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Controlling population growth is key to fighting climate change

No matter your take on anthropogenic climate change, there’s no denying the weather extremes we’re seeing of late. From floods to wildfires, hurricanes to mudslides, the world is experiencing record-high temperatures and associated disasters.

There’s been plenty of talk about climate change, but little action – toothless agreements and loopholes allow everyone to go on polluting and emitting greenhouse gases. Carbon taxes are little more than ineffective money grabs that never get to the heart of the matter, though they do allow some governments to pay lip service to the problem.

In the end, there’s one issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to combating climate change – and a host of other global woes: overpopulation.

There are currently more than 80 million people added to the global population each year. The UN projects that without further action to address population growth, there will be two billion more people by 2050, and three-and-a-half billion more by 2100. Considering that we’re sitting at 7.8 billion today and the place is a mess, those numbers don’t bode well.

The world’s population is projected to grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 8.5 billion in 2030 (10 per cent increase), and further to 9.7 billion in 2050 (26 per cent) and to 10.9 billion in 2100 (42 per cent). The population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050 (99 per cent). Other regions will see varying rates of increase between 2019 and 2050: Oceania excluding Australia/New Zealand (56 per cent), Northern Africa and Western Asia (46 per cent), Australia/New Zealand (28 per cent), Central and Southern Asia (25 per cent), Latin America and the Caribbean (18 per cent), Eastern and South-Eastern Asia (three per cent), and Europe and Northern America (two per cent).

It took thousands of years for us to reach a population of one billion by 1804. However, it took only 123 years for us to double to two billion in 1927. The population hit four billion in 1974, and just 41 years later, we’ve added another 3.3 billion. Such is the power of exponential growth.

As a closed system with finite resources, the planet can only do so much for its inhabitants, which includes a long list of animals and plants not labelled ‘home sapiens,’ a fact we overlook at our peril. Every person, even one living the most basic of existences – an altogether too common scenario in much of the world – puts a demand on the ecosystem. We all need air, water and food as a minimum. Providing just that places another burden on the planet; those of us living in the consumption-mad West each place far more stress on those resources.

We are deluged with stories about climate change, food shortages, peak oil, epidemics and a host of similar unsettling facts. At the root of all those problems is the issue of population. Quite plainly, there are too many of us.

“Unsustainable population growth is a leading contributor to the biggest crises facing our planet. It’s clear that without a sustainable global population the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will not be met, putting both people and planet at risk,” says Robin Maynard, director of Population Matters. “Enabling universal voluntary access to modern family planning is a crucial recognition of women’s reproductive rights and will significantly contribute to addressing the environmental and resource crises undermining the wellbeing of people globally.”

While most of the growth has been and will continue to be in other parts of the globe, there is that closed system we discussed. Not to mention that the smaller number of us in North America and Europe use substantially more resources. With other countries striving to follow our lead, the trend is not healthy.

It’s no coincidence that overpopulation figures prominently in dystopian books and films – large numbers of humans is a likely catalyst for environmental collapses leading to wars over food and water, competition for scarce resources, a premium on living space, and the potential for disease and rampant epidemics. Then there’s the near certainty that such crises would lead to nightmarish authoritarian police states, the kind we’re already building.

There are those, of course, who dismiss any such ideas. Everything is fine. Or, if it’s not, we’ll find solutions, technological fixes. Don’t worry, be happy.

People of this mindset point out that many past doomsayers have been proven wrong. They’ll note how the famous warnings of English scholar Thomas Malthus (An Essay on the Principle of Population), whose name gives rise to the adjective Malthusian , failed to come to pass. Or point the predictions of more recent prognosticators such as Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) as being proven wrong.

Interestingly, both Malthus’ and Ehrlich’s forecasts were in fact sideswiped by technology. In the case of Malthus, he could not have predicted that the forms of energy of his time – food for manual labourers and animals, wood for burning – would be supplanted by an explosion of fossil fuel uses. A similar thing happened in Ehrlich’s time with the massive use of technology – fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation – to grow food for the expanding billions.

Those very technological “fixes” have come with a high price, however. We’re seeing some of that climate change and the drawing down of aquifers in some of the most heavily irrigated spots, very notable right now in California and environs. There’s every indication that technology is reaching its peak in dealing with the woes of a growing population.

In fact, the latest studies by the UN show many of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are going to fall short, the result of sped-up changes with which we’re unable to keep pace.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, says Maynard.

“Ageing populations and the economic risks and opportunities they signify must be planned for and can be planned for, without abusing people’s rights, catastrophising and alarmism. We have the ingenuity and resources to face demographic challenges. True catastrophe lies in a population too big for the planet to sustain, with climate change uncontrolled, biodiversity decimated, too little food and water for everyone’s needs, and billions more trapped in poverty.”

Looking at the myriad numbers – and there are many more highlighting the threats – should give us pause to think, however. Better still, to act.

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