Two hundred years ago, there were about a billion humans in the world. Today, there are seven billion and counting. This fact has some people concerned that we’re going to run out of food, energy, or other important resources in the foreseeable future. Some worry that we’re going to pollute the natural environment so much that we render it uninhabitable, or at least much less habitable.
As an example of such concerns, a friend of mine recently posted a link to a series of photographs purporting to show that the planet is overpopulated. The first shows “Sprawling Mexico City roll[ing] across the landscape, displacing every scrap of natural habitat.” Another shows greenhouses “as far as the eye can see” in Spain. Another still, a surfer threading the eye of a wave that is littered with garbage.
Some of the photos in this series are actually quite beautiful, but some are indeed ugly, and all are arresting. Yet as evocative as these images are, the scenes they depict are just tiny snippets of an enormous planet. Mexico City, sprawling though it is, covers an area of about 1,500 square kilometres. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just 1/100,000 of the Earth’s 150 million square kilometres of land area. The things illustrated by these photos may be bad—although some are frankly neutral—but they tell us nothing about how widespread the specific problems they allude to may be. To determine the scope of the population issue, pictures are not sufficient; we need the help of numbers.
How Many Is Too Many?
“We undeniably face huge challenges,” admits Hans Rosling in the opening minutes of Don’t Panic: The Truth about Population, “but the good news is that the future may not be quite as gloomy and that mankind already is doing better than many of you think.” In this hour-long documentary, Rosling, a Swedish professor of global health and a renowned TED-talk speaker, makes the numbers behind population growth come alive. And while not denying that human activity does indeed often cause pollution as a side effect, and does indeed use resources, he challenges the narrative of the doomsayers.
Most importantly, he drives home the fact that population growth is already slowing. Yes, Bangladesh’s population has grown dramatically in his lifetime, he tells us, tripling from about 50 million to about 150 million. But do we need to convince Bangladeshis to have fewer children? No, because the job is already done. Although still a poor country, Bangladeshis have grown richer in recent decades. As many of them have moved out of extreme poverty, child mortality rates have plummeted, and birth rates have fallen in turn. Bangladeshi women now have just over two children each on average.
There are still places in the world with much higher birthrates, of course, primarily in rural parts of Asia and Africa. But contrary to public perception, much work has already been accomplished. And as more of the poorest nations move out of poverty in the coming decades—Africa and Asia being home to the fastest growing economies in the world—birthrates will come down everywhere. The best estimates are that we will hit about 9 billion by mid-century, and top out at around 10 or 11 billion by 2100. After that, no more population growth.
But 11 billion is still a lot. Can the Earth sustain even that stable population?
We should of course try to limit our negative impact on the environment as much as we can, within reason. But that is precisely what we have been doing as we have gotten richer and have been able to afford to care more about the state of the natural environment. And contrary to what doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich predicted in the 1960s and 1970s, there has not been mass starvation in the industrialized world, and there has been less and less of it in the poorer parts of the planet. If you think the future nonetheless still looks grim, you may not be looking hard enough, because there are in fact many reasons to be optimistic.
Are there now, or will there soon be, too many of us? Part of your answer to that question depends on whether you think of each new human being as just another mouth that needs feeding, or whether you recognize that those mouths generally come attached to human minds—the ultimate resource.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.