According to United Nations demographers, October 31st marked the day that the 7 billionth person was born on Earth. And although the day may seem rather arbitrary to some (i.e. we have no way of calculating the world population with such precision), it is a sobering reminder that humanity faces increasing ramifications as its population increases.
Right now, nearly 1 billion people around the world do not have enough food. A further 800 million do not have access to clean drinking water. And fully one third of the human population lives on less than $2 a day.
Meanwhile, 10 million hectares of forest are lost annually, wild fish stocks face a massive collapse due to human over-extraction, and species extinction rates are 100 – 1000 times higher than they have been historically. And to top things off, humans are spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at unprecedented levels, thus acidifying the oceans and increasing global temperatures to dangerous new heights.
And these are just some of the issues the world is facing today – with 7 billion people.
The startling reality is that the human population is still increasing at a rate of 1.1%. With a global population as large as it is now, this means 150 babies are born every minute. By the time we reach 2050, the UN projects that the global population could be as high as 9 billion. But if we are having such a hard time providing for the world now with a population of 7 billion, how could we possibly provide for an additional 2 or 3 billion people?
Have We Reached the Earth’s Natural Limits?
Some would say yes, the world is overpopulated. They highlight dwindling resources around the world, increasing water scarcity, and rampant hunger and disease in sub-Saharan Africa. And perhaps there is some substance to these arguments. The UN FAO warns that food production needs to increase by 70% in order to feed the world in 2050. But with agricultural land dwindling and food stress already being felt in places around the world, how could we possible feed the whole world population in 2050?
Back in 1974, the well-known ecologist Garrett Hardin released a controversial article in Psychology Today entitled “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” In his article he uses the analogy of a life boat to describe the rich and poor divide. In his analogy, he describes a situation where 50 people are stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean (the rich 1/3 of the world). They have enough water, food, and shelter for themselves and maybe 10 other people. But they eventually come across 100 other people out in the water desperate for admission onto the boat. The 100 people will most certainly die if they cannot soon get on the boat.
How will the 50 people on the lifeboat help the 100 people? Obviously taking on all 100 would sink the boat, thus killing everyone. Do they select 10 people? What would they tell the other 90?
Ultimately, Hardin argues that we cannot help everyone in the world; the natural limits of the world simply prevent that from happening.
Is The World A Lifeboat?
I remember reading Hardin’s article back in university and feeling that although Hardin’s analogy is easy to grasp and logical (though harsh), there was something missing from it. After all, the rich nations do not merely use up resources to survive. We own cars (sometimes 2), iPods, personal computers, HD TV’s, and countless amounts of clothing. In a shocking UN report, it was determined that one third of the world’s food is wasted every year.
It does not sound like the rich 1/3 of the world is living on a lifeboat.
The situation of the rich 1/3 is more analogous to a five star cruise ship, with 5 swimming pools, an all-you-can-eat buffet, movie cinemas, and swim-up bar. The question is not whether we can provide for the rest of the world. The question is whether we can properly manage our resources to provide for the whole world population.
Our current trajectory of growth is unsustainable. There’s no question about that. If the whole world consumed at the same level as the US, we would need 4.5 Earth’s to provide for the global population.
Instead, we need to guide our current trajectory of growth on a more sustainable path. This means investing heavily in (already feasible) renewable energy, constructing more energy efficient buildings, using up less resources, and engaging in more sustainable lifestyles.
Obviously none of these things are easy. And in fact, I am skeptical whether we can even come close to providing for 9 billion inhabitants in 2050. But if we don’t invest the effort in now, then we certainly won’t achieve a more equitable and sustainable world. How this can be accomplished within the current system is another question entirely and one which I can’t delve into here.
In the end the problem is not so much a lack of resources, but an inequitable distribution of resources.
What are your thoughts on the ‘7 billionth person’ milestone? Can the world adequately provide for 9 billion people in 2050?
Image CC licensed by Ahron de Leeuw: Crowded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.