The UN says humanity welcomed the eight billionth citizen on November 15th, a symbolic milestone in a rapidly growing population.
Approximately two centuries ago, the human population on earth stood below a mere one billion. Over a century later, that population grew by another billion.
In the last century, however, the numbers increased in staggering rapidity owing to improvements in healthcare and rising living standards leading to lower mortality rates.
The world hit the seven billion population mark in 2010. Just 12 years later, on November 15, 2022, that number reached 8 billion, according to projections by the United Nations World Population Prospects 2022.
While the UN expects the numbers to stabilise by the end of the century, projections still show a significant increase until then, with the population surpassing 10 billion before 2060 and peaking at approximately 10.4 billion in the 2080s.
This leads to several questions touching upon a range of issues, from equal distribution of wealth and resources to protecting our natural habitat.
“Population pressure on the environment will continue as long as our population continues to grow. There’s never been another large species that’s grown as much, as quickly or with such devastating consequences for biodiversity,” Stephanie Feldstein, Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona, US, tells TRT World.
Considering that masses are living in substandard conditions across many countries and capitalistic economies putting a major strain on earth’s resources, can humanity deal with the pressing question of sustaining itself in light of drastic social, environmental and economic factors?
Although UN’s projections are largely seen as fairly reliable, the future still remains uncertain, and experts are increasingly turning the table on the question of overpopulation. It seems that the problem is not earth’s resources, which are (or at least were) plentiful -- it’s us.
“Our current global system is based on exploiting vulnerable people and the environment. With nearly 700 million people living in extreme poverty, a billion people not getting enough to eat every day, and 4 billion people experiencing extreme water scarcity, we’re not even close to providing a good standard of living for our current population,” Feldstein says.
“As the climate crisis and biodiversity loss worsen, it will only get harder to meet the needs of everyone on the planet as our population grows.”
The haves and have-nots
With the world’s most prosperous countries consuming the bulk of its resources, population growth is concentrated in the poorest countries that lack sufficient resources to support their inhabitants.
These countries are faced with a vicious cycle: their slow progress in development leads to high levels of fertility and triggers population growth, which in turn exacerbates difficulties in development.
“As the global population grew from 7 to 8 billion, around 70 per cent of the added population was in low-income and lower-middle-income countries,” the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs wrote in a recent policy brief.
“When the next billion is added between 2022 and 2037, these two groups of countries are expected to account for more than 90 percent of global growth,” it added.
The global population growth up to 2050 is estimated to be concentrated in eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania.
So, how will this change bear on the world?
“Africa, in particular, will continue to export raw commodities (mineral and non-mineral) at low prices and be compelled to import grain and other finished (or ‘value-added’) commodities at levels that contribute to increased dependence on the status quo,” Professor Sudhir Chella Rajan at the Chennaı-based Indo-German Centre for Sustainability tells TRT World.
The repercussions will be felt in daily life as well.
“In low-income countries, population pressure is often felt very directly when there’s not enough food, water, medicine, and other essential resources available for everyone. In high-income countries, people often feel population pressure in the loss of nature and open spaces, and in crowded streets and job markets,” Feldstein explains.
“But we’re all ultimately sharing the same planet’s limited resources – and while population pressure, like other crises, hit the most vulnerable people first and hardest, it will ultimately catch up with all of us if we don’t change course,” she adds.
Moreover, there is a chance that conditions could take a different turn, and the UN prediction is just a possible scenario for the future.
“We can’t take population stabilisation for granted – it will only happen if we continue increasing access to voluntary reproductive healthcare, gender equity, and education for women and girls,” Feldstein says.
Moreover, overpopulation, in the sense of “distress to large numbers of people that cannot be easily resolved,” could occur without a dramatic increase in population, especially considering the climate crisis.
“Cataclysmic events like floods and drought will, of course, cause such distress, including large-scale forced displacement, massive hunger and disease, and so on,” Rajan says.
“Much of that is already happening and could get worse. But I am an optimist. I believe the turnaround towards creative forms of adaptive governance involving natural farming and massive shifts in land-tenure relations is not entirely utopian,” he adds.
Consequently, the solution seems to lie in ceasing destructive production practices that exacerbate the damage to the earth’s dwindling resources, living more sustainably, and reducing excessive consumption by the wealthy while redistributing resources more fairly around the world.
That means the greater part of the load falls on the affluent countries as they would have to develop climate-sensitive policies and actively help poorer countries to develop.
“Only then can we have a system that provides a good standard of living for all instead of allowing a few to chase profits at the expense of people and the planet,” says Feldstein.