8 billionth human: Has the population bomb exploded?

Nov 6, 2022
3d rendering of a crowd of people gathering and leaving out a world map

Sometime in the next few weeks, human being number 8,000,000,000 will enter the world. But what sort of a world will they inherit?

The scientific evidence is already amassing that the Earth has far more humans, living at far higher levels of consumption and pollution, than it can possibly carry in the long run.

The proof of this is all around us, in our faces and on the news, every single day: wild floods, heat waves, fierce droughts, raging wildfires, dust storms sweeping topsoil off our farms, dying rivers and lakes, melting glaciers, staggering losses of birds, animals, fish, insects and other life, shrinking forests and spreading deserts, polluted water, oceans, food and air, declining oxygen levels, hunger and starvation, the spread of formerly unknown diseases, the mass migration of 350 million people a year, the uncontrolled rise of dangerous new technologies, and the insidious worldwide spread of misinformation and delusion about it all.

Overpopulation is not a matter for individual or group opinion, or for ideology. It is defined as the point when a creature begins to exceed and then to destroy the resources that support and give it life. It can be measured. In countless ways, the evidence is accumulating that humans have overpopulated Planet Earth by exceeding the boundaries that ensure the renewal of life.

Early warnings of this danger were uttered by Prof Paul Ehrlich in ‘The Population Bomb’ (1962) and Club of Rome in ‘Limits to Growth’ (1972). Then in the 1990s Matthis Wackernagel developed the Global Footprint Network whose work now shows we exceed the Earth’s renewable carrying capacity by July each year, making the world economy nothing more than a giant Ponzi Scheme. More recently Johan Rockstrom and colleagues devised the Global Boundaries concept, which shows humanity has now exceeded its safe limits in four out of nine fields:

Yet these sober, well argued, firmly-evidenced warnings have all been dismissed or belittled by various vested interests – political, religious and commercial – who care not about the survival of humanity, but only what they can gain from it in the short run. Overpopulation is the word no politician, priest, economist or business executive dares to utter. It is the unmentionable – but inescapable – elephant in the room of the human future.

The advent of the eight billionth little human gives us sober reason to reflect on the dangers of overpopulation

In the space of a single lifetime our numbers have swollen from 2 billion to 8 billion and continue to burgeon at a rate of around 80 million (1 per cent) a year. Anyone who considers the matter soon realises that the resources needed to support such gigantic numbers will run out – and there will be an exceedingly painful crash.

That, of course, is why nobody likes to talk about it. Instead, even many who recognise there is a dreadful problem building up in everybody’s future, try to divert attention from population growth and towards other issues such as ‘overconsumption’, ‘equity’ or ‘right to have children’.

While our numbers were quadrupling, it is true our consumption has also run off the rails and is generating the resource and environmental crises that now loom. Since 1972 human consumption of material resources has tripled from 29 billion tonnes a year to 101 billion tonnes in 2021 – and is on track to reach 170 billion tonnes by 2050, as documented in The Circularity Gap report.

The other thing that has run off the rails is pollution. All told humans release over 200 billion tonnes of wastes into the biosphere every year, including 2.5 billion tonnes of chemicals, mostly toxic. This is having a dire impact on the ability of all forms of life, ourselves included, to survive in the long run. The universal vanishing of insects, bees, frogs and birds is almost certainly related to this uncontrolled toxic avalanche.

So yes, the bomb has already exploded, though the full impact of the blast is yet to be felt.

This raises the essential, though unpalatable, question of whether we must now take deliberate, voluntary, steps to reduce the human population – along with its consumption and pollution – back to a size the Earth can sustain.

The central issue of human population growth is not whether it is good or bad. It is: can we avoid a devastating crash, caused by our outrunning the Planet’s ability to support us? Voluntary population reduction is therefore about sparing billions of people needless and agonising deaths by starvation, war and disease, which will otherwise result from a collapse in our resources. To prevent the crash, we have to prevent and reverse the growth. There is no real alternative.

Those who advocate a larger population, for either the planet or country, are calling for disaster. Whether they admit it or not, in the same breath they are advocating:

–           Rising scarcity of resources such as water, soil, timber, fish and certain minerals, leading to a greater risk of war.

–           Accelerated climate change

–           Worse pollution, environmental degradation and extinction of species,

–           Higher food prices for all; greater risk of famines.

–           More child deaths and greater human suffering.

–           Increased risk of pandemic diseases; poorer levels of population health.

–           An increase in mass population movements, potentially reaching 1 billion a year.

–           Increased risk of megacity collapse and government failure.

–           Increased risk of worldwide economic and civilisational collapse

–           Housing, food and other basic goods that are unaffordable to the young or the poor.

Every person who insists on their ‘right’ to have more children, diminishes the right of all children – including their own – to live on a safe, habitable planet.

Fortunately, a growing number of thinking people are embracing the idea of ‘one child fewer’ per family, and many are even taking the decision to remain childless – because they foresee what a fearsome world a child born today will face. If universal family planning is made available, and ‘one child fewer’ becomes an accepted global norm, then UN projections suggest it is possible to reduce the human population to 6.5 billion by 2100 – and lower still beyond that.

However, the scientific evidence suggests that this is still three times more than the Earth’s carrying capacity, which is estimated at 2-2.5 billion people, living at advanced living standards.

For human civilisation to survive in the longer run, the global conversation now needs to turn on the best way to reduce our numbers, in the least painful way, and without coercion.

Because – let there be no doubt – if we don’t do it ourselves, then Nature will do it for us.

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