As the population skyrockets, the question arises of whether the Earth can support billions of more people. The ability for future humans (and their consumerist lifestyles) to be sustained by our planet is contested, but it is evident that the immense increase in people is placing a lot of stress on the environment, communities, and governments. In order to preserve the Earth and the human race, we must learn to embrace degrowth and move away from the consumerist desires of our species.
Firstly, it is important to note the exponential manner in which the population is increasing in the modern world. In the small amount of time that humans have existed on Earth, their population rates have increased relatively slowly. However, in the past 200 years, human population growth has become exponential. Since 1965, population growth rates have generally declined, but the population growth itself still hurdles in an upwards direction. For example, though 2018’s growth rate increased by only 1.20%, that small increase still added a whopping 91 million humans to the Earth (Miller 2019, 110). Additionally, people are born at a rate that exceeds the amount of people who are dying. This can be demonstrated by looking at the world population clock and world death clock, because though people are dying at a continual and quick rate, the overall population is still steadily increasing. However, though projections regarding the effects of population growth have been made, “no one knows whether, or for how long, any of these population sizes are sustainable” (Miller 2019, 109). However, the damage caused by an increasingly large population are difficult to ignore.
Fig. 1: The Human Growth Curve
Some people believe that this immense rise in human population is not an issue, as innovation and improved technology may allow us to avoid the obstacles spurred by population growth. This argument hinges on the idea that the technological advancements available to people have “increased the earth’s carrying capacity for the human species” (Miller 2019, 111). People who buy into this argument use things like GMOs and other advanced agricultural technology as examples of ways we can make up for an increase in consumption due to population growth.
However, the environmentalist’s opinion regarding population growth is that the world may be unable to sufficiently sustain a significantly larger population. This opinion is built on the idea that Earth has an exhaustible amount of natural capital, which can not support our enormous population of consuming individuals. Humans exploit and ravage nature to fit the demands and desires of our growing population, and at some point we will reach a tipping point in which we take faster than the Earth is able to replenish itself. In other words, we will eventually run out of resources and will not survive. Some even believe that we have already passed the Earth’s carrying capacity, and that there is little hope of maintaining the human race unless the population decreases heavily or we collectively minimize our lifestyles to a dramatic degree. As the “impossible hamster” video explains, there is a reason why, in nature, things only grow to a certain point. No matter how technologically advanced the human race becomes, we cannot expand the economy or consume at exponential rates forever. I personally believe firmly that the population cannot be sustained at the rate in which it is growing, or even with the current state of ecological footprint per capita. I think that it is indeed possible that our ecological tipping point has been reached, and that we will need to make strict adjustments to our lifestyles in order to preserve the future of our world and species.
The ramifications of population growth can be seen on many levels. First of all, the majority (over 90%) of people added the world are born into “less-developed countries where resources for dealing with rapidly growing populations are limited” (Miller 2019, 110). Additionally, The video “Visualizing a Plentiful Economy” does a great job of demonstrating the effects of how As we deplete natural capital, prices rise, and the economy suffers. Because of the damage done to the economy, many people lose jobs and are thrown into poverty while the top percent thrive. Production then increases to make up for lost jobs, hence degrading more capital and pushing the cycle of damage back into motion. Because of this cycle, population growth harms the poor and people of color at a disproportionate level, contributing to environmental racism and harmful social structures. Some programs have attempted to alleviate the ailments of population growth, such as PlaNYC and Transition town. Released in 2007 by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, PlaNYC hoped to “prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen the economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers” (PlaNYC 2020). Transition Town was a project released in 2006 which hoped to “increase self-sufficiency to reduce the potential effects of peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability” (Transition 2020). These programs attempted to tackle multiple spheres of damage, which is a great start towards dealing with the effects of population growth. However, I believe that real change is only possible if we attack the root of the problem.
For example, degrowth is a concept which emphasizes the “need to reduce global consumption and production and advocates a socially just and ecologically sustainable society with well-being replacing GDP as the indicator of prosperity” (Degrowth, 2020). Degrowth challenges the modern idealism of economic growth, and aims to tackle environmental degradation and social issues by dismantling the toxic system in which they arise. If this movement were to take charge on a large scale, I believe that the human race could salvage the damage done and work towards a more just and sustainable society which values nature and personal happiness over monetary gain. For this to happen, however, as a species we must embrace a less materialistic lifestyle. This would require a major shift in mentality, especially for more “developed” countries such as the United States. Of course, this change would need to happen on a foundational/societal level through the dismantling of capitalism and other consumerist systems. This is because in many situations, it is a privilege to live “the good life” (a self-sustained, humble, and relaxed life), as the separation of self from material needs is often not an option for those dealing with extreme poverty. It is extremely important for people to aim for a less consumerist lifestyle and strive for personal happiness rather than material success, however the glorification and expectation of a minimalist, laidback lifestyle is unhelpful in the current socio economic system. This is why we must work towards dismantling the oppressive systems in which we live, and in the meantime embrace sustainability to the best of our ability.
In conclusion, population growth poses a great threat to the sustainability of our planet due to the systematic consumerist lifestyles of the human race. This is why the most important and valuable thing we could do for the earth and for the well being of all people is to dismantle the oppressive systems of capitalism which exist because of the human desire to consume. Additionally, the environmental and social ramifications hurt poor and minority groups disproportionately, so for our species to carry on, people of privilege must learn to embrace a minimized lifestyle and help alter the socioeconomic systems to make sustainable living accessible to everyone.
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Question: If we have already reached our carrying capacity, how long do we have left before we have completely exhausted the Earth’s resources?
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