Survival depends on consuming less, fewer people

The OlympianJuly 11, 2014 

India Railways

Commuters move at a crowded railway station in Mumbai, India. India's new rail minister Sadananda Gowda recently proposed allowing foreign investment to modernize the country's cash-strapped state railways. India has one of the world's largest railways, which transports 23 million passengers a day.


A little over 200,000 more new people inhabit the Earth today than yesterday. Another 200,000 will join us tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

The United Nations has estimated that world population grows annually by 80 million people. At that rate – about 9,100 per hour – world population increases by roughly the size of Thurston County every day, and by 2050 will reach more than 10 billion.

This out-of-control population growth and its evil cousin, climate change, are undoubtedly the two most critical problems facing humankind.

Population growth trends make all environmental problems on a finite planet more difficult, perhaps impossible to solve. It’s a tautology that a finite Earth cannot sustain infinite population growth.

Humans are using up the planet’s resources today about 1.8 times faster than Earth can regenerate them. That will increase to 3 times faster by the mid-21st Century. In other words, we are slowly, but inevitably obliterating Earth’s ability to sustain life.

Being a species determined to live for today, we are sleepwalking toward a bleak future of violent competition for basic resources, such as food and water. Some scientists predict an ecological collapse before we reach the U.N.’s 2050 population estimate.

If humankind has any chance at long-term survival, two things must occur: We must stabilize world population and richer, more developed nations must consume fewer natural resources. Neither will be easy.

To accommodate the growth in resource consumption among developing nations that have historically experienced mass poverty and hunger, people in affluent countries such as ours must consume less.

The alternative is a world of conflict and chaos.

The problem is not insoluble, but it requires urgent and sustained action. Stepping up efforts to educate women in developing nations, particularly young girls, and to provide options for reproductive health, can eventually stabilize the world population.

Providing access to birth control for the more than 200 million women in developing nations who lack it will help, but it won’t be enough.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school – even primary level – tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.”

The relationship between education and population growth is obvious when you compare data. Japan has a 100 percent primary school enrollment, and a 1.3 fertility rate (number of children per woman). Sudan has only a 30 percent enrollment and a 4.2 fertility rate.

No wonder that outside of China and India, population growth is the highest in African countries.

It’s no easy task to effect the cultural change required both here and in developing nations to build broad support for a woman’s right to choose birth control. It is challenging to build support for educating girls and boys equally in many countries.

But the survival of humankind will ultimately depend on it.

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