On October 31st 2011, the world will reach a milestone in terms of human population. According to the UN Population Division, there will be seven billion people on Earth. Back in the 1930s the figure was just two billion. The population explosion since then has been like none seen before. Can we survive with so many people? We take a look at some of the issues.
The population explosion is not expected to end for a few decades, largely because so many women worldwide (1.8 billion) are still at an age where they can bear children. The rise in vaccinations and healthcare has also meant that in some large population centers, the average age of death has risen: in India, for example, it has increased from 38 in 1952 to 64 in 2011, and in China from 41 to 73.
The UN has taken a middle estimate and projects that by 2045 the population could reach nine billion. However, right now nearly one billion people go hungry every day. Those in poor countries want to raise themselves out of poverty – but how to do it without even more of the planet's natural resources being drained?
The Anthropocene is a word popularized by Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen to mean the age in which man has had a monumental impact on the Earth and its atmosphere. It is thought to be a new geologic epoch. In the future, geologists will be able to follow the impact we have had by looking at the pollen records, altered by industrial agriculture, or extinctions, caused by deforestation. And that doesn't even touch on changes in the atmosphere that we're creating.
Global warming greatly affects the atmosphere for those of Earth's life forms that live on land, but the increasing population – and its needs – is also having a drastic effect on the world's oceans. Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a marine ecologist, calls ocean acidification global warming's "equally evil twin" – and it's of equally grave concern for life on Earth.
By 2030 it is estimated that one in six people will live in India – which is already overcrowded.
As early as 1966, Paul Ehrlich observed: "I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago... The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people."
Population growth itself will remain a huge concern for years to come. However, scientists and others point out that the biggest issue may be what choices we make regarding consumption of our natural resources. Do we aggressively work to stop global warming? How do we feed and clothe others born into poverty without using up the planet's resources. Consuming less may well be the answer but that will necessitate a whole new way of thinking for many.