31 October 2011

7 billion people

Posted by Callan Bentley

The root of every issue that we collectively term “environmental problems” is human overpopulation. It wouldn’t matter if everyone on Earth drove a Hummer and used incandescent light bulbs and dumped raw sewage in their local watershed — if there were only fifteen people on the Earth. But the reverse is also true: if everyone lives a low-impact lifestyle, it still has an enormous aggregate effect on the planet – if there are 7 billion of us.

And now, there are 7 billion of us.

This morning, in the Philippines, there was born a child which has been symbolically declared by the United Nations as the world’s 7,000,000,000th living human. It’s a day of great joy, one imagines, for the family that welcomed this baby into their lives. But for the rest of us, that valid, valuable individual is another straw on the camel’s back. Having seen my home area of northern Virginia get more and more crowded over the course of my life, I can attest that the quality of life decreases inversely to the number of people I share my space with. …particularly on the Beltway.

We have better nutrition now than we used to. We have better medicine now than we used to. We have easier access to information now than we used to. So people live longer, more children survive to reproductive age, and the base of our population just gets wider and wider. There are huge numbers of us procreating, and every new person adds additional stresses to the non-human ecosystem. Even if that person lives a life of positive environmental effect (a John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Rachel Carson, for instance), we live the contradiction of knowing that our actions take something from the physical system of which we are a part. We must create waste in order to create good. We must alter the world while we seek to protect it.

Population growth estimates by the UN have recently been revised upwards from ~9 billion at 2050, to something more like 10 billion at 2100, maybe 11.5 billion. Elizabeth Kolbert has a thoughtful, pithy essay on the issue in last week’s New Yorker. You should read it to catch up with the latest: one sentence particularly struck me about the UN estimates:

If families have, on average, just half a child more than the U.N. currently projects, by 2100 there will be sixteen billion people on the planet.

Holy cow. More than twice what we already have? I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in: I feel crowded already. Resources are strained already. Environmental impacts are being felt already. As with climate change or an epidemic disease, I don’t anticipate the tipping point being very pretty. It looks like there is a strong probability of a grim future for our species, swarming all over our finite planet. Why are we growing so fast? To me, it feels reckless rather than intentional. It feels like metastasis.

Happy Halloween to 7 billion of the scariest creatures I’ve ever met.