Although a vast number of newborns enter the world every day, the United Nations chose Danica May Camacho of the Philippines, born Sunday, October 30, as one of a number of babies to represent the seven billionth addition to the world’s population. Her birth was followed by resounding praise and celebration from friends and family, but also came with concerns from the academic community.
For years scientists have hypothesized over a possible “carrying capacity” of the Earth, and have made considerable efforts to determine how long the world’s resources will be able to last a population that has more than doubled in only 30 years. Wittenberg professors offered insights into the sustainability of the human population given its current growth rates and the effects overpopulation can have from scientific and political points of view.
Richard Philips, who studies Ecology and Evolution, remarked, “Speaking as an ecologist, populations can’t experience growth forever, and the growth that the human population is currently experiencing is not sustainable.” Though it may be hard to believe with the amount of food and fuel energy humans, especially Americans, currently consume, the grim reality Philips revealed is that, “The world is finite…and consequently there are x amount of people that can be fed.” He explained that while scientists and humanitarians alike (he cites Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug for his contributions to the world food supply), have made strides in “advancing in food technologies to help feed a growing population,” these efforts can only “mitigate the problem, not solve it.” Philips and many others researching the subject have observed that we can already see populations exceeding their carrying capacities, shown in the sweeping deaths caused by drought and starvation.
As Philips puts it, no matter the cause, “A population can’t continue at exponential growth forever.” It is no surprise that he and ecologists everywhere have concluded that “overpopulation is legitimately a concern.”
The availability of resources follows a similar trend to population growth. Dr. Kenneth Bladh, professor of Geology, posed an intriguing question: “What if everyone in the world wanted to live the way you do? Or the way I do? Hospital systems, education systems, transportation, there’s consumer goods, the cost of protecting ourselves…” While at Wittenberg and largely in the United States it is easy to believe the world is bountiful with infinite resources, taking a glimpse at the availability of these resources to the rest of the world can give one startling second thoughts.
“The distribution is quite uneven, as you might expect,” Bladh says, and not even just between developed and undeveloped nations, but “not even everyone in the United States has the same access to resources.”
This seems to be the rub many, including Bladh identify, that, “That’s the problem with seven billion people. You cannot apply the same living standard to everyone.”
Besides competing with each other to get ahold of resources, we are also forced to compete with the creation of them. Natural resources such as petroleum, fertilizer, metals, coals, and others necessary for fuel and food, “are being created in the world at a much, much slower rate than we’re using them.” We tend to justify our usage of these materials with tagline of them being “renewable,” however, Bladh explains that “they are essentially nonreplaceable. Eventually the earth, in millions and millions of years, makes more. In human time frames, they’re actually nonrenewable.”
The human population is beginning to severely outgrow the natural proceses which make the earth livable, and even the amount of livable land the earth has to offer.
The condition of a specie’s habitat also plays a significant role in its longevity .
Dr. David Finster, professor of Chemistry, expressed deeper concern in the livelihood of our environment and its ability to support life with the amount of damage it undergoes from every day, manmade processes used for us to exist.
Finster explained, “Right now we are producing greenhouse gases, primarily through burning fossil fuels, at a rate that will not be sustainable for the rest of the 21st century, even probably for the next 20 or 30 years.”
Not only do we run into the issue of depleting these resources, but plenty of adverse affects face the environment’s natural ability to provide.
“The temperature of the earth is going up, the oceans are going through chemical changes that they’ve never gone through before now. The temperature is warmer, almost certainly, at the end of this century than it’s been in perhaps a million years,” Finster continued.
The tragedy here is that with bodies of frozen fresh water becoming more vulnerable to melting and areas of the world becoming more prone to drought from excessive heat, there is “more flooding where we don’t want water, and actually less water when we do need it. It exacerbates in both directions, it turns out.” These “catastrophic climate changes,” as Finster identifies them, are predicted to, and somewhat already have, result in “tremendous shifts in agriculture” and “migration problems.”
He concluded: “The population isn’t the main problem, if we can get people to use less energy overall and produce energy in more sustainable way.”
Clearly there are many concerns for the science community and the natural effects overpopulation could have. But J. Robert Baker, professor of Political Science, offered input as to how a growing population will impact our political interactions with each other. As is universally accepted from all points of views on the subject, Baker remarked that, “As the population increases, the demand for resources increases. Resources are finite in many instances. There’s going to be political struggles over the distribution of resources.”
Examples of this have already become largely apparent in today’s headlines. Baker sited the conflict in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement as examples of aggressive attempts for people to “gain additional resources and services,” commenting that it is his “inclination is to think that these are precursors of the symptom of unequal distribution of resources exacerbated by increasing population.”
An issue commonly identified in the political arena is the unequal distribution of resources as opposed to their rapid depletion in the world. Putting the spotlight on the U.S., a nation wealthy with resources, Baker explained, “Part of our duty, part of being a good citizen is to give back to the community. Our fair share is going to be more than what other countries can contribute, because we have more.”
It may be hard to believe that in developed areas like the United States and Europe elected officials understand the need that exists in other countries, but Baker explains that “Most members of the elected class understand intellectually…but the sacrifice required is perhaps too much.” He continued, “Humans are rational and self interested,” so it may not be surprising that distributing our resources to others is considered “sacrifice” instead of cooperation.
As the population grows and basic resources such as food and land become more scarcely available to all, history shows that conflict, violent or not, is sure to abound.
We have somewhat mitigated the inevitable leveling of the human populations and its available resources through our current campaigns to conserve energy in households, offering foreign aid, and even public policies which limit children per family in some nations. However, one constant in this ever changing debate is that these current solvents will have to expand and evolve if we hope to keep going strong.
(Sarvani Ramcharran / email@example.com)