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Population, Part Three

Population Home Part I Part II
Part III Part IV Part V

Can We Sustain the Current and Future Population?

Now that we have defined some of the causes of our current and future population growth, can our natural resources sustain a population of about 8 to 12 billion by 2050?

Virtually every important issue we confront today is caused or multiplied by population growth. The global economy of the 1990s stalled recently, but the demands of sevenfold growth since 1950 is destroying the Earth's ecosystem. Even modest growth for another 50 years "would likely lead to deterioration of the Earth's natural systems to the point where the economy itself would begin to decline."

Wealthy economically developed countries impact the environment and deplete the planet's natural resources much more than under developed nations. While people in poorer countries consume little but have many children, citizens in industrial countries have fewer children but consume much more of the world's resources. Affluent peoples consume more in order to maintain the comfortable lifestyles they are accustomed to. They also produce greater waste since they utilize "disposable items" manufactured from plastics, paper, and metal. Developing countries produce about 6 kilos of industrial waste per capita the average person in an industrial nation is responsible for up to 100 kilos of waste.

Although the fastest population growth is happening in Africa an American's impact on the environment will be over 250 times greater than a Sub-Saharan African. With only one-twentieth of the world's population, Americans consume 20% of its resources.

Consumption "Facts"

Many countries are not prepared to deal with the strain on education, transportation and energy due to an increasing population. Basic social services, food supply security, employment, and proper resource management are several key goals that may be difficult to meet since so many people already lack these important components of a healthy life.

The countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that seem least prepared are already facing environmental degradation. Such "resource scarcities due to population pressures cause domestic and international migration, exacerbate ethnic tensions, and drive wars and civil unrest." On the other hand, as many countries improve their conditions and complete the demographic transition, they will adopt consumption habits similar to the developed world. This could have a devastating affect on our global climate and natural resources. Increasing average food consumption, especially of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy (which require a lot of grain), means that by 2025 food production will have to double in order to keep up.

If everyone on the planet today adopted an American lifestyle, precious natural resources like conventional cheap oil would soon be exhausted. Geologists, environmentalists and biologists who warn that there are limits to the planet's resource sustainability are labeled "Cassandras." (Dictionary definition of Cassandra: "One who utters unheeded prophecies.") Lester R. Brown, publisher and president of World-Watch magazine, represents the Cassandra paradigm when he says that "in many parts of the world, forests, aquifers, pasture lands, and fisheries are being utilized faster than they can be replenished. Despite the green revolution, world grain carryover stocks, and therefore food security, remain at historical low levels. And despite half a century of unprecedented economic growth, nearly one quarter of the world's people live in extreme poverty."

Other studies also support this viewpoint. In 1993 Dr. Richard C. Duncan published an article that presents four theories that examine the relationship between population and energy use (17). A graph from 3 million BC to 3000 AD shows that we are currently living in a century-long Industrial Phase. This phase peaked in 1980, when energy use per person was at its highest, and is predicted to last only until 2030 due to declines in energy use per capita. (Increased population versus limited fuel production equal less energy per person.) The 1980 peak may have been "the crucial turning point in human history," signaling the end of industrialization and the beginning of de-industrialization toward stability at a subsistence level. According to Dr. Duncan, as long as the energy use per person or the efficiency of retrieving that energy increases, culture will advance. But the more impact the retrieval of that energy makes on environmental, social, and political systems, the less our culture is able to progress.

The food supply provides more evidence that the general quality of life may be diminishing. Grain supplies are declining; corn, rice, and wheat yields have dropped 6% since 1984. Famine or floods jeopardize the limited grain stockpiled, which currently stands at two months supply.

"Pollyannas" disagree. "Pollyannas" claim that humans are inventive enough to figure out ways to deal with present and future problems. (Pollyanna is a character from a novel that saw the good in everything; much like Dr. Pangloss, from Voltaire's famed 18 th century work, "Candide.") Lawrence Summers, former World Bank economist, believes "there are no limits to the carrying capacity of the Earth that are likely to bind at any time in the foreseeable future." If shortages were to occur, such optimists believe that a solution or substitute will be devised. Julian Simon, an economist who died in 1998, thought the greater the population, the larger stock of knowledge and imagination from which to draw. He also erroneously believed that because prices of natural resources have been falling, they are in greater abundance today rather than increasing in scarcity.

The optimists doubt the pessimists because history is full of economists and scientists that have made "doomsday" predictions in the past the "crying wolf" syndrome. Eighteenth-century economist Thomas Malthus predicted that a point would be reached in which resources would not be able to keep up with the population expansion. Each advance in technology would be less productive than the last (the law of diminishing returns) and eventually no further increases would be possible. "The power of population," Malthus proclaimed, "is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." But because in the last 200 years we have seen significant increases in productivity and standards of living and decreases in the relative cost of resources such as food and minerals, many people now doubt Malthus' logic.

It is hard to escape the nagging evidence that rapid population growth exacerbates many social problems. Some people warn that "no government, no academic expert, has the faintest idea of how to provide adequate food, housing, health care, education, and gainful employment to such exploding numbers of people, particularly as they crowd into megacities." But others urge us to "lift our gaze from the frightening predictions we'll see that economic life in the world has been getting better rather than worse." As difficult as it is for individuals to choose a side and appropriately modify their everyday habits toward those goals, it is understandable how governments may be just as indecisive. Without a consensus on the issue, policymakers may feel that it can be ignored for now.

Note: The use of the labels "Cassandras" and "Pollyannas" is not meant to be offensive. It is simply the easiest and briefest way to convey their differing philosophies on the issues.