Climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, water scarcity, and land issues: almost all of the world’s environmental problems are underpinned by too many people inhabiting a finite planet. A new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B warns that overpopulation—combined with over-consumption—is threatening to push the entire globe into “a collapse of global civilization.” But cultural changes, especially more empowerment of women and access to contraceptives, may hold the key to reducing population growth and eventual sustainability.
“Today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems,” Paul and Anne Ehrlich, biologists with Stanford University, write in the paper. The Erhlichs are known for decades of work on overpopulation and environmental issues, including co-authoring several books.
Children selling mangoes in Madagascar. According to the CIA, Madagascar is 21st in the world for population growth with a growth rate of 2.68 percent. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Currently, over 7 billion people live on Earth, that’s 5 billion more than lived here just a hundred years ago. In addition, demographers predict another 2.5 billion people by 2050, pushing the population to well-over 9 billion. But can the Earth’s natural resources—already stretched well-beyond sustainability—provide food, water, and other resources for an additional 2.5 billion?
“Virtually all analyses simply treat the need to feed an additional 2.5 billion people by 2050 as a given,” notes Paul Ehrilich in a press release.
For example in order to feed an additional 2.5 billion, and adequately feed the 7 billion today, experts say global food production would need to expand by 70 percent. Already, worldwide nearly a billion people do not have enough to eat everyday.
“[The global food system] has generated miracles of food production. But it has also created serious long-run vulnerabilities, especially
in its dependence on stable climates, crop monocultures, industrially produced fertilizers and pesticides, petroleum, antibiotic feed supplements and rapid, efficient transportation,” write the Ehrlichs, adding that, “unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, dangerous anthropogenic climate change could ravage agriculture.”
According to the Ehrlichs it’s time to “stop treating population growth as a ‘given’ and consider the nutritional, health and social benefits of humanely ending growth well below nine billion and starting a slow decline.” The 2012 CIA World Factbook lists Qatar, Zimbabwe, and Niger as the nations with the highest growth rates: Qatar is growing by 4.93 percent, Zimbabwe by 4.36 percent, and Niger by 3.36 percent. World population, according to the CIA, is growing by 1.09 percent.
The Ehrlichs have no illusions about the difficulty of slowing and eventually stopping global population growth.
“This would be a monumental task, considering the momentum of population growth,” they write, noting that even in countries where population growth has leveled-off many complain of new demographic challenges.
“That halting population growth inevitably leads to changes in age structure is no excuse for bemoaning drops in fertility
rates, as is common in European government circles,” the Ehrlichs write. “Reduction of population size in those over-consuming nations is a very positive trend, and sensible planning can deal with the problems of population aging.”
Scientists have long said that leveling-off and even decreasing the global population would not need to depend on controversial one-child policies or other laws deemed draconian by many. Instead, investing in woman’s rights and health has been shown time-and-again to lower population growth.
“A program of improving the status of women everywhere and supplying all sexually active people with access to modern contraception and back-up abortion would be relatively quite cheap and would greatly reduce the numbers that must be fed,” Paul Ehrlich says.
CITATION:Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich. Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? The Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 2013 280, 20122845.
(01/10/2013) Global strategist, trained educator, and international lecturer Daniel Rirdan set out to create a plan addressing the future of our planet. His book The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse, published this year, does just that. “It has been a sixty hour a week routine,” Rirdan told mongabay.com in a recent interview. “Basically, I would wake up with the burden of the world on my shoulders and go to sleep with it. It went on like this for eighteen months.” It becomes apparent when reading The Blueprint that it was indeed a monumental undertaking.
(12/04/2012) The city of Parauapebas, Brazil is booming: built over the remains of the Amazon rainforest, the metropolis has grown 75-fold in less than 25 years, from 2,000 people upwards of 150,000. But little time for urban planning and both a spatial and mental distance from the federal government has created a frontier town where small-scale farmers struggle to survive against racing sprawl, legal and illegal mining, and a lack of investment in environmental protection. Forests, biodiversity, and subsistence farmers have all suffered under the battle for land. In this, Parauapebas may represent a microcosm both of Brazil’s ongoing problems (social inequality, environmental degradation, and deforestation) and opportunity (poverty alleviation, reforestation, and environmental enforcement).
(10/16/2012) In a world where technology has advanced to a point where I can instantly have a face-to-face conversation via online video with a friend in Tokyo, nearly 870 million people, or one in eight, still suffer from malnutrition, according to a new UN report. While worldwide hunger declined from 1990 to 2007, progress was slowed by the global economic crisis. Over the last few years, numerous and record-breaking extreme weather events have also taken tolls on food production. Currently, food prices hover just below crisis levels.
(06/07/2012) Scientists warn that the Earth may be reaching a planetary tipping point due to a unsustainable human pressures, while the UN releases a new report that finds global society has made significant progress on only four environmental issues out of ninety in the last twenty years. Climate change, overpopulation, overconsumption, and ecosystem destruction could lead to a tipping point that causes planetary collapse, according to a new paper in Nature by 22 scientists. The collapse may lead to a new planetary state that scientists say will be far harsher for human well-being, let alone survival.
(10/31/2011) Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Halloween this year is not the ghouls and goblins taking to the streets, but a baby born somewhere in the world. It’s not the baby’s or the parent’s fault, of course, but this child will become a part of an artificial, but still important, milestone: according to the UN, the Earth’s seventh billionth person will be born today. That’s seven billion people who require, in the very least, freshwater, food, shelter, medicine, and education. In some parts of the world, they will also have a car, an iPod, a suburban house and yard, pets, computers, a lawn-mower, a microwave, and perhaps a swimming pool. Though rarely addressed directly in policy (and more often than not avoided in polite conversations), the issue of overpopulation is central to environmentally sustainability and human welfare.
(10/13/2011) At the end of this month the UN predicts global population will hit 7 billion people, having doubled from 3.5 billion in less than 50 years. Yet even as the Earth hits this new milestone, one billion people do not have enough food; meanwhile the rapid expansion of agriculture is one of the leading causes of global environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of forests, marine pollution, mass extinction, water scarcity, and soil degradation. So, how do we feed the human population—which continues to rise and is expected to hit nine billion by 2050—while preserving the multitude of ecosystem services that support global food production? A new study in Nature proposes a five-point plan to this dilemma.
(10/06/2011) Sometime at the end of this month, the seventh billion person on Earth will be born: that’s seven billions mouths to feed, seven billion throats to water, and seven billion bodies to keep warm. But the population continues to rise: experts believe the global human population could hit 10 billion by 2050. A UN meeting last month said that to meet the needs of the world’s women, the developing world needs a secure supply of contraceptives and voluntary family planning initiatives.