Planet earth: 8 billion humans and dwindling resources

The global population will breach the symbolic level of eight billion on Nov 15, according to the UN. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK – Are eight billion humans too many for planet earth? As we reach this milestone on Nov 15, most experts say the bigger problem is the overconsumption of resources by the wealthiest residents.

“Eight billion people – it is a momentous milestone for humanity,” said United Nations Population Fund chief Natalia Kanem, hailing an increase in life expectancy and fewer maternal and child deaths.

“Yet, I realise this moment might not be celebrated by all. Some express concerns that our world is overpopulated. I am here to say clearly that the sheer number of human lives is not a cause for fear,” she said.

So, are there too many of us for earth to sustain?

Many experts say this is the wrong question. Instead of the fear of overpopulation, we should focus on the overconsumption of the planet’s resources by the wealthiest among us.

“Too many for whom, too many for what? If you ask me, am I too many? I don’t think so,” Dr Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Populations told AFP.

He said the question of how many people the earth can support has two sides: natural limits and human choices.

‘Stupid and greedy’

Our choices result in humans consuming far more biological resources, such as forests and land, than the planet can regenerate each year.

The overconsumption of fossil fuels, for example, leads to more carbon dioxide emissions, responsible for global warming.

We would need the biocapacity of 1.75 earths to sustainably meet the needs of the current population, according to the Global Footprint Network (GFN) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) non-governmental organisations.

The most recent UN climate report mentions population growth as one of the main drivers of an increase in greenhouse gases. However, it plays a smaller role than economic growth.

“We are stupid. We lacked foresight. We are greedy. We don’t use the information we have. That is where the choices and the problems lie,” said Dr Cohen.

However, he rejects the idea that humans are a curse on the planet, saying people should be given better choices.

“Our impact on the planet is driven far more by our behaviour than by our numbers,” said Dr Jennifer Sciubba, a researcher at the Wilson Centre think-tank.

“It is lazy and damaging to keep going back to overpopulation,” she added, as this allows people in wealthy nations, who consume the most, to cast the blame for the planet’s woes onto developing countries where population growth is highest.

“Really, it is us. It is me and you, the air-conditioning I enjoy, the pool I have outside, and the meat I eat at night that causes so much more damage,” she said.

If everyone on the planet lived like a citizen of India, we would need only the capacity of 0.8 of an earth a year, according to GFN and WWF. If we all consumed like a resident of the United States, we would need five earths a year.

The UN estimates that our planet will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050.

Women’s rights

One of the trickiest questions that arise when discussing population is that of controlling fertility. Even those who believe we need to lower the earth’s population are adamant about protecting women’s rights.

Mr Robin Maynard, executive director of Population Matters, an NGO, says there needs to be a decrease in the population, but “only through positive, voluntary, rights-respecting means” and not “deplorable examples” of population control.

Project Drawdown, also an NGO, lists education and family planning among the top 100 solutions to halt global warming.

“A smaller population with sustainable levels of consumption would reduce demands on energy, transportation, materials, food, and natural systems,” it said.

Dr Vanessa Perez-Cirera of the World Resources Institute agrees that “every person that is born on the planet puts additional stress on the planet”.

“It is a very thorny issue,” she said, adding that we should reject “this idea that the elite capture this narrative and say we need to cap population growth in the South”.

She believes the most interesting debate is not about the number of people but “distribution and equity”.

Dr Cohen points out that even if we currently produce enough food for eight billion people, there are still 800 million people who are “chronically undernourished”.

He said: “The concept of ‘too many’ avoids the much more difficult problem, which is: Are we using what we know to make the human beings we have as healthy, productive, happy, peaceful and prosperous as we could?” AFP

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