The current global population stands at over 7 billion. To put this number into perspective, the global population in 1804 was 1 billion, with predictions of the number of people increasing to 9 billion in 2045 (based on current trends). Clearly then, the number of humans on the planet has been rapidly increasing. When our species first arrived on the scene, there were only about 200 million of us, and up until the present we have spread over every continent in massive numbers. No other species dominates the planet in this way.
What is interesting is that not every country is experiencing this rapid growth in population. It has been the less developed, and least developed, countries that are increasing in population numbers the most. The more developed countries have not really experienced a rapid growth in population – from 1950 up until 2050, the total population of developed countries will only have increased by less than half a billion. Predictions from the UN suggest that nearly all future population growth will be attributed to less developed countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The UN also predicts that the greatest percentage increase, at 2.4%, will be attributed to the poorest countries, with 33 of these countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and 14 in Asia.
It was this alarming increase in global population that led the Stanford University professor, Paul R. Ehrlich, to write on the subject. In his best-selling book, The Population Bomb (1968), professor Ehrlich warned that the mass starvation of humans would occur in the 70s and 80s, as a result of overpopulation. The book also called for immediate action to limit population growth. However, although Ehrlich is justified in worrying about the increase in global population, his viewpoint does tend to be quite alarmist and extreme in its recommendations.
Ehrlich’s book seems to be heavily influenced by the ideas that Thomas Malthus expressed in his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population. In this essay, Malthus argued that population growth will outpace agricultural growth, unless it is controlled. Ehrlich then took this principle and made some extreme conclusions from it; the first being that a massive catastrophe is imminent; the second being that radical solutions are required to avoid this catastrophe. One solution, suggested by Ehrlich, was to starve whole countries that refused to implement population controls.
Ehrlich also made several predictions which did not come to pass. For example, he claimed that there would be “a substantial increase in the world death rate” in the 70s and 80s. Despite this sincere prediction, the world death rate has actually decreased since the book was published. Furthermore, because of Ehrlich’s Malthusian leanings, he thought that all famine in the world could be attributed to global food shortages. While it is true that the planet has a finite amount of resources, and admittedly there will be a point where agriculture cannot keep up with population growth, famine does have other causes. The Indian economist, Amartya Sen, points out that countries with democracy and free press have pretty much never suffered from extended famines. Political instability, therefore, can also lead to starvation.
Nevertheless, even if the growth in global population is not the leading cause of resources being scarce – although I’m sure it must play some significant role – at some point in the future this will become the case. This is due to the fact that we rely on a finite amount of non-renewable forms of energy. Many ‘greens’ suggest that we should stop relying on these forms of energy and invest in more renewable forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and tidal. Furthermore, it cannot be doubted that overpopulation has a negative impact on the environment. It has a negative impact in terms of the soil that is eroded in order to grow crops to feed a growing population. A growing population also means depleting the rainforest in order to make room for raising livestock. The rainforest can be seen as the ‘lungs’ of our planet – it is one of our richest sources of oxygen and therefore nourishes us with a chemical that we need to survive. In addition, as more people are born into the world, the global ecological footprint inevitably increases. This increase in greenhouse gases leads to increases in global temperature, rising sea levels, and other unforeseen natural disasters.
Some are quite pessimistic about the whole situation. The scientist James Lovelock argues in The Revenge of Gaia that if humans carry on abusing the planet in this way, Gaia (or Earth) will have to react by making conditions unfavourable to our existence. Lovelock sees the planet as a self-regulating system that works to make conditions favourable for life in general, but not necessarily for humans. Therefore, if humans are destroying rainforests (and sources of oxygen), creating waste and pollution (which is unfavourable for life in general), then the planet will naturally decrease our numbers.
In contrast, a more optimistic outlook can be adopted, offering solutions which are not as extreme as Ehrlich’s, as doom-laden as Lovelock’s, or as downright evil as those who support eugenics. To have the government control the population is both an impractical and immoral solution – it seems to violate the libertarian value of choice, as well as certain rights; such as the right to a family life. That said, my personal opinion is that, although the government has no right to control the population, people nonetheless have a responsibility or duty to limit their family size. Individuals who decide not to have their own children, but who might decide to adopt instead, should be congratulated in doing something beneficial to the planet. In the same way, just because the government should not force us to recycle or reduce our energy consumption, this does not mean that we should not carry out these duties. Making ethical decisions should always come down to individual choice.
One important way to reduce the growing global population, which is practical, is to make birth control (contraceptives and abortion), family planning, and sex education more available and widespread. It is a known fact that if women are given control of their fertility that, not only do they gain more freedoms and rights, they will also have less children. There is no need to regulate how many children a woman can have – simply offering birth control will lead to less children being brought into the world. Birth control is needed the most in the least developed countries, the countries where the percentage increase in population is the highest. What we need is more freedom of information and a higher standard of education, so that women in developing countries can make an informed decision about using birth control.
On the other hand, since Catholicism is widespread in many African countries, birth control is considered immoral, since it goes against the Catholic belief in the “sanctity of life”. But, since there is a link between educating women and the number of children they have, hopefully this religious belief will be given less priority. Birth control, family planning and sex education is needed desperately in sub-Saharan Africa, not only to reduce the rising global population, but to prevent the rising incidence of AIDS in many of these countries as well.