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Why Humans Are Not Fated To Destroy The World

Why Humans Are Not Fated To Destroy The World thumbnail

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

1. The global population is likely to peak and decline in the 21st century

The world population is still growing, but the rate at which it is growing has actually been decreasing ever since its peak in the 1960s. Currently the world population is growing at about 1.2 percent per year.

World Pop Growth RateUN Data

We are already experiencing a slowdown in population growth, and it is expected to continue in the coming decades. The UN’s median scenario projects flat or decreasing population size in all regions except Africa. Other projections suggest that the global population may even peak this century. IIASA, an Austrian scientific research institute, estimates there is an 85 percent chance that the world’s population will stop growing before the end of the 21st century (Lutz et al. 2001), and its median scenario sees population actually starting to shrink around 2070 (see Figure 2) (IIASA 2007).

Population GraphSource: IIASA

2. We are continuously increasing the Earth’s carrying capacity

It is sometimes suggested that there are hard biological limits to how much food the Earth can produce, but ever since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago humans have been consistently increasing yields through the use of new technologies. Indeed, it has been increasing yields that have allowed the human population to grow to its current population of seven billion. In this sense, the Earth’s carrying capacity is not bound by a finite set of planetary boundaries, but rather is a function of human technology.

Global Average Cereal YeildsUnited Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAOSTAT data

3. To combat climate change, technology is more important than population

Population is undoubtedly a factor in anthropogenic climate change, since it is human activities that create greenhouse gas emissions. But a far larger factor than population is the kind of energy being used. One billion people on the planet getting electricity from coal would create more carbon emissions than 6 billion people each getting the same amount of electricity from solar or nuclear power (see Figure 4).

Carbon Emissions Per Unit of EnergySources: IPCC for solar and nuclear; Nakicenovic et al 1998 for gas, coal and wood.

4. Decreasing fertility goes hand-in-hand with human development

Fertility (the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her life) is closely correlated with development. The countries with the highest fertility rates are generally the poorest ones, while almost all the richest countries have fertility rates that are actually below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

The realities of poverty make large families a rational choice. Without access to healthcare and sanitation, child mortality is high and women need to have more children to achieve a desired family size (Gates). Without access to social security systems, having lots of children is a form of insurance (Bulatao, p. 4). But when families gain access to modern services like healthcare, education, and social security, fertility rates start to fall, since it becomes practical for women to choose smaller family sizes (National Research Council, p. 93). There is even evidence that exposure to modern media like television can create downward pressure on family size.

Using per-capita income as a proxy indicator for overall human development, we can see a clear correlation between fertility and development. The charts below from show that as incomes around the world have increased between 1910 and 2010, fertility rates have fallen dramatically. In the developing world, people are increasingly moving to cities, gaining access to modern services, and the fertility rates of these countries have, in turn, been falling.

Figure_5_swainSource: Gapminder

Fertility rate versus income per person, 1910

Figure_5_2swainSource: Gapminder

Fertility rate versus income per person, 2010

This is not to say that we should not do anything to promote lower birth rates; increasing access to contraception in the developing world is an important goal for governments and development NGOs, both to enable effective family planning and to increase female autonomy. However, access to contraception is only one of many factors that affect women’s fertility choices. Broader issues of poverty and education are also crucial to address if we hope to encourage women to choose smaller family sizes.

Marian Swain is a Conservation and Development Policy Analyst at the Breakthrough Institute.

Business Insider

21 Comments on "Why Humans Are Not Fated To Destroy The World"

  1. meld on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 7:06 pm 

    “the Earth’s carrying capacity is not bound by a finite set of planetary boundaries, but rather is a function of human technology”

    Your right, first thing we should do is liquidate everyone that has the same opinion as you and eat them, seem moral to me….yum

  2. meld on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 7:19 pm 

    just to be more serious

    1) Yes you are quite right, in fact at least 7 billion people are going to die this century, infant mortality rates will skyrocket and the average lifespan will be around 50.

    2)Humans have not been consistently improving yields at all. a Yield is the amount you get from one plant. Yields have barely changed , in fact yields have gone down with the invention of GMOs, what in fact HAS happened is more land has been freed up to grow food and pest control has improved. Whilst the food supply has grown, it has little to do with yields and more to do with Oil and natural gas being used to open up new areas for farming and allow one farmer to do most of the hard work with the help of old mr fossil fuel, who also helps out considerably in the weeds and pests area too. There are most definately limits here.

    3) of course the caveat here is that 7 billion people can’t exist on sunshine and strong farts with a little extra from the most poisonous substance in the universe.

    4) As society crumble birth rates will skyrocket, deathrates will skyrocket and we’ll all have a jolly old time no doubt.

    When the hell will people learn that technology is something you do with excess energy not a way of creating energy. no excess energy = no tech,

  3. Arthur on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 7:55 pm 

    Hey, meld is back. That was quick! Always difficult to kick bad habits, like posting on a forum 🙂

  4. Bob Owens on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 7:55 pm 

    I hope you are right. I really do. But I don’t think we have the time. Too many variables that can cause too many problems. And even if you are right and we don’t destroy the planet, we will have a pretty sad planet when all is said and done. To really have a beautiful planet we need 90% less people on the Earth than we have right now and we need the population to go down right now. Or Nature will figure things out for us.

  5. Bandits on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 8:28 pm 

    4) As society crumble birth rates will skyrocket, deathrates will skyrocket and we’ll all have a jolly old time no doubt.
    That’s right Meld, we are heading to where we came from. The author of the above article is another of the very dangerous stupid people that say the things the rank and file want to hear. They are either narcissists or psychopaths.

    Cheap FF’s built the huge middle classes and a gradual drop in infant mortality rates. The middle classes learnt as time went on that their offspring survived, so they could maintain their middle class status by having less children. Of course brought about by immunisation, clean drinking water, modern health care, better education and elimination of disease carrying insects.

    China is relaxing its one child policy because of the growing middle class. In contrast check the infant mortality rates in Haiti, Chad, Mali, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea etc.. Those countries also have low life expectancy.

    Peak prosperity has passed but I doubt fertility rates will increase. There is no reason to celebrate though, the middle class will be desperate to cling to what once was, as living standards disintegrate.

    We have lived through the best of times but to the detriment of the planet, including flora, fauna and future generations.

  6. meld on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 8:41 pm 

    @ Arthur – The site is worse than f*cking crack…ooh that reminds me…sniiiiiiiiifff

  7. cornageeha on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 8:48 pm 

    I started thinking we were on the cusp of collapse around 1970.I wrote plenty about it and assiduously clipped the news items that supported my pessimism. Forty years on, I know things are more complicated.
    Marian Swain’s analysis, I must admit, accounts for what actually happened much better than my Malthusian prognostications. We have limits obviously but I am increasingly unwilling to specify where they are – which does noy mean we should stop thinking about where they might be.

  8. KingM on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 8:54 pm 

    All we’re doing is weeding out people who are a.) smart enough to plan their families, and b.) don’t like kids as much as other people.

    You can’t outsmart natural selection through education and birth control. In the long run, only coercive, government-run methods will work.

  9. Meld on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 9:25 pm 

    Natural selection finished the moment we started imposing arbitrary morals on the species. Kill anything that competes with you, fuck anything that comes near you and protect your offspring is natural selection, everything is just bullshit.

  10. J-Gav on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 9:32 pm 

    KingM – May be, but what level of governance are we talking about here? Federal, State and Local? I don’t put local last because it deserves to be there in a positive way in order for communities to function. Without communities, cities and counties also gradually cease functioning. And just how can States function without them?

    Secondly, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “coercive methods,” but we may soon get a taste of it once the U.S.’s militarization of police forces is complete, preferably before the next financial crash – if our elites are to be saved instead of their enormous vassal populace.

  11. J-Gav on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 9:35 pm 

    As far as the article is concerned, it wasn’t really worth reading, was it?

  12. JB on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 10:31 pm 

    Geez, graphs and all…so it must be true.

    “The global population is likely to peak and decline in the 21st century”
    Yes, and yeast begins to peak and decline after a week or two in the fermentation vat.

  13. Beery on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 11:10 pm 

    “To really have a beautiful planet we need 90% less people on the Earth than we have right now…”

    I think you mean 90% FEWER. 90% “less” would be an unlikely, difficult and costly surgical process.

  14. DC on Sun, 6th Apr 2014 11:51 pm 

    No, J, it wasn’t. The first graph kind of laid the tone for the rest of article. A lot of times, especially in this day and age, it isn’t always what an article says that’s important, but what they leave out. The first graph is intended to give the casual reader, or someone predisposed to believe its all-is-well message, that everything is just peachy on the population front. Here is the graph they left out-intentionally.

    This graph kind of nullifies the rest of nonsense BI is peddling with this bit. It would pretty much shoot down the population isnt a problem message the rest of article tries to convey, thus, that graph(or one like it), gets omitted.

    Lies, damn lies and fancy graphs eh?

  15. rollin on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 12:07 am 

    That is it, the answer! We will genetically modify people to be 2 feet tall or less. Just think how little food they would need and how much smaller everything could be thus stretching resources.

  16. rollin on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 12:21 am 

    I simply cannot follow the logic in this article nor do I believe some of the claims. Waste of time.

  17. kervennic on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 12:39 am 

    This is bullshit. Human developement is going backward as the energy is getting scarce (look in greece, egypt etc). So following rossling pangloss logic we should see a novel increase not a decrease. Complete crap indeed !

  18. Stilgar Wilcox on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 12:45 am 

    Let me tell of a sunny story of birds and people singing in Shangri-La, as babbling creek sounds lightly crackle, with oak cask zinfandel poured just a dribble so we can have a snifter before approving, distracted by goat cheese on sesame crackers, quickly gazing at impressionist art and marble sculpture, excitedly awaiting the first course, embraced by the perfection befalling us knowing it matters not what course we take, for all courses are supported by the technologically masterful deity, humankind…

  19. Yeti on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 1:23 am 

    Aye Stilgar, way to channel the Voltaire!
    “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.

  20. Mike Yakimov on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 2:46 am 

    The humans cannot destroy this planet for the same reason any other invasive species cannot destroy the environment completely.

    What actually happens is that the invasive species overshoot the system carrying capacity, die-off and/or move on and/or evolve. Well, it may take few more species into the oblivion in the process and reduce the ecosystem to something totally unrecognizable, but many others (bacterias, insects, rats…) will survive to live another day and eventually build another stable ecosystem. Even a global nuclear war will not end life (defined as the “existence of living organisms”) on this planet. However, the humans are perfectly capable of engineering *themselves* a complete die-off scenario (e.g. the same global nuclear war or some microbiological weapon experiment.)

    So far, the humankind has been behaving as a typical invasive species, destroying the other species habitats, and pushing the carrying capacity to the limit to produce more and more resources. It is unlikely that the human species behavior will change any time soon. Thus, three possible scenarios:

    (1) Moving on to live in the outer space or some distant planets (unlikely, as it does take resources beyond our reach and time we do not have.) Rats and others will stay behind and evolve. The planet lives on.
    (2) Human species total extinction from some human-made or natural calamity (global nuclear war or new avian flu). Rats and others will survive the humans and evolve. The planet lives on.
    (3) Surviving as human species through some type of evolution. More likely than not, this will involve abandonment of what we call “Modern Civilization.” And yes: hard labor, less consumption, shorter lifespans, more births/woman, etc. However, even in this scenario, the rats and others live on, and the planet lives on.

    Thus, the humans are not fated to destroy the world. But for the reasons totally opposite to the 4 reasons listed above.

    As an illustration, I just came across some interesting book (it is currently on free promotion on Amazon):

    It looks like a resource peak with a half-happy-end.

  21. FriedrichKling on Mon, 7th Apr 2014 3:10 am 

    Naturally Business Insider will continue the endless growth meme. Before discussing what might happen with global human population next century, perhaps the focus should be on surviving the next 85 years. Tragic propaganda that encourages a business as usual mindset as we head toward oblivion.

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