In many ways, the debate in question might be characterised in terms of those who see population growth as the root problem and those who argue that the real problem is actually over-consumption of resources by a small minority. As such, we might attempt to briefly summarise the main arguments for each in turn.
In many ways, the central tenet of the over-population position appears to rest on the fact that as many as 1 billion people go hungry every day, while possiblly as many as 2.7 billion people face water shortage for, at least, one month every year. As such, it would appear that much of humanity is already struggling to cope without the burden of even more population growth.
While acknowledging that population growth in many developed countries has now essentially stabilised, many under-developed countries still have significant population growth, while struggling to meet the demand of their current populations. However, in the future, water and food supplies may be further threatened as historic aquifers are drained of water to meet the growing demands of agriculture; while, at the same time, productivity is falling in many regions of the world due to depleting soil fertility and the rising cost of fossil fuels. This situation could be further aggravated if future climate change affects the ‘normal’ weather patterns around the world. So, based on growing statistics, it would seem that we lack the ability to effectively manage the current demands of the global population, if we are collectively consuming about 25% more renewable natural resources, e.g. fresh water, soil, forests, fish stocks, than the planet can reproduce. It is predicted that if population reaches 9 billion people, by 2050, we will be using the bio-capacity of two Earths, which will be both unsustainable and further threaten the survival of wildlife around the planet. In this respect, more people hoping for a ‘better life’ can only put more demands on a system, which in many areas will simply lead to further expansion of industrial scale farming and deforestation plus an ever growing urban sprawl. It has been estimated that within the next 20 years, urbanisation may result in the lost of agricultural land, equivalent in size to Italy, each and every year.
Note: Of course, if you think over-population is the key problem, you are then left with the possibly more difficult problem of how you go about reducing the population on a global scale in the timescales required to avoid the assumed pending crisis?
In contrast to the over-population position, people like Hans Rosling are arguing that we have already reached the peak in the global population growth rate, albeit not the actual peak population. Others have also pointed out that population growth was not caused by people suddenly starting to ‘breed like rabbits’, but rather because they finally stopped ‘dying like flies’. So while the number of people has jumped from 1.6 to over 6 billion in the last century, the health and wealth of the majority has apparently improved over the same timescale, despite dire predictions to the contrary.
While it is hardly an argument for an increasing global population, it is pointed out that while population growth rates are still high in developing countries, the extra billions they will add to the global population will barely make a difference to the total resource usage, if they are amongst the poorest 40% who only consume less than 5% of natural resources. Of course, in complete contrast, resource usage and pollution could be cut in half, if only the richest 10% lived at an average global standard of living. So, the corollary to such arguments is that it will not be the total global population that eventually tips the ecological balance, but the increase in the aspirational demands of a growing ‘middle class’ , estimated to reach 2.2 billion in Asia by 2030. As such, humanity’s footprint on planet Earth may be more reflective of lifestyles, and the associated consumption of resources, rather than the total population in isolation.
Note: By the same token, if you think over-consumption is the key problem, you are then left with the equally big problem of how you go about reducing consumption, which underpins the standard of living in the most wealthy and powerful countries around the world.
The introductions above are meant to be little more than a characterisation of the debate concerning over-population versus over-consumption. However, even at this stage, it does not seem unreasonable to ask whether both facets of the arguments being outlined are contributing the global over-use of resources. However, analysis and discussion of this line of argument possibly needs some further introduction of the idea of demographics and the implications being drawn from its projections, which will now be taken up in the following discussions.