Mon, Jan 17, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Facing the population explosion

This year, the Earth’s population will reach 7 billion for the first time, leading some to wonder if the planet and society will be capable of coping

By Leo Hickman  /  The Guardian, London

Illustration: Yusha

Later this year — on Oct. 31 to be precise — a boy will be born in a rural village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His parents will not know it, but his birth will prove to be a considerable landmark for our species as his arrival will mark the moment when the human population reaches 7 billion.

There is no way of knowing for sure, of course, the identity of this baby boy. However, demographers say that this date, place and gender are the most likely. India has the largest number of births each year — 27 million, roughly one in five of all global births — and Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with nearly 200 million citizens, would be the sixth most-populated country in the world if it were a nation. The majority of the state’s births occur in the rural areas and the natural sex ratio at birth favors boys by a narrow margin.

We do not need a guiding star to direct us to the symbolism of this boy’s birth: The world has known about this approaching milestone for many years. After all, it is only 12 years since the 6 billion mark was reached and just 100 years ago, the human population stood at 1.6 billion.

The urgent search for solutions to population growth has been a hot topic ever since the Reverend Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, stating that the “power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Every generation since has seen a prophet predicting doom for our species if we don’t curtail our numbers and yet the rise in headcount has continued inexorably and exponentially.

However, with rising greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion ever-growing concerns, the approach of this year’s population landmark has become an awkward, even unwelcome presence in the environmental debate. No one likes to talk about it, for there are no easy answers. Even a mention of it can see the questioner accused of racism, colonialism or misanthropy.

Increasingly, environmental thinkers, such as Jared Diamond, George Monbiot and Fred Pearce, have made the case that population growth is not, in fact, the real problem (the UN predicts that growth will plateau at 9 billion at about the middle of the century before slowly starting to fall), rather that a rapid rise in consumption is our most pressing environmental issue.

There are more than enough resources to feed the world, they say, even in 2050 when numbers peak — a point made last week by a report jointly published by France’s national agricultural and development research agencies. The problem is that we see huge inequities in consumption whereby, for example, the average American has the same carbon footprint as 250 Ethiopians.

The French report concluded bluntly that “the rich must stop consuming so much.”

Stood shoulder to shoulder, the entire human population could fit within the city limits of Los Angeles. We’ve got more than enough land upon which to collectively sustain ourselves, we just need to use it more wisely and fairly. However, given the stubborn realities of global inequalities, the question remains: Are there too many of us to achieve a sustainable future?

Another report published last week — by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers — provocatively posed just this question in its title: One planet, too many people? It concluded the answer was “no,” but only if food output was vastly improved through biotechnology, mechanization, food processing and irrigation. In essence, it said we need to innovate and think our way out of our “population explosion” using technology.

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