Population and Resources

In some previous discussions, the issue of global population growth and the over use  of planetary resources has been raised along with the suggestion that the growth in population is now one of, if not the most, fundamental problem facing humanity.  However, the development of the discussions under the heading of  ‘The Evolution of Economics’, inclusive of the section called the ‘Limits to Growth’ highlighted the potential effects of population growth on the global economy and wealth distribution. Therefore, the goal of this section of discussions is to try to review the wider debate surrounding the impacts of an increasing global population on planetary resources in order to get a better understanding of some of the arguments, both for and against. Today, in 2015, the population clock currently shows a figure of 7.3 billion, while the graph below, based on figures collated by the United Nations, shows how this figure might be compared within the timeline: 1800-2100.


Obviously, the plots extending beyond 2015 are projections, which are said to be based on 3 different fertility assumptions, where the ‘medium’ projection appears to coincide with an exponential extrapolation of the ‘actual’ curve between 1800-2000 in that they both arrive at a figure of 10,853 billion in 2100. In contrast, the ‘low’ and ‘high’ projections result in a global population ranging anywhere between 6,750 and 16,641 billion by 2100. While the high projection might appear alarming in terms of the potential environmental and resource usage impact, we might also need to understand the implications of a falling global population on the economy, which may be subject to much regional variation.

But surely more people must use more resources?

While increases in the global population will undoubtedly lead to further problems, the critical issue of over consumption of planetary resources may be a more complex, when the distribution of resource consumption is analysed in more detail. For example, statistics suggested that the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption, while the poorest 20% used just 1.5%.

A further breakdown of the statistics also suggests that resource consumption effectively increases exponentially with wealth income as represented in the next graph:

So the statistics provided by the United Nations appear to show that consumption, and associated pollution, is directly proportional to wealth distribution and not just the global population in total. It also concluded that if these inequalities continued, then the problems of consumption will only get worse, specifically citing the following consumption figures of richest 20%:

  • They consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth about 5%
  • They consume 58% of total energy, the poorest 20% less than 4%
  • They have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest 20% about 1.5%
  • They consume 84% of all paper, the poorest 20% about 1.1%
  • They own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest 20% less than 1%

This line of arguments was taken up in an article entitled ‘Global Resource Depletion, dated 2013, which outlined how just 10% of the global population with the highest income, i.e. 700 million, might be responsible for the majority of the problems normally attributed to the global population, as a whole. It goes on to argue that from a global perspective, the poor may be essentially irrelevant to the problem of resource usage and pollution, as the poorest 40% are estimated to consume less than 5% of the planet’s natural resources. As such, even if the poorest billion people or so could be removed from the global balance sheet, it would barely be noticeable in respect to the use of natural resources and pollution. However, while it may be too simplistic to suggest that the overall increase in the global population, in isolation, is responsible for all the problems in the world, it may still not be too much of an exaggeration to say that it underpins many of them, especially if the entirety of this population aspires to live as the top 20%. Therefore, we might wish to cite some of the problems perceived at this initial stage:

  • Urban sprawl is destroying millions of acres of farmland.
  • Over 1 billion people do not have enough food or safe drinking water.
  • Increased demand for resources is leading to increased deforestation.
  • Traditional energy sources are becoming scarcer and more expensive.
  • Current use of traditional energy sources exacerbates global warming.
  • Global warming is now threatening the entire global ecosystem.
  • Environmental change is threatening to displace millions of people.
  • Growing resource demands increases competitive tension between nations.

Therefore, this section of discussions will attempt to research, and further consider, the implications of a growing global population over the next century in the context of a number of wider issues, e.g.

  • Population and resource requirements
  • Wealth distribution and demands for better living standards
  • Economic impacts of smaller populations
  • Ideological tensions, political, economical and theological.
  • Population growth surplus to requirements