Humanity is already exceeding the Earth’s renewable capacity
November 2013 | Global
Robert Walker, President of the Population Institute in Washington, D.C., told WEJ in an interview about the repercussions of uncontrolled population growth, how overcrowding will affect macroeconomic indicators, and what needs to be done now to keep the situation from losing control.
Mr. Walker, in your view, is the problem of overpopulation on Earth really so overwhelming, or is the scope of the crisis being exaggerated by the media?
Rapid population growth threatens our long-term economic growth and ecological stability. The problem is real, even if some people underestimate it.
Yet according to forecasts by World Population Prospects, which is released every two years by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the most likely scenario is one in which the population declines due to a declining birthrate…
Yes, but this is an understated (conservative) scenario based on the assumption that the global birthrate will continue to decline in the future. According to the “medium variant” population projection issued by the United Nations earlier this year [editor’s note: which developed four scenarios: high, medium, low, and a scenario with a constant birthrate], world population is expected to surpass 9.6 billion by 2050, and 10.9 billion by 2100. This is a conservative projection that assumes that global fertility rates will continue to decline. If fertility rates remain unchanged, world population could surge to 27 billion by the end of the century. Fertility rates, however, are not decreasing as fast as previously hoped in many developing countries, and adolescent pregnancy rates in many areas are on the rise again.
What about those countries classified as “failed” states – is the population growth rate declining on account of the instability, poverty, and the ongoing conflicts?
The populations of unstable countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, etc. are growing at very quick rates. A striking example of this trend is in one of the poorest countries in the world – Somalia. In Somalia, where about 40% of the population is under the age of 15, population is projected to climb from 10.5 million to 27.1 million by 2050. Even in countries stricken by war and conflict, populations are on the rise. In Iraq, the population could rise from 33.8 million today to 45.9 million by 2050, while Afghanistan’s population is expected to increase from 30.6 million to 56.6 million. While these projections are not set in stone, only a sharper decline in fertility rates will lower the projections.
In the event things do develop according to this scenario and Earth’s population continues to increase, what kind of global problems would this bring?
The increase in global population is placing a tremendous burden on the Earth’s resources and leading to potential ecological ruin. The world faces three very significant challenges.
Let’s go over them in order, starting with the most critical. What threatens us the most?
The greatest challenge we face is hunger. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, food production in the developing world will have to double by mid-century to keep up with population growth. This will require an additional $83 billion annual investment in agricultural development. The world’s growing demand for food has already increased food commodity prices to dangerous levels and pushed more than 44 million people into extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.
The second population-related challenge is the eradication of poverty. Rapid population growth threatens to widen income inequality.
The third major population-related challenge facing the world is the environment and natural resources.
Given that reserves of most natural resources are limited, how long can these reserves support the changes in global population growth?
By some estimates, humanity is already exceeding the Earth’s renewable capacity by as much as 50%. Lakes and rivers are shrinking. Water levels are falling. Tropical forests are being cut down. Topsoil is eroding. Deserts are expanding. Large fish populations have declined by 90%. Greenhouse gas emissions are steadily rising. By 2030, we may need two Earths to sustain our level of consumption. But there is only one Earth.
What impact will the problems you’ve identified have on macroeconomic indicators?
The rising costs of land and resources, combined with the effects of climate change, will limit future economic growth. Leading economic thinkers believe that the United States will not be able to maintain a 3% annual rate of growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Economic growth in China and other emerging economies may also be slowing. Rapid population growth is also restraining economic growth in the developing world.)
Many influential people today are seriously concerned about the state of the environment. Jeremy Grantham, the famous investor and co-founder of GMO, one of the largest investment capital firms in the world, has expressed great concern about the challenges posed by climate change, water scarcity, shortages of arable land, loss of topsoil, and the rising cost of fuel and fertilizers. Grantham insists that these trends will lead to record droughts, more crop failures, and higher extraction costs, which will push commodity prices even higher. Grantham warns about “the braking effect” on the developing world from the rising costs of food and raw materials.
So that means that developing countries will be the ones increasingly exposed to the negative consequences?
Yes, and he also fears that the effects of climate change will be felt much more severely by developing countries, as their “resource intensity is far higher and their pollution often greater.” He foresees a continued rise of food and energy prices that will drag down global economic performance and fuel inflation in the developing and emerging economies.
But the modern world is tech-savvy and innovation is being developed and implemented in our everyday lives rather quickly. Take, for example, the development of alternative energy, genetically modified foods, and other tricks that spare several resources. Perhaps technological progress is able to solve the Earth’s overpopulation problem, or at least minimize its effects?
Some economists and demographers are optimistic that technology will help us to sustain an ever-expanding human population, but there are limits to exponential growth on a finite planet. There are many reasons to believe that technological advances will not solve our problems. Rather than rely on technology to save us, we should limit the demands that we are making on the planet.
How could this be done and what effective steps for restraining population growth are available today?
Regulating births has to be done with the widespread use of contraceptives. The UN has declared that access to family planning and reproductive health services is a fundamental right, but many women in the world still lack access to contraceptives, especially in rural areas in developing countries and low-income households.
Surveys by the UNFPA report that there are over 200 million women in the developing world who want to avoid or delay a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of contraception. Educating and empowering these women and giving them access to modern contraceptives will improve the health and well-being of them and their families. We must make it possible for every woman in the world to avoid an unplanned pregnancy.