the top 10 polluters per head, such as Qatar, Luxembourg and the US, also figure in a list of the top 10 richest nations in the world.
The assumption that developing countries have bad farming practices can also be unfounded. For instance, provocatively named slash-and-burn farming has been part of the sustainable management of woodland by subsistence farmers for centuries. Records of this technique only start to show unsustainable levels of deforestation when market demand for meat and grain from rich countries rose in the last 50 years.
Furthermore, whilst an urban lifestyle in many western countries can appear to cause relatively little harm beyond its borders, in reality the city draws on an international network of food and oil production that causes huge global environmental damage.
Crucially, the negative effects of meat consumption in affluent countries, particularly the dairy and beef industry, are major causes of environmental degradation. Currently 18 percent of global carbon emissions come from the farming of livestock, more than emissions from all forms of transport. Furthermore, 70 percent of grain in the US is used to feed livestock. Imagine how many people this could feed if it no longer sustained meat and dairy production.
So how are we to survive sustainably?
It is abundantly clear that the world must move from a focus on technical fixes e.g. innovation in farming, to attitudinal changes to our lifestyle if we want to conserve the earth’s resources. The lower energy and water consumption that supports a vegan diet is a key example of how we can drastically limit our footprint on the earth.
So we must understand that it is our lifestyle choices, as much as our lives themselves that affect the world. Rather than a business as usual approach to resource management, we may be required to transform our way of life to more sustainable patterns of consumption and veganism is an excellent place to start.
Resources consumed for a meat vs vegan diet (US)
- Carnivore – 2.5 megatonnes/year
- Vegan – 1.5 megatonnes/year
- Carnivore – 4547 litres/day
- Vegan – 1818 litres/day