In the 21st century humanity will, ever more frequently, face environmental impacts and risks. Climate change to an unknown future is one of the clearest signals of this. These changes will occur and be exacerbated by conflicts of which expanding population is a “core driver”. The earth is over-populated and is being over-used.
The planet is occupied by a mosaic of societies with different consumption rates and different population sizes. These societies are spread across continents with different resource conditions. Within this mosaic, almost all people want higher consumption rates and, as such, a ‘better life.’ There is something here that will not work, particularly if we continue on as we are.
Total human population passed the 7 billion mark in late 2011. We have been led to believe that numbers would stabilize at about 9.2 billion by the year 2050. Even this number, too large as it is, may be overly optimistic. Recent UN Population Division projections point to stabilization at numbers beyond 10 billion (Weld 2011). In a few short paragraphs it is impossible to detail the disturbing array of implications of human population run-away on the planet, starting as it did, only one and one half centuries ago.
We do not face the human population growth issue with the concern that it deserves. Indeed, when we consider the immensity of the numbers involved, and the implications to the environment, it is as remarkable as it is unfortunate that we, in almost every nation and culture, continue to ‘grow’, or try to ‘grow’, our economies and our numbers – an almost blind approach to the future.
Considering the environmental implications of human population growth, it is disappointing how little political or public attention the issue gets. This applies to the ’environmental movement’ in general and all political parties, including even the ‘Green’ party. Many people, among these groups who do understand the crisis, wait in the hope that processes of choice and passive behavior may slow and then stop the numbers expansion.
In North America
Although human numbers erode support systems in Africa and Asia, we do little better here. On our own continent, the populations of the three major nations expand upward:
- The United States of America, with its enormous per capita resource use rate, is projected by its own Census Bureau to have 439 million by 2050.
- Mexico, with 112,336,000, is projected to grow to 123 million by 2042, and then grow more slowly. Their resource use rates may be lower, but they strive, in the thousands, to reach USA where their resource use rate will quadruple.
- Canada, with over 34 million in 2010 has a growth rate higher than most industrial countries. If the trend continues, Canada’s population will be 42 million by 2050, and 66 million by 2083 (Wikipedia and the Sustainability Report (http:www.sustreport.org)).
Because people in Canada are still better off that other parts of the world people they may think, ‘No problem, the numbers, 9 billion or more, are global, far from here’. However, on an inter-connected planet, global conditions, one way or another, such numbers affect us all.
They will affect us in our country because of connections among social and ecological processes across the planet. They will affect us directly regarding space and resources. They will affect us socially and economically because about two thirds of our population growth is driven by people, most trying to escape from over-crowding and opportunity scarcity in other parts of the world.
We are at a new place in time. Continuing growth, or growth that has already exceeded environmental limits, is futile for our generation and unfair to the next.
The environmental and resource ‘over-demand’ signals are all around us. Forest resource exploitation has already been pushed close to the limits of sustainability. Fisheries are over-exploited. Water use and quality damage is widespread. Biodiversity is reduced and threatened more each year. The demand for “energy’ rises continually. One way or another, we experience all of these here. In other parts of the world, they experience them more-so.
Here in Canada, “energy” extraction and transport are ‘high on the radar’ in matters of concern. The huge appetites for ”energy” in Asia will continue to drive Canada’s rapid and expanding extraction of gas, oil and bitumen. Their impacts will grow and damage, here and there, will increase as they do so. Such growth obsessed business and market opportunities of the day trump consideration of domestic uses of tomorrow. Are we going to be better off, growing more, digging more, selling more, then growing yet ever-more , digging yet ever-more, selling yet ever-more…what end? Furthermore, if someone is to be better off from this spiraling process, is to be the average Canadian, or is it to be investors from here and abroad?
Our Leaders: Can We Make Them Change Course?
At some time, our political ‘leaders’ must be challenged with questions that look further into the future for society than they do now. Inter-party conflict and tacit support for ‘business as usual’ are inadequate elements of protection and management of a planet that faces a future at the demographic brink.
It may be that the debate about continuing growth of human numbers and consequent environmental effects is seen as futile. It has many such aspects. However, if such is true, what is the hope or value in struggling against each growth-driven development project that comes in as part of an endless parade. In a growth dominated societal paradigm, enough projects will succeed to continue the dangerous degradation and destruction of the natural environment. In our current ‘growth’ process there is no perception of stopping at some time. The belief seems to be that the only future is now.
Facing Issues in a Double Context
Each development issue that we face must be dealt with in a double context:
- The merits and risks of each project on its own; and
- Its role in a greater environmental context – in what direction and to what future does such ‘development’ take us.
If continuing blind growth in numbers, job-opportunities, and profit is to be the global societal hallmark of success, people now and in the future are in for more and greater conflict and disappointment than they have already experienced. We owe something better to the environment, and to the future generations of people and other creatures that are part of it.
Weld, M. 2011. Feeding the raging monster: How Canada promotes population growth at home and abroad. Pages 6 – 17 in Humanist Perspectives. (This paper is cited specifically because of its depth of coverage)