Environmentalists and those on the left continually bemoan the fact that America has about 4.25% of the world’s population but consumes more than 25% of its energy. We treat the environment, however, rather well compared to what we see around the world. The U.S. actually leads all other nations in reducing carbon emissions. The issue of resources vanishing before our eyes is largely a result of the behaviors and activities of both undeveloped nations and large population nations – China, India, and Indonesia among others — who show relatively little concern for the health of the planet.
In 1990, a statement signed by 1,575 scientists from 69 countries was sent to 160 national leaders, as reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. Signers included 99 of the 196 Nobel Laureate scientists living at the time, as well as senior officers from prestigious scientific academies around the world.
What was in the letter? It warned that, “Human beings, in the natural world, are on a collision course.” Environmental concerns were apparent in the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, tropical and temperate forests, and living species. The scientists lamented that, “Much of this damage is irreversible, on a scale of centuries or permanent.” They went on to say, “We are fast approaching many of the Earth’s limits.”
Here are some examples of our planetary resources being stretched:
* Water is at a premium. No more fresh water exists on the planet today than in Biblical times. Yet, the Earth’s population is eight times greater than it was in 1840.
* In 1990, 1.2 billion of 5.4 billion people had no access to clean drinking water. Today, 2.1 billion of nearly 8 billion people lack safe drinking water at home.
* In 1990, one in 15 people lived in areas defined as water-stressed or water-scarce. This number has risen to one in six people, and eventually could rise to one in three people.
* Chronic fresh water shortages have occurred in Mexico, Brazil, Africa, the Middle East, northern China, parts of India, several former Soviet Republics, and the western United States.
* More people imperil more species. The World Wildlife Federation’s endangered species list includes the ivory-billed woodpecker, Amur leopard, Javan rhinoceros, greater bamboo lemur, northern right whale, western lowland gorilla, leatherback sea turtle, and Siberian tiger.
* When 205 Nobel Prize winners were polled regarding the most compelling challenges confronting humanity, of 36 completed responses, #1 was population growth, and #2 was environmental degradation.
Too Many People?
Increasing human populations don’t inherently equate to mismanaged resources and more dire conditions, yet that has been the continuing norm. Lester Brown, former president of the World Watch Society, once observed that without radical, scientific breakthroughs, large increases in crop yields that have allowed production to keep up with the decades of rising human consumption might no longer be possible.
“Human demands are approaching the limits of oceanic fisheries to supply fish, grazing lands to support livestock, and, in many countries, of the hydrological cycle to produce fresh water,” Brown observed. “As a result of our population size, consumption patterns, and technology choices, we have surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity.”
Some people surmise that war, famine, and pestilence all reduce population. “Doesn’t nature manage things?” they ponder. Nature does not micro-manage our population. No war and no starvation – even what we had years ago in Somalia or Ethiopia – counterbalances the human net gain of one million people every few days.
The Ever Critical Masses
The quality of life for future generations depend in part on keeping population at a replacement level, i.e. the number of live births equaling the number of deaths. Even with fertility declining worldwide, the fertility in developing countries still averages more than four children per family. 30% of Latin American women, 40% of Asian women, and 50% of African women are married by age 18.
Of all 15-19 year-old girls alive today, it’s likely that a third or more will be pregnant by age 20. A huge swath of the population of developing countries is under the age of 20. With so many entering their reproductive years, population is destined to increase for many decades.
Nearly one half billion people are unemployed or underemployed in developing countries, while multi-millions more enter the job market each year. Difficult economic conditions, dwindling resources, and population growth have prompted millions of rural poor to migrate to cities and or to cross international borders in search of a better life.
The Only Way Out
New York, which headed the list of the ten largest cities in the world in 1950, is no longer in the top ten. Explosive human population growth is at the root of every planetary shortfall, emergency, and full-blown crisis. We must apply the brakes to this runaway train, however unpalatable that might be to some people. Collectively, we cannot continue down this path indefinitely.