Our advance as a society has mostly centered around pushing our limits. From the frontiers of technology and medicine, the global populace has collectively strived to gradually increase the human lifespan from era to era. Just like our intellectual advances, our population also seems to be growing at a nearly exponential rate. The global population is projected to at least reach 9 billion by the middle of the 21st century. But, is there some sort of physical limit to this unprecedented growth in population? Should we base our policies in light of such a limit?
Human overpopulation may not directly predicate a decrease in overall environmental sustainability. But, overpopulation can bring about the conditions needed for a grave strain of resources. Faster population growths means that our resources, especially including essentials like food and water, have to be spread even thinner. Faster population growths mean more potential for air pollution. As hard as it is to admit, the current levels of population growth just seem to pop up at the crux of every debate we can have on sustainability. Overpopulation is especially such a controversial issue because its effect is almost too overwhelming to deal with. However, if we choose not to face it now, overpopulation presents a very real existential crisis.
A common argument against tackling human overpopulation is that its main environmental consequences can be mitigated by a more effective use of our resources. For example, according to NPR, the U.S. comprises 5% of the world’s population, but only contributes 20% to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, increased population doesn’t correlate to environmental degradation only because of additional factors such as the resources that each country invests in. But, even if our goals of switching from renewable to non-renewable resources come to fruition, the population’s exponential growth makes that achievement irrelevant. Such a switch would still not be able to keep up with the ever-growing demand in the market. Plus, the movement regarding divesting from non-renewable resources is facing major obstacles, so it would be too late when we finally sit down to talk about overpopulation. We obviously can’t ignore other issues, but overpopulation is an urgent issue with major global repercussions.
Overpopulation has presented itself as not only an environmental threat, but also a factor capable of debilitating nations. The United Nations seemed to always underestimate our population’s growth in their official projections and that optimism has come at a dear cost. Many environmentalists discuss the “Malthusian” effect when referencing this consequence of uncontrollable population. Thomas Malthus, an economist at the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, hypothesized that exponential population growth would induce a cycle of disease and famine as well as increased socioeconomic divides. Recent data from The New York Times corroborates that hypothesis. Divides between the lower and higher classes are becoming steeper. The agricultural industry is hanging by a thread as environmental circumstances can further aggravate already stressed food systems. According to the United Nations, four countries are facing famines this year. We don’t have room for anymore major economic declines like the Great Recession. If history is indicative of anything, these circumstances are only further destabilizing the governments of the world in a time when global unity is necessary for resolving crucial environmental issues.
As legitimate a threat to sustainability as it may be, overpopulation shouldn’t be discussed as a singular issue of importance. Instead, it would be most efficient to invest time in debating it in fragmented issues. For example, we can improve access to contraception and birth control devices. Almost 45% of pregnancies have been categorized as unintended. We can work on issues such as sexual assault and institute the proper societal norms in the following years to ensure less resulting pregnancies. The alternative to education, as some officials in the United Nations actually suggest, would be an unfavorable global restriction of pregnancies by enforcing a one-child policy similar to China’s. We shouldn’t let overpopulation come to such an obtrusive infringement on our fundamental human rights and discretion. Instead, we can foster the correct dialog by spreading the message of the critical effects of overpopulation and the means to humanely control it.
Sources: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Lesson-Plans/HumanPopulation/Environment.aspx, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/15/sunday-review/overpopulated-and-underfed-countries-near-a-breaking-point.html, http://www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2011/07/27/138749151/is-overpopulation-overlooked