Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

19 Aug 2022

How many people can the planet handle?

Posted by Michael Keating

Back in 1968 The Population Bomb, written by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, predicted overpopulation would cause worldwide famine, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth. The book, which talked about population, resources and the environment, triggered a heated global debate. Many developing countries with high birth rates pushed back saying it showed an attempt to stifle their development. When the book was published the world population was just over 3.5 billion and growing at a rate of 2.1 per cent per year. Since then, the population has risen to nearly 8 billion, but the rate of increase has dropped to 1.1 per cent.

Over the years, some countries experimented with population control measures, including family planning advice and contraception. Others limited how many children a family could have and even forced sterilizations. Limiting population growth became a taboo subject. However, the population is still increasing. According to the United Nations, it is projected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. This will put increasing pressure on the environment at a time when many vital resources are already in decline. How should we look at population growth in a time when the world is struggling to deal with poverty, growing inequality and environmental decline? The Great Transition Initiative, an online forum on a sustainable future, pulled together more than two dozen scholars to tackle this thorny subject in a project called The Population Debate Revisited. They take a variety of positions on one of the most complex issues facing humanity, including not just the number of people but the per capita consumption, which makes a huge difference in the impact per person. As one author wrote, population growth in affluent countries does much more to accelerate environmental decline than increasing numbers in poorer parts of the world.

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