A full 20 years into the 21st century, the threat of overpopulation continues to make headlines across the globe. A recent United Nations study determined that the global population, currently sitting at 7.7 billion, will increase to about 9.7 billion by 2050. That equals a 28% population increase, or approximately 82 million additional people every year. Those swelling numbers are predicted to further deplete natural resources and have detrimental effects on our already fragile natural environment.
While overpopulation is a problem worldwide, its effects can be observed more easily on a small scale. For example, the state of California has experienced steady population growth since 1900, and nearly 40 million people today call the Golden State home. Researchers believe that’s far too many residents for California to handle.
In a recent article published on PR Newswire, Ric Oberlink, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, had the following to say: “Decades of unsustainable population growth have resulted in crumbling infrastructure, massive traffic jams, increased air pollution, and the destruction of large swathes of California’s precious ecosystems.”
As such, California stands as a stark example of the state of overpopulation and of what humanity is up against. It’s time to figure out how many people are too many where the Earth’s resources are concerned and work to tackle the complex issue that is global overpopulation.
7.7 Billion: How Did We Get Here?
Finding solutions to overpopulation starts with a trip back in time. Throughout most of human history, the global population grew at a steady yet gradual pace. Over the course of 20,000 years, until about 1804, the human population only hit the 1 billion mark. By World War II, which ended in 1945, the world population sat at around 2.3 billion, and exponential growth has occurred since that time.
But what changed so much in the last two centuries that has allowed the population to grow at such a rapid rate? For starters, the Industrial Revolution played a role, as did increasing sanitation measures in major cities including London, Boston, and New York throughout the 1800s. Improved sanitation, coupled with technological advancements in medicine, including the invention of life-saving vaccines, has contributed to longer life expectancy across the globe.
While longer lifespans may seem ideal on the surface, however, that higher life expectancy comes with larger birth rates and healthier overall populations. Even as birth rates decline in developed countries, low- and middle-income nations are picking up the slack. And as a species, we’re all living longer on average, but jeopardizing the health of the Earth as a result.
Natural Resources, Waste, and Sustainability
As demonstrated by the issues plaguing California, overpopulation manifests in a number of ways. Natural resources are becoming scarce, environmental health has been compromised, and entire species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate. While not directly linked per se, overpopulation is likely a contributing factor in the global extinction of myriad plant and animal species, including the Tasmanian tiger, the dodo bird, and the bluebuck.
Extinction can occur due to the loss of habitat from deforestation. Humans may clear large swathes of land for use as meat farms, or to build housing or landfills. For their part, landfills are a huge issue that is typically seen as a necessary evil, but waste has become such a scourge on the health of our planet that finding alternative solutions should be prioritized.
Americans throw out an average of 4.4 pounds of waste per day, most of which ends up in one of the nation’s more than 2,000 landfills. And those landfills help fuel climate change, thanks to the methane gases created. In general, the term “waste” probably brings to mind such items as food scraps and discarded packaging, but the issue is much more complex.
Interestingly, fashion is one of the most wasteful industries in the world. Like fast food, fashion has become somewhat of a convenient commodity in developed countries, contributing to an exorbitant amount of waste. On average, every American discards 81 pounds of clothing per year, much of which is still wearable and could be donated or repurposed rather than thrown out. If we have any hope of combating climate change caused by overpopulation, sustainable fashion needs to become the norm rather than the exception.
What’s more, the importance of recycling should not be overlooked in the realm of waste reduction. For example, paper is easy to recycle if it’s not shredded first, and doing so can preserve more natural habitats. That’s because much of the world’s paper products are made from trees, which are a finite resource.
How Overpopulation Impacts City Living
The issues of recycling and waste are especially relevant in densely populated urban areas, where the effects of overpopulation often feel more pronounced. According to researchers, urban centers will likely experience the bulk of global population growth over the next two decades.
By 2050, when there will be an estimated 9.7 billion people on Earth, 68% of the total population will reside in urban areas. As increased urbanization is already wreaking havoc on infrastructure, traffic, water quality, and more, what will the quality of life look like for city dwellers in 2050?
While it contributes to a number of problems including increased poverty and environmental hazards, urbanization may also have a positive impact. Urbanization helps create jobs and similar opportunities and may fast-track advanced city planning projects. City planners also need to consider viable methods of expansion as the global population swells.
In developed countries, the effects of overpopulation may seem elusive. Although we take the convenience and ubiquitous nature of fast food and fashion for granted, we rarely question the true cost of convenience in an overpopulated world. As the global population continues to climb, we’re losing resources at an accelerated rate while also doing irreparable damage to the natural environment. It’s time to assess the damage and make a global effort to curb the negative effects of overpopulation.
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