Resource Shortages or Too Many People?

Once upon a time…the world had a super-abundance of natural resources, a full and more than adequate range of renewables and non-renewables.  Then the balance between Man and the Earth’s resources began inexorably to shift.  Skyrocketing populations, from 1 billion in 1800 to 7+ billion at present, saw humans devour ever more resources, and seemingly with reckless abandon.  Slowly, but at an ever increasing pace, exploitation of the planet’s resources proceeded.  However, if now there are looming resource shortages it is every bit as much due to Man’s exponential increase in numbers as to his profligacy.  In fact, population growth, leading in many regions to serious overpopulation and associated problems, has for some time been in what experts call “overshoot”, when consumption exceeds the earths’ capacity to sustain humans at a reasonably acceptable level into the future.

Diminishing Bounty, Increasing Waste & Environmental Pollution

We are exhausting – in some cases have already done so – the planet’s treasure through overharvesting; overfishing; deforestation; misusing soil leading to erosion, salination and sometimes contamination; depleting aquifers; and emptying our rivers faster than they can be replenished.  We face scarcity of many of the non-renewable resources on which modern civilization depends; e.g. oil, essential for transportation and agriculture, among other uses, and minerals, e.g. cobalt, copper, silver and tin, used in infrastructure and electronic devices.  While there will always be residuals of these in the ground, the availability of economically viable deposits is diminishing, and rapidly.  Simultaneously, human activity is polluting the planet with all manner of waste.  This includes sewage from our growing towns and urban areas; industrial tailings and slag heaps; agricultural run-off of fertilizers and pesticides; and from livestock, where enormous quantities of manure (plus methane) are creating dead zones in large bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico.  Waste also includes vast amounts of garbage—not least in our seas where thousands of tons of discarded, floating plastics kill fish, birds, and mammals.  Meanwhile, we are fouling the atmosphere with steadily mounting levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) with the certain consequence of promoting climate change, a global phenomenon of arguably the most profound long term social, economic and environmental consequences.

Population Growth: What cost in the Developed vs the Developing World?

Currently the world’s population is increasing by about one billion (109) persons every 12 years. Despite incontrovertible evidence that this, coupled with growing consumption, is taking a heavy toll on the planet, overpopulation remains a sensitive — often taboo — subject, to the point where some even deny it is a problem at all.  One reason for denial is that natural population growth now occurs almost exclusively in the developing world, especially in Africa. By contrast, increases in countries such as the USA, Australia and Canada are due chiefly to immigration and not to high birth rates. And it is within the developing world, again especially in Africa, that the poorest, least educated typically have the largest families, thus adding further to the rapid pace of population growth in these regions.  In this regard and of mounting concern, is the fact that Africa’s population, much of it already impoverished, is expected to double from the current 1 billion to over 2 billion by 2050.

Overpopulation: a Blame Game?

Some accuse those who are concerned at steady global population growth, and with efforts to  reduce it, of unfairly blaming the poor, or of blaming poor women for the world’s problems, or of being racist. Yes, PIC is deeply concerned about overpopulation.  It is, convinced that Planet Earth is under such severe resource and environmental stress, even now being incapable of feeding, clothing, housing, etc. the current 7.2 billion people to an acceptable level, that we cannot imagine coping with the 9 or 11 billion human population projected by the United Nations by 2050 and 2100.  We therefore advocate potential policy solutions which can move humanity towards a more sustainable course within the finite, but uncertain, limits of exploitation of planetary resources and the capacity of ecosystems to absorb the wastes of the current world economy.

Resource Use: Them & Us, the Reality & the Future

Reacting, critics claim that one Somali, or Bangladeshi, for example, consumes a fraction of the resources used by the average Canadian and produces an equally small amount of waste and greenhouse gases.  While true this ignores the reality that even the desperately poor, when in large and increasing numbers, will have a significant resource and environmental impact.  And the world’s poor, not unnaturally, dream of attaining living standards comparable to those in countries like Canada, even as the resources used and environmental consequences of their success in that regard may be harmful, sometimes in the extreme.  As people grow richer, they invariably put more pressure on the environment thanks to increasing consumption of food and consumer goods, more driving, and more energy used leading to more unwelcome GHGs.

Poverty, Population Growth & Environmental Degradation

Many millions – a majority – in India are poor with low consumption levels compared to ours.  And yet, relentless increases in population have led to widespread deforestation (causing erosion and increased flooding, notably during monsoons) and, sadly, to the near disappearance of India’s iconic tiger through habitat destruction.  Ethiopia also, like all Sahel countries, is now largely deforested, not due to commercial logging but to rapid population increases in the twentieth century when forests were cleared for cultivation and fuel.  Despite efforts to grow more food, crop failures and insufficient food production led to major famines to which developed countries repeatedly have had to respond.

The Price: Biodiversity & Wildlife

Large and growing populations, even poor ones with low consumer goods consumption, often exhaust and/or pollute water resources. The Yangtze and Ganges rivers are heavily polluted, and the Nile is a trickle by the time it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, its waters having been drawn upon by growing populations in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.  And as happens when key resources, especially water, become scarce, serious regional conflicts are beginning to brew.  Biodiversity and wildlife in these and most other developing countries, notably in Africa, are under pressure to the point of extinction whether from poachers seeking profit from ivory and animal parts for potions and medicine, or from people simply hunting for food, including bush-meat, a survival need driven by food shortages exacerbated by overpopulation.

For a Sustainable Future: Human Numbers Matter

When the health of the planet and its inhabitants are at issue numbers matter. For a sustainable future, global resources and the environment must be carefully husbanded and protected.  Ultimately, this is best done by reducing, then reversing, population growth.  Here, access to family planning is critically important.  Without it mankind faces insuperable obstacles and grim prospects. Making safe, affordable contraception universally available while informing people of the benefits of small families is by far the best way to avoid overpopulation.

The Silver Bullet: Family Planning

Not only does family planning allow women and men to exercise their human right to choose the number and spacing of children, it helps to ensure they enjoy more of life’s opportunities, not least of better education and greater equality.  Furthermore, sexual and reproductive health care greatly reduces the number of abortions and maternal and child mortality rates. It slows the spread of HIV/AIDS.  It significantly liberates and empowers women and can dramatically alleviate poverty.  In fact, as the United Nations has said, “Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology available to the human race.”