“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
It is very clear that our lives and survival depend on the environment. At minimum, we need air to breathe, clean water to drink and food to eat. Because these resources exist on Earth in relatively large quantities it is not natural for us to think that there is only limited amount of each. These resources naturally renew so we can live sustainably as long as the rate of our consumption is not faster than the rate of their renewal. The equation is simple and we can influence all of its parts.
Average consumption per capita × Population ≤ Resource renewal rate
Opinions vary on whether we have already breached the balance, but the trend is clear: we are heavily increasing the left consumption side of the equation and reducing the renewal rate on the right side and thus disturbing the natural equilibrium. Our population is undeniably increasing, but also the average consumption per capita keeps growing. New technologies can help people in developed countries slightly reduce the consumption, but that will be offset by the increase of consumption in the much larger developing world. People in these countries generally feel it is only fair for them to reach the same standard of living (and therefore levels of consumption) that people have in the countries like USA before they start cutting on consumption. You can imagine how the consumption will grow when all Chinese and Indian install air-conditioning and buy a car every five years.
On the other side of the equation we are reducing the renewal rate. For example the more trees we cut in the Amazon, the slower renewal rate of clean air. The renewal rate of fossil fuels is extremely slow and negligible compared to their consumption so we will probably run out of them in several decades.
We don’t know how far exactly we can go, but the scariest part is that we are in a one-way street – many of the changes we inflict on Earth are essentially irreversible, so we can’t simply turn back when we realize that we went too far. It is alarming to see for example the dangerous reductions of biodiversity.
Nobody can predict what effects our behavior will have on the interconnected and fragile ecosystem that we are all dependent on. Nature had been able to adapt to changing conditions by the means of evolution, but the changes human inflicts on Earth are much faster than evolution can keep up with.
It seems inevitable that one way or another a huge reduction of population needs to take place and it is not going to be pleasant.
For long time humans had lived in relative harmony with nature, but technology advancements in the last two centuries gave us a significant advantage versus other species so our population exploded and keeps growing fast at alarming speed.
One of the main reasons we let population explode is our lack of territoriality. Territoriality is an instinct that guides certain animals to claim a territory large enough to support them. A good example is a lion that aggressively protects a territory of about 260 square kilometers1 and will fight intruders for life. As a result of this control mechanism, lions do not get overpopulated. On the other hand, locusts are not territorial, can live densely next to one another and replicate quickly. Consequently after a successful season, they lay more eggs than the land can support. Because the next generation does not have enough food for everyone, aggressive locust swarms eat what stands in their way. Most of them will have enough to fully grow and replicate so majority dies off and the population diminishes. This repeats in cycles of several years2. Non-territorial animals are often migratory.
We humans are not territorial and happily live cramped in cities not instinctively caring that the land might not be able to support all of us. When hungry for resources, we migrate and plunder much like locusts. The difference is our relatively limited speed of breeding versus locusts who can lay 50 eggs every year. As a result, our population cycles are much longer – in fact, we are still nearing the peak of our first major cycle.
We have reached the Earth’s sustainable human population limit. The estimates for number of people our planet can sustainably support vary based on expected living standards and anticipated technology advancements. Some studies argue that we are already 3 times3 over the limit of 2 billion that would allow everyone to live sustainably in European standards. Other authors estimate the limit several billion higher, but in any case it is clear that we have either already breached or very soon will breach the limit. Every minute 140 more babies are born than old people die. That imbalance produces 70 million4 more people for us to squeeze on this planet every year.
The problem is that many of the effects of our overpopulation are irreversible. Overpopulations of other animals cause typically only reversible problems that the self-correct quickly. One year, there are many frogs so snakes overpopulate, but they eat most of the frogs and then starve so that many die and the number of frogs stabilizes. Unfortunately we humans are in a one-way street causing irreversible changes that could prevent our recovery in the future. Some of our staple resources, such as oil and natural gas will deplete in several decades. We hope to overcome that by inventing alternative sources of energy.
But other changes, such as the extinction of species can be a much more serious problem, because it cannot be corrected as quickly and easily. Evolution is very powerful, but unfortunately too slow. The thousands and millions of years evolution takes can’t keep up with the speed of changes humans are introducing. Regrettably extinction of species had been following our population growth and dramatically increased in the last 50 years. The graph below is especially alarming because our survival depends on biodiversity.
Agent Smith put it succinctly in Matrix speaking about human species: “You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.“5
The really troubling thought is what happens to the cancer cells when the illness kills its host? What happens to human if we kill our planet Earth faster than we may be able to find another similar planet to exploit?
We are on the way to causing our own extinction. Most of us are too primitive to realize that we are unknowingly digging our own grave and defying our very purpose of life – survival.
- http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/african-lion/ ↩
- http://www.daff.gov.au/animal-plant-health/locusts/about/history ↩
- http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable ↩
- http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/faq ↩
- http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0000745/quotes ↩