Q: The world added its seven-billionth person in 2011, but the news came and went quickly while Charlie Sheen news kept on and on. But isn’t population growth the “elephant in the room” that needs serious attention? Can you outline the major impacts of population growth and what if anything is being done to try to arrest it?
Unchecked human population growth could be a recipe for doom for the planet and its inhabitants. And it has reached staggering levels in recent years—the number of people on the planet has doubled from 3.5 billion to seven billion in just a half century. While we’ve made great strides in educating people around the world about family planning and birth control, the global fertility rate still hovers around 2.5 children per woman. At that rate, population will grow to 11 billion by 2050 and nearly 27 billion by 2100.
While such a scenario is unlikely given that fertility rates tend to decline as countries develop and modernize, the prospect of a planet with tens of billions of people on it is scary indeed. The first widely published pundit on the potential impacts of too much human population growth was Englishman Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Human Population” warned that violence, genocide, nasty weather, disease epidemics and pestilence would be precursors to widespread famine in a world with too many humans. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” he wrote.
History views Malthus as an extremist and many would argue that, despite population having swelled some seven times since his day, we have so far managed to avert a planet-wide “Malthusian catastrophe” whereby population has simply outpaced our ability to feed ourselves. Nonetheless, a 2007 UNICEF report indicated that 10.9 million children under five-years-old die each year around the world, with malnutrition and other hunger-related diseases responsible for 60 percent of the tragedy. And a 2009 World Health Organization and UNICEF study found that some 24,000 children in developing countries were dying each day from preventable causes like diarrhea resulting from lack of access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.
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