The Elephant in the Room

When considering the most urgent problems of our age: climate change, food and water security, peak oil, scarcity of resources, pollution, environmental destruction, war and conflict – a lot of people think that an important obvious truth is being ignored.

There are more of us than there used to be.

A lot more.

On October 31st this year, the UN will announce that world population now stands at 7 billion people.

It’s stating the obvious, but there have never been this many people on the planet before. Back in 1350, around the end of the black death, the population of the world was just 300 million, and since then the number of people alive has increased every single day, with only a few exceptions as a result of major disasters.

By the start of the industrial revolution the world’s population was around 1billion, at the start of the 20th century around 1.6billion, and by the start of the second world war 2.3billion. If you’re around 40 years old or more, then it’s sobering to consider that global population has more than doubled during your lifetime!

That’s a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of clean water to be found, a lot of energy needed and a lot of homes to build – not to mention cars and mobile phones.

And there are more of us on the way – the UN is currently projecting a median global population stabilisation figure of around 10 billion people (increased from the previous 9 billion estimate in May). So we will also need to find room and resources for another 3 billion who aren’t here yet.

So will we be OK ? Can the we do it ? Can the earth provide for us all ? Or will we overload and destroy the environment that sustains us ? Do we have enough vision and ingenuity ?

There are a surprisingly wide range of views about the issue of population.

On the one hand organisations like Population Matters (which has David Attenborough, James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt as patrons) are intensely concerned about the effects of rising population, and campaign to raise awareness and promote global access to fertility control. On the other hand, there are a small number of individuals and organisations who argue that the world continues to be better off, and more resourceful with more people in it, such as the late Julian Simon, the so-called Doomslayer ! Simon argued that human ingenuity will continue to push back the natural limits to growth, and that simply, more people = more ingenuity!

For me the problem with this argument is that it’s true, until suddenly it isn’t – we have been pushing back our limits by becoming more efficient at growing food, drilling for deeper water and oil etc, and hopefully will continue to do so for a while yet, but ultimately we will encounter limits we can push back no further. Many of our current practices are far from sustainable, and we will need to show a great deal of ingenuity simply to continue to provide for the billions of people already here.

There is another, far stronger argument against blaming all of the world’s woes on rising population, though.

It’s not just the number of people that matters, it’s also how much each person’s consuming !

There’s more than enough food, water and energy to sustain everyone on the planet, as well as the projected additional three billion, if we utilise and share it efficiently. But there won’t be enough to sustain ten billion people with the current model of Western, consumption-based lifestyles. We’re going to have to change the way we do things.


The global ‘population bomb’ will largely have to be defused by the world’s poorest women, through having fewer children – and this looks as if it will be achieved, with stabilisation now projected by around 2050.

The global ‘consumption bomb’ is the responsibility of all of us, especially those of us in the rich West – the more pressing question for us is: how are we getting on ?


Just as Europe was emerging from the black death, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the isolated population of Easter Island were cutting down the last of their large trees from the island’s once lush palm forest. With the trees mostly gone, the resulting soil erosion destroyed much of their agriculture, the lack of wood for canoes curtailed their fishing, and the lack of tree trunks to use as rollers, even stopped the quarrying and carving of the moai statues, they had become obsessed with.

While uncertainty remains on the details of what happened at Easter Island, the lessons for us seem clear.

As Jared Diamond writes in his book on the decline and fall of civilizations, Collapse:

…Why were Easter Islanders so foolish as to cut down all their trees, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them? This is a key question that nags everyone who wonders about self-inflicted environmental damage. I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: “We need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature”?


Photo by Henrick Jagels


  1. Gareth Richards says:

    I don’t think we can be complacent, our global agricultural system runs on oil, and oil is going to get difficult to find and therefore more expensive. I wrote about this on my blog last year:

    So back to population or should that be over population? in the 1970’s a group of scientists decided to model global population, their book “Limits to Growth” was the result, you can read my review of the book here:
    Better still read the book yourself I give it 5 stars. There are three possible results from the model, steady state, oscillation and overshoot and collapse. Unfortunately we are currently showing all the signs of overshoot, increasing deforestation, global fisheries collapse and unsustainable agricultural practices are all real issues today.

    The depressing part of their model is that it assumes that we as a world society will recognise problems as they occur and take correcting action to mitigate the problems which we find. But with sections of society not recognising issues like Global Warming, we could bring on collapse sooner than the models predict.

    While I’m sure in theory a population of 9-10 billion is sustainable you need to be able to cope with years when global food production is 1/3 lower than expected due to global heat waves, or droughts. Famine will not go away.

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