News: too many hu­mans?

Pop­u­la­tion growth seems un­stop­pable – the cri­sis of its im­pact on wildlife and the planet’s re­sources is rarely ac­knowl­edged, but what can be done?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - Re­port by Dun­can Geere

Ex­po­nen­tial pop­u­la­tion growth is push­ing wildlife to the brink – but what can be done?

When the sun rose on 1 Jan­uary 2019, an es­ti­mated 7.54 bil­lion hu­mans were there to greet the new year. Some of them may have said some­thing like: “Well, it doesn’t feel very dif­fer­ent to last year.” But they would have been wrong – com­pared to a year pre­vi­ously, there were nearly 79 mil­lion more hu­mans on the planet – an ex­tra France, Thai­land or South Africa.

The sheer num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing on Earth, and the rate at which that num­ber is ris­ing, causes many to worry that we’re headed for catas­tro­phe. The list of ex­is­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal risks that we face is un­end­ing – from mass species ex­tinc­tion, to new pan­demics, run­away cli­mate change, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion, con­flict over di­min­ish­ing re­sources, inad­e­quate fresh wa­ter sup­plies, famine and mal­nu­tri­tion. In 2013, David At­ten­bor­ough de­scribed hu­man­ity as “a plague on the Earth”.

Avoid­ing catas­tro­phe

Fears of over­pop­u­la­tion are noth­ing new. “Our num­bers are bur­den­some to the world, which can hardly sup­port us,” wrote Ter­tul­lian, a res­i­dent of Carthage, in the sec­ond cen­tury CE, when the pop­u­la­tion of the world was about 190 mil­lion. “In very deed, pesti­lence, and famine, and wars, and earth­quakes have to be re­garded as a rem­edy for na­tions, as the means of prun­ing the lux­u­ri­ance of the hu­man race.”

Since then, sim­i­lar con­cerns have re-emerged on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. The per­son most as­so­ci­ated with the idea in modern times is Thomas Malthus, an early 19th-cen­tury in­tel­lec­tual. He set

Polar bears left hun­gry by melt­ing Arc­tic ice ran­sack a rub­bish dump in a re­mote part of Rus­sia, send­ing a pow­er­ful mes­sage: ris­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tions im­pact ev­ery cor­ner of the planet.

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