The history of genocide in the modern world makes the discussion of population growth a particularly sensitive topic, one that is easily co-opted by racism of which we might not ourselves even be aware, religious bigotry, or chauvinist nationalism. These attitudes usually come packaged as hard-headed solutions to the problems of population growth and population shifts. But if racism, bigotry and strident nationalism are not the right answers, this does not mean there aren’t problems to be addressed.
So here is the shape of the problem we are facing as I see it:
In the last twenty years alone, the human population has increased by 34%, from 5 to 6.7 billion. That means in twenty years, the global needs for food, water, clothing, housing, education, fresh air, medical treatment and perhaps most crucially energy such as electricity have all increased by 34%. The desire for cars, televisions, refrigerators, mobile phones, air travel, and computers is increasing at an even faster rate.
But Earth hasn’t grown any bigger, just more crowded. Earth has enough sustainable land to allocate about 16 hectares per person to produce food, energy and other resources needed for living. Unfortunately, the average use per person in the developed world is 22 hectares, and millions of people everywhere are striving to emulate the life style of the Western world. Obviously it can’t be done.
Either the developed world has to find ways of using up about a third less of the world’s resources or the undeveloped world has to stay undeveloped. We might invent ways of living as well as we do without exploiting so much of the Earth’s resources. Or we might destroy each other in our attempts to grab what we think we are entitled to. One way or other, we are on a collision course if we don’t change tracks.
It might be a surprise to most people, but the fact that more than 50% of the world’s population are now living in cities and towns could be encouraging. Because on the average, city-dwellers survive per person on fewer hectares of land than people who live in the countryside. Many people living in cities are living wretched lives. But rather than moving to the country, the environmentally effective approach might lie in improving cities, not moving out of them.