Reaching Capacity


By Veronica Chavez

Photo coutesy of James Cridland.

The resources on Earth have been depleted, overcrowding is present in virtually every city, reaching sustainability is becoming a more far-fetched goal with each passing day, and the fate of mankind is questionable to say the least. No, this is not the plot summary of the movie Interstellar or some dystopian novel; it’s a reality that the world may very well be heading toward at a rate faster than most people realize.

In a recently released study conducted by the United Nations, projections show that the world may be home to up to 12 billion inhabitants by the year 2100. The analysis, devised by the UN and the University of Washington researchers, is the first population analysis of its kind to use modern statistical modeling and the latest data on population, fertility, and mortality as opposed to expert opinions. Using these methods, the research shows that previous projections on population growth may have been conservative.

Such an exponential increase in population growth would be problematic for Earth’s sustainability in a number of ways. For one, it will generate even heavier use of non-renewable resources as well as a dependence on an agricultural system that is unsustainable. The chemical fixation of nitrogen for fertilizers, which has made modern agriculture possible, is a process that requires energy from fossil fuels and so cannot be used infinitely. Similarly, an increase in more mechanical food processes will affect the amount of fresh water available since so many factories resort to dumping toxic wastes into the Earth’s water, as well as causing pollution to rise.

Each human’s carbon footprint also plays an important role in Earth’s sustainability. In the United States, every child born increases a mother’s carbon legacy more than five-fold. While the size of a person’s carbon footprint does vary based on whether an inhabitant is from a developed or developing country, an increase in carbon emissions in general is problematic for the Earth’s delicate ecological and climatic balance.

Professor Adrian Raftery’s research with the UN found that although it was previously predicted, developing countries have not experienced a significant enough of a decline in fertility to counter decreased mortality rates. Raftery’s research notes that especially in Nigeria–Africa’s most populous country–each woman has an average of six children and in the last five years the child mortality rate has fallen from 136 per 1,000 live births to 117. Even though inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa practice living habits that have lower consequences than that of a middle-class American, an increase in carbon emissions in general is damaging to the Earth’s ecological system. Additionally, if the Earth’s climate continues to shift, resulting in natural disasters, larger families will have a harder time surviving, especially since these large families tend to be in impoverished areas with low-quality housing and medical care.

Overpopulation also increases the burden on public health services. High population density leads to a much higher rate of contact between humans, which means that communicable diseases ranging from the common cold, to pandemics like Ebola, can be much more easily transmitted and much harder to contain within one area.

With such startling statistics being presented, and research on population having been done for centuries now, one might think that the UN is well on its way toward formulating solutions for such important problems. Not exactly. Although the UN laid out its developmental goals for the world in 2000, there was no explicit point made about increasing the availability of reproductive health services and family planning education to women and families. It wasn’t until 2005 that a goal was made to provide universal healthcare by 2015, a goal that was not met.

Although family planning services have been increased in developing countries, still not enough weight has been placed on reducing maternal mortality and realizing the many benefits that would follow from women being able to determine how many children they want to have and when. Even with family planning education being increased in certain parts of the world, such a message can be conflicting considering a number of states in the US are trying to limit the availability of contraceptives and abortion services.

“One of the great frustrations of working in this field is that there are levels where we are making progress and levels where we are not,” Robert Walker, President of the Population Institute shares with BTR in regard to this inconsistency in government practices. “We have a huge challenge in front of us but hopefully in addition to family practicing education, we can offer more education on gender equality in other countries and the stop to practices like child marriages. It is a global issue.”

Walker also notes that while family planning education and availability to reproductive services is one of the leading solutions to the overpopulation problem, there are other improvements that can be made, and will most likely be included in the UN’s post-2015 developmental agenda. One of these improvements would be the implementation of “ecological balance sheets” which would bring greater awareness to countries that are living beyond a viable capacity and increase effort toward creating a system within the country that is more sustainable.

“It seems bleak now,” Walker explains, “but hopefully with a higher level of support we may actually see a peak in world population by mid-century, and a gradual decline.”

Hopefully he’s right.