By Talia Treble, Colyton Grammar School
Treble, T. (2021) To what extent should the issue of human population growth be considered as threatening as the issue of climate change?. Routes 1(3): 298-303.
The population of humans on Earth has grown rapidly in recent decades due to developments in all aspects of society. With climate change already at the forefront of many geographers’ minds, this essay investigates whether human population growth, as an often-overlooked topic, should be considered just as threatening. A lack of resources, employment and infrastructure to accommodate growing populations is set to put further strain on struggling areas and although there is spatial variation in areas contributing the most to climate change and rapid population growth, the lessons learnt and solutions to be found in both cases overlap and are therefore important themes to analyse together. The quote ‘we not only need smaller footprints but fewer feet’ summarises that the two issues are intrinsically linked and that the key to a sustainable future lies in taking steps to reduce the effects of both climate change and population growth.
The rationale of survival of the fittest has fuelled the growth and adaptation of species for hundreds of thousands of years, the reproduction of offspring and inevitable death of weaker creatures aiding useful population growth. However, in the modern age, it could be argued that humans have ‘outgrown’ Darwin’s theory (Darwin, 1859). With modern medicine and developed agriculture, humans have bettered their chances of survival exponentially. Whilst huge inequalities are still prevalent, the overwhelming global picture of human health is one of relative success.
The gap between every 1 billion global population milestone has been decreasing. The world’s population surpassed 1 billion in 1803. It then took 124 years to reach 2 billion, 33 years to reach 3 billion and only 15 years to reach 4 billion (Roser et al., 2013). Although this period of extremely rapid growth may be nearing its end, industrial activity, energy consumption, carbon emissions and harmful pollution are likely to be sustained. Climate change is widely remarked as the biggest problem of our age. Less talked about, but arguably as important, unsustainable human population growth contributes to the uncertain future and poses just as large a threat to the world as we know it.
2. The effects of climate change
Out of the many human driven problems in the modern world, climate change is demanding increasing awareness globally with people beginning to see why changes must be made to prevent a total environmental crisis. From 1880 to 2012, the average global temperature increased by 0.85 degrees Celsius and sea levels are rising, with a predicted increase of 40-63cm by 2100 (Stocker et al., 2013). The irreversible implications of global warming have the potential to reach environments, wildlife and people on a global scale, with direct effects including more extreme weather patterns, loss of biodiversity, melting ice and warming oceans (The Met Office, n.d.). However, variation in the impact of these changes will inevitably be felt on an economic scale. James Stephen Mastaler looked to scientific reports to hypothesise that the ‘global poor’ will face the most devastating effects of a problem largely induced by the ‘global affluent’ (Mastaler, 2011: 67). Put simply, a change in climate will result in heightened challenges to the people who are already living more economically and socially vulnerable lives than those in wealthier areas. For example, a slight change in temperature from sustained emissions from developed and developing countries could severely compromise agricultural viability and biodiversity in already arid areas. A decrease in agricultural output in these regions where the population’s access to food supply is already strained could exacerbate malnutrition and famine (Mastaler, 2011: 72). Therefore to put forward this argument fairly, it is vital to view not only areas of higher population as mass contributors to climate change, but to consider disparities in economic activity as a scale explaining contributions to the problem.
3. ‘We not only need smaller footprints, but fewer feet’
‘We not only need smaller footprints, but fewer feet’ was the headlining statement of an article released by the Centre for Biological Diversity a few years ago (Centre for Biological Diversity, n.d.). They stated that the unsustainable human population growth taking place will undermine efforts made to slow climate change. As R.K Bangert explained in an edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the issue of overpopulation is scarcely acknowledged. He remarked that ‘we fail to make the connection between overpopulation and poverty. Overpopulation drives environmental destruction, which drives poverty, which in turn drives war’ (Bangert, 2003: 234). This description depicts a downward spiral of effects both in the physical and human world.
When evaluating whether population growth should be considered as threatening as climate change, the link between the two cannot be ignored. Due to the consumption of resources per capita being more important than population numbers in some areas, it is important to analyse the spatial pattern of overpopulation and climate change as they are geographically uneven phenomena. The resource Gapminder supports the hypothesis that an increasing population doesn’t directly lead to a significant climate impact in that country. Of the top 50 total CO2 emitters (on both a domestic and industrial scale), 45/50 were in the Americas, Europe or Asia (Gapminder, 2018). As Gapminder groups data by four global regions it is telling that 36/50 of the top countries by annual population growth were African, when only 5 African countries made the top 50 CO2 emitters list (Gapminder, 2018). This uneven distribution suggests that on national scales, climate change and unsustainable population growth should not be compared as directly linked.
4. Access to resources
According to the UN, over 736 million people were living below the international poverty line in 2015 (United Nations, n.d.). This means approximately 10% of all humans on earth in that year were in extreme poverty and struggling to access necessities like healthcare, water and sanitation. With food demand forecast to increase by between 70% and 100% by 2050 (Godfray et al., 2010), the addition of climatic uncertainty to the mix suggests that technological agricultural solutions must be found to feed growing populations.
Ester Boserup emphasised in her work that the role of a growing population would result in the ‘development of agricultural technology which, in turn, shapes the productive capacity of resources’ (Marquette, 1997). In this way, she theorised a positive outlook on growing populations. She wrote that advances in agricultural technology would occur as a result of population growth, and therefore it could be seen as a less negative process (Boserup, 1965). With this mindset, population growth may not be as threatening an issue as climate change, as it could force innovation in areas that could even mitigate the effects of it. Increased pressure on energy sources could be a positive force pushing more governments to invest in renewable schemes. After all, as population growth is a process relatively hard to halt, the consumption of resources and subsequent emissions produced by more affluent countries may be an issue that needs targeting more urgently, suggesting that climate change alone is more threatening.
Thomas Malthus, on the other hand, took the stance that having more humans would simply exhaust resources (Malthus, 1798). He concluded that ‘populations will grow faster than the supply of food’ (Agarwal, 2020), arguing that the attempt to return to some sort of equilibrium would be governed by ‘positive checks’ and ‘preventative checks’ (Malthus, 1798). Positive (or natural) checks are events which will result in loss of human life, including earthquakes, floods, wars and famines. Preventative checks are measures that could be put in place to control population growth such as family planning and increased education in less developed areas. When considering more extreme weather events and harsher climates for agriculture as some of the effects of climate change, the addition of Malthus’ theory to the future predicts shortages and struggles in many areas.
The preventative checks, as a potential solution to growing populations are important to discuss in terms of their ethical dimensions. The most agreeable approach to this is to move away from connotations of strict ‘population control’ and towards empowering women in order to create the conditions for greater choice. The difference between 0 and 12 years of schooling is equivalent to almost 4 to 5 children per woman (Kharas, 2016). A lack of education can mean less access to reproductive health information and an increased chance of early marriage in poorer regions as a short term economic solution, all creating a faster route to childbearing. Through widespread gender equality in education, not only could more women make the choice to have or not have children at an appropriate time, but a vital demographic of the global workforce could increase whilst pulling many more out of poverty in cut off regions. Therefore, the solutions to both issues overlap with benefits, suggesting that perhaps efforts to reduce population growth should be considered as important as methods to reduce climate change.
5. Economic and social implications
The human impacts of population growth are headed by concerns for employment and welfare. According to the World Bank, the global labour force has increased from 2.32 billion in 1990 to 3.46 billion in 2019 at a relatively constant rate (The World Bank, 2020). Although, generally, a larger population creates more jobs as demands for services and products increase, the growing workforce is competing more and more with advanced technology for employment. The global shift of economic activity to less developed countries and outsourcing of labour is leaving a gap in the job market in more developed countries. There, emphasis is shifting to high tech industries and the growing quaternary and quinary sectors. Whether via lack of employment opportunities or increased need for highly skilled workers, absorbing the growing workforce is set to become even more difficult.
As well as a strain on employment, requirements like housing, healthcare and education are likely to become more crowded. The capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka, has experienced rapid population growth and demonstrates this theory. It was home to over 15 million people in 2015 and is projected to have approximately 20 million by 2025 (Ahmed, 2016: 13). A large part of this growth is down to internal rural-urban migration of people seeking employment opportunities. The city lacks the infrastructure to facilitate the 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants annually, resulting in numerous urban slums. Dhaka had 4966 slums in 2005 (Ahmed, 2016: 15) where cheap labour for garment factories fuelled the growth of the textile industry. Despite the city’s industrial standing, there is a critical lack of necessities such as access to sanitation, stable housing and efficient waste management, demonstrating a severe case of overpopulation with a lack of attempt to improve facilities. The social impacts of a growing population, in this case, are obvious.
To be deemed as threatening as climate change, the ability to prevent overpopulation must be considered. Environmentally, science has shown us what needs to be done to reduce the effects of climate change, through living more sustainable lives when it comes to energy sources, food, emissions and much more. While to simply put an end to issues like climate change and population growth would be impossible, raising awareness of the steps we can take is vital. Government incentives and enforcing smaller families may not be the most efficient way forward. Increased awareness, empowering women through education and health services and working to reduce poverty would all help to counter the fact that our improved ability to survive may indeed push us, as a larger collective, to potential extinction.
To conclude, the reality of these two issues is that they are intrinsically linked. As David Attenborough, a patron for the organisation ‘Population Matters’, phrased it, “all our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.” (Attenborough, n.d.). Independent of climate change, population growth results in many problems, but combined with it, the outcome is catastrophic. With criticisms of overpopulation seeming to come from more affluent countries, the importance of assessing the spatial impacts of climate change is relevant. The solutions to climate change that will elicit the greatest response have to start in the countries causing the most damage through consumption per capita and industrial usage of fossil fuels. With regulating populations having more ethical controversies than introducing more sustainable technologies to consumers and manufacturers, perhaps the focus should be more on mitigation strategies to our warming climate regardless of population. With this said, there are positive ways to shape future generations with increased education globally for all people and a decrease in poverty. It is therefore paramount that both issues demand equal attention in the public eye. To summarise, although more should be done immediately to counteract climate change, population growth should be considered as physically and socially threatening in order to enact positive change environmentally and socially.
Miss Hickey (from Colyton Grammar School) for advertising the opportunity and supporting the independent work.
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Ahmed, I. (2016) Dhaka: Stressed but Alive! [Online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep09526.6 (Accessed: 15 August 2020)
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Bangert, R. (2003) ‘Overpopulation Overlooked’, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1(5), p234.
Boserup, E. (1965) The conditions of agricultural growth: The economics of agrarian change under population pressure. London: Allen & Unwin.
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