The very concept of population is an abstract idea that is much too easy for people living in an industrialized country to pay little attention to. Many of us live in our little bubbles that are filled with plans to hang out with friends and family, with clocking in at 9 o’clock and leaving at 5, with making sure you take out the chicken after work so it defrosts in time for dinner. We barely think of people living in a different country, let alone on the other side of the world.
But sooner or later, it’ll grow from a nagging thought to a pressing issue. By 2100, the United Nations predicts there to be close to 11 billion people in the world. And according to experts interviewed by the BBC, there is little scientific consensus on exactly how many people our earth can support, but there are definite clues that point to where the problem lies – such as Earth Overshoot Day being already on August 22 this year.
A myriad of political, economic, and cultural factors makes tackling the problem of “overpopulation” in the world difficult. What will our future of an overrun earth by humans look like?
To picture that, one must take a look at the factors that can determine this outlook. Poverty and inequality are big concerns international organizations like the UN are working hard to eradicate year by year. According to the World Bank, little to no access to education, food, healthcare, and a stable, safe job are just some of the things that hold back those in poverty from lifting themselves out. But with each passing year, it looks like many low-income countries are edging closer and closer to uplift those out of extreme poverty, thanks to things like birth control and family planning, financial loan and microfinance programs, and sustainability initiatives that help promote equitable benefits for all. This doesn’t even take into account the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could possibly set us back decades.
But what happens when all countries start to raise their life expectancies, GDPs, and technological advancements? What happens when those now in poverty rise, and everybody around the world starts to reach material levels many enjoy now? What happens when we all legitimately and justifiably start to demand a high standard of living that comes with both long life spans and high levels of consumption?
We’ll be hit with the realization that we can’t possibly continue with business as usual. By increasing the quality of life for all, and thus increasing the overall footprint of each individual to more closely resemble those of people living in OECD countries, our planet is doomed to cough up dry – unless there is intervention and prevention.
Population changes with culture. Family sizes got smaller when girls started to get equal access to education. Family sizes dropped when women and families were given access to safe, affordable, and effective birth control and family planning options. When families feel safe, secure, and supported in their financial prospects, in their physical and livable environments, and are not subject to external conflict that can derail their sense of wellbeing, they can plan ahead.
As more and more people find themselves in positions where they are more able to maneuver themselves into wealthier and more stable lifestyles, we as a people need to realize that cultural change is coming. We must be prepared to embrace it head on, adapt to slower consumption rates and sustainable levels of economic progress. In fact, we need to embrace stabilization instead of constant growth, we must mitigate and prevent rather than to damage then fix. Population change is coming, just as cultural change is too – and there is no need to fear it if we can guide it in the way our species can best survive, thrive, and benefit from.
– Vanessa Balintec