Population surge difficult to halt and almost impossible to reverse


TODAY, just like every day for the last 50 years, around half a million babies will be born. Every 16 days or so, the equivalent of the population of Ireland is added to our burgeoning numbers. Annually, that’s a new Germany – every year.

Astonishingly, the number of human babies born in just one day exceeds the total number of our closest living relatives, the great apes, alive in the world. Almost all our cousin primates are now in in sharp decline, with some in an extinction spiral. All, that is, except one. Our gain is nature’s pain.

To describe us as super-abundant is a heroic understatement. “Humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be, according to the rules of the animal kingdom,” notes biologist Dr Steve Jones.

Right up to the dawn of the industrial revolution, global population never exceeded 600 million – or less than a tenth of today’s level. Fossil fuels changed all that.

Today, human beings, for good or ill, are the greatest single force of nature on the planet. Our sheer numbers, combined with ready access to cheap hydrocarbon energy, mean we are quite literally reshaping the world. The pace, scale and consequences of this colossal endeavour are becoming ever more apparent.

“Science makes clear that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilisation safe for the past 10,000 years. Evidence is growing that human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity,” according to a recent statement from a group of Nobel laureate scientists. “Humans have propelled the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene – the Age of Man.”

Our hegemony has manifestly not been accompanied by a widespread awareness of the limits of our finite world. Twenty, perhaps even 10 years ago, it could still be argued that we simply didn’t truly grasp that human activity could jeopardise the biosphere as a whole.

Over the last two decades, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed, with ever increasing certainty, that the by-products of the activity of billions of humans, their industries and their agriculture, are drastically altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

The scientific evidence is surprisingly unambiguous: the price of persisting with our current twin trajectory of population and economic grown is a near-certain abrupt ending this century of the benign global climatic conditions that have prevailed since the end of the last Ice Age.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, there were repeated warnings that global food production could not keep up with rapid population growth, and large-scale famines could be common by the 1980s. This didn’t happen, thanks in large part to the “green revolution”, which combined new high-yield grains with the massive expansion and industrialisation of agriculture. In short, the process of turning oil into food.

In accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in boosting food output, Dr Norman Bourlag warned: “The green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger... but the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed.” Failure to rein in human numbers and impacts, Bourlag added, would mean that: “The century will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before.”

The geometric nature of population growth makes it extraordinarily difficult to arrest, and almost impossible to reverse. The last population doubling took only 40 years. Even if the global population growth rate drops to just 1 per cent, today’s seven billion would swell to an unimaginable 14 billion in 70 years.

This will manifestly never happen. Already, the biosphere is showing signs of acute system failure. The sequestration of vast swathes of the land surface for agriculture has compromised the planet’s self-regulatory systems. Pollution is further crippling the absorptive capacity of these systems.

More humans and ever more unequal “economic growth” mean less and less space for the millions of other species which comprise the complex interdependent web of life. Levelling the rainforests and overfishing the oceans produces short-term profits for some, but at a fearsome cost to our children’s generation. “We are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history,” according to the World Wildlife Fund, which has tracked a catastrophic 30 per cent decline in biological diversity on the planet since 1970.

The convergence of crises that threaten humanity and the wider biosphere are the by-products of an unprecedented spasm of growth, in both population and expectation. Neither is sustainable; in combination, they are lethal. What is truly remarkable is not just that there are seven billion people alive today; rather, it’s the lack of any sense of existential awareness of what this actually means for us all.

Decades of economist-inspired cornucopianism, which enshrined impossible growth as somehow normal and desirable, have numbed us to our predicament. As the US satirist HL Mencken put it: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.”

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim