Photo: Is seven-billion people too many?

North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, who make up 20 per cent of the world's population, are consuming more than 80 per cent of the world's resources (Credit : jbhthescots via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist

What's the biggest challenge in the world? Climate change? Economic disparity? Species extinction? A Western billionaire — maybe a member of the one per cent the Occupy protesters are talking about — will likely say population growth. A lot of well-off people in North America and Europe would agree. But is it true?

It's worth considering, especially in light of the fact that, somewhere in the world, the seven-billionth person was just born. In my lifetime, the human population has more than tripled. (I know I'm guilty of contributing to the boom.) But is overpopulation really the problem it's being made out to be? And if so, what can we do about it?

First, supporting more people on a finite planet with finite resources is a serious challenge. But in a world where hunger and obesity are both epidemic, reproduction rates can't be the main problem. And when we look at issues that are often blamed on overpopulation, we see that overconsumption by the most privileged is a greater factor in rampant environmental destruction and resource depletion.

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I once asked the great ecologist E.O. Wilson how many people the planet could sustain indefinitely. He responded, "If you want to live like North Americans, 200 million." North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, who make up 20 per cent of the world's population, are consuming more than 80 per cent of the world's resources. We are the major predators and despoilers of the planet, and so we blame the problem on overpopulation. Keep in mind, though, that most environmental devastation is not directly caused by individuals or households, but by corporations driven more by profits than human needs.

The nonprofit organization Global Footprint Network calculated the area of land and water the world's human population needs to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. If it takes a year or less for nature to regenerate the amount we use in a year, that's sustainable. But they found it takes 1.5 years to replace what we take in a year. That means we are using up our basic biological capital rather than living on the interest, and this has been going on since the 1980s.

As people in developing countries demand more of the bounty and products we take for granted, environmental impacts are bound to increase. The best way to confront these problems is to reduce waste and consumption, find cleaner energy sources, and support other countries in finding ways to develop that are more sustainable than the ways we've employed — to learn from our mistakes. Stabilizing or bringing down population growth will help, but research shows it's not the biggest factor. A United Nations report, The State of World Population 2011, concludes that even zero population growth won't have a huge impact on global warming.

But, just as it's absurd to rely on economies based on constant growth on a finite planet, it can't be sustainable to have a human population that continues to increase exponentially. So, is there any good news? Well, population growth is coming down. According to the UN report, the average number of children per woman has gone from six to 2.5 over the past 60 years. Research shows the best way to stabilize and reduce population growth is through greater protection and respect for women's rights, better access to birth control, widespread education about sex and reproduction, and redistribution of wealth.

But wealthy conservatives who overwhelmingly identify population growth as the biggest problem are often the same people who oppose measures that may slow the rate of growth. This has been especially true in the U.S., where corporate honchos and the politicians who support them fight against environmental protection and against sex education and better access to birth control, not to mention redistribution of wealth.

Population, environmental, and social-justice issues are inextricably linked. Giving women more rights over their own bodies, providing equal opportunity for them to participate in society, and making education and contraception widely available will help stabilize population growth and create numerous other benefits. Reducing economic disparity — between rich and poor individuals and nations — will lead to better allocation of resources. But it also shows that confronting serious environmental problems will take more than just slowing population growth.

November 3, 2011
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2011/11/is-seven-billion-people-too-many/

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19 Comments

May 06, 2017
7:31 AM

I find it disturbing that there is virtually no discussion in the media about stopping the human population from over breeding and even Fukushima is a non subject after six years of spewing radiation into the Pacific Ocean. The media has become totally corrupted and beyond pathetic.

Sep 22, 2016
4:42 PM

In the 1970’s was David Suzuki in the Zero population movement?? I have been having a discussion with a friend and I was sure Dr Suzuki was in Australia promoting Zero population. Could you help me with this, Many thanks Jennifer Ladds

Jul 09, 2016
8:00 AM

Let’s state the obvious:

The Earth’s ecosphere is finite, and it has a finite carrying capacity. Virtually all humans rely on the Earth’s ecosphere for the basic needs of food, water, shelter, and breathable air. Continued human population growth will lead to overpopulation. When a species is overpopulated, it exceeds the ecosphere’s carrying capacity. When the ecological carrying capacity is exceeded, the overpopulated species begins to deplete the resources it needs to survive. When ecological resources become depleted, an overpopulated species collapses. In the case of humanity, the collapse (ecological, environmental, social, and political) is likely to be violent and catastrophic. The Earth’s ecosphere cannot support an infinite number of people. This is true even if every human has a modest ecological footprint. All other issues are secondary to our survival as a species, and our survival depends on a viable ecosphere. Reaching global agreement on human population control, and achieving zero population growth while protecting existing spiritual, cultural and national identities, will take decades. The UN should officially make global zero population growth it’s top priority and obtain member consensus by 2026. Every nation should have a zero population growth policy by 2036. Every nation should implement voluntary zero-population growth strategies by 2046. Every nation should implement zero population growth laws by 2056. Every nation should achieve zero population growth by 2066. Once we have achieved zero population growth, we can then carefully reduce or increase global population to a level that the Earth’s ecosphere can sustain indefinitely.

If you agree with this strategy, contact UN Population Division Director, Mr. John Wilmoth, at population@un.org

May 01, 2016
5:03 AM

I can see that if we (humans in developed nations) were to reduce our excessive consumption of resources, then Earth could accommodate an even higher human population (ie in excess of present 7b). However, (1) there’s an upper limit there as well. What are we going to get to? 20b? 50b? Good grief!! and … (2) It’s hard to see that arguments by “The Good Guys” — ie green / environmental side will turn the ship around. That is, I just don’t think we’re ever going to much more than token environmental changes legislated. The fact that Donald Trump is so popular, despite any semblance of common sense, is testament to my point. The “red-neck” lobby is just too strong and numerous. Hence, we have to very meaningfully reduce the Earth’s population of humans urgently. Of course, we should also, in parallel, pursue all the good green changes as well, but alone that won’t be enough to save the planet.

Aug 31, 2015
7:44 AM

Political Correctness is behind not doing much about overpopulation. Someone’s feelings might be hurt in China or India or other overpopulated countries if they were asked to promote contraception.

Feb 08, 2014
6:04 PM

WEB: Earth is loaded with room. We could put the world’s entire pop. into the U.S. Doing so would make our pop. density 1,531 people per sq. mile. That’s a far lower pop. density than what now exists in N.Y. (11,440), L.A. (9,126) and Houston (7,512). The entire U.S. population could move to Texas and each family of four would enjoy 2.9 acres of land. If the entire world’s population moved to Texas, California, Colorado and Alaska, each family of four would enjoy nine-tenths of an acre of land.

Oct 21, 2013
10:46 AM

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen

Do you want to contribute something to solve the biggest problem of humankind? Then sign our petition under the world’s largest platform change.org: http://www.change.org/de/Petitionen/weltweite-geburtenregelungen-verbindlich-einführen-introduce-obligatory-worldwide-birth-controls

Would you like to spread these informations on your homepage, on TV and radio stations, in social medias etc und support this campaign., if possible?

The German physicist, aerospace physician, writer and television presenter Heinz Haber wrote in 1973 that a planet the size of our Earth should not be populated with more than 500 million human beings in order to maintain a harmonious balance between human beings and nature. Today (June 2013 ) we have, with (officially listed ) 7.2 billion human beings, reached more than 14 times this guideline value, and an end of this population growth is not in sight! A huge mass of unemployment and the collapse of our prosperity will be further consequences. A worldwide, mandatory birth control for all countries of Earth is urgent, if we want the impending climate catastrophe to weaken somewhat. Even the UN IPCC has recognised the danger in its fifth World Climate Report, but played it down by only predicting a higher sea level rise than previously prognosticated. The world however is in store for an unprecedented climate catastrophe which will bring us human beings — even in Europe! — primeval conditions. According to a current campaign at the world’s largest petition platform “change.org”, the reasons for this are obvious, but are ignored and tabooed as a result of ignorance, cowardice and lust for might.

Quote from a proponent of the petition: “The overpopulation of Earth is a huge disaster and shows the picture of an egoistical thinking human being who doesn’t care the slightest bit about his/her environment and who has raised the fulfilment of his/her desires to be the supreme principle of his/her life. The quality of the future life of all human beings is inseparably connected with the state of nature. The unrestrained plundering, exploitation and the therewith accompanying destruction, devastation and poisoning of the soil, air and water, caused by the huge demand for foodstuffs and goods of all kind of a still explosively growing population, presents the human beings with unsolvable problems. Overpopulation is not a taboo word, rather the exact term for an excessive number of human beings brought about by an irrational and irresponsible procreation of children, and which nature can no longer cope with. There should only be as many human beings living in a country as it can also sustain from its own resources. In addition the fauna and flora must also have enough space to expand in order to fulfil their vital functions in a good functioning ecosystem. This shows that all countries of Earth are overpopulated and need to do something about it. The control of the overpopulation does not mean that human beings have to leave, and it also has nothing to do with racism, but rather it demands of the human being, regardless of his/her colour, that a reasonable birth regulation must be strongly striven for and carried out for the benefit of all human beings and all life on our planet.”

With best regards from Germany Achim Wolf

Oct 16, 2013
9:13 AM

Although this article brings up many valid points I still think it avoids the obvious: even if every single human were to consume less on earth, we will still reach a point of ‘sorry, we’re full’ point. Which means fewer humans. Eventually, due to our many billions of humans, there will be less available per-person (even with recycling, lower consumption, etc). Young people instinctively know this which is why for the most part, they are not reproducing in the numbers baby boomer’s parents did. Perhaps youth are part of the solution: fewer children being born. The combination of expensive housing, low-paying jobs, and high day care costs also = fewer children being born in Canada. Long term this will help bring down the population in a humane manner.

Sep 22, 2013
6:01 PM

Perhaps the problem isn’t too many humans, but rather too many corporations, and too much control by a minority of humans.

From cradle to grave every aspect of our life has some government official or policy overseeing and approving it.

Jun 09, 2013
6:24 AM

We now have a new denier category: “over-population deniers”. Suzuki makes it obvious that he is so bent on one agenda that he can’t give credence to other issues. To argue that the major source of environmental destruction is the existence of humans is simple, so how can more of us not be a problem?

Oct 12, 2012
9:12 PM

Name ANY serious environmental problem. List the variables that are linked to the severity of the problem now and in the future. List the links from the variables to human population. ie does the size of human population effect that variable in a major way.

Roan Fleming..you are right.. and this basic refusal to advocate for the ONLY sustainable solution ( stabilizing birth rate on the planet ) is why i refuse to send another dime to Suzuki Foundation, WWF, Greenpeace…

The reality is that we DONT KNOW how to fix climate, we DONT KNOW how to feed everyone without fertilizer, we DONT KNOW how to grow enough food and fish to feed the expanding number of human mouths.

But we DO know how to do contraception.
Focus. Put your money there if you want to 'make a difference'.

Jan 13, 2012
8:04 PM

I'm neither 'wealthy' nor a 'conservative' but as someone who has spent her whole life one step ahead of the bulldozer it is obvious that overpopulation is the last great taboo and Mr. Suzuki does a great disservice by minimalizing it. Even in Canada anyone who lives outside the concrete cities sees the land and the other species who need it disappearing every day to serve the relentless needs of human expansion. Blaming it all on the capitalist monster is counter productive and allows society to remain stalled in that sixties chestnut of an argument that it's all about the evil west consuming too much. I've seen cougar, elk and bear territory in my back yard — in several back yards over the years — all fall to the demands of human housing. It's amusing in a bleak way to see these '10 top green things you can do' lists that don't include the most important and most individually significant action of all. How about #1, "use birth control". End your carbon footprint on a really major level!

Nov 29, 2011
3:28 PM

Population makes all other problems even worse. At present, with our current technology, we can support about 2 billion people with just a barely satisfactory standard of living, and even then we have to convert to a science-based politics rather than a religious-based one. At present the biggest threat to survival on the planet is not the civilized nations who consume 80 percent (this is decreasing on a year by year basis as a result of dropping standard of living, poverty spreading, and greater efficiency) but the developing world (China, India, South America, Asia) represents the greatest threat: they have virtually no regulations on pollution, disease control, etc. Any search on disease outbreak or influenza or H5N1 shows that the WHO is monitoring developing nations. China is the biggest polluter on the planet. India’s population is growing the fastest and presents a dangerous source of political instability in the region in coming decades. Population growth from the developing world is driving up the price of oil (why is your gas so expensive: too many people), steel, food (up 30% by 2015 from what it was last year). You name it, it’s increasing in scarcity and in price because there are too many people, you name it, it’s getting worse (pollution, violence, war, over crowdning, resource scaricty, energy crises) because there are too many people.

Nov 21, 2011
2:35 PM

Liz, of course we all need to be concerned about population growth. It's a stretch though to have us believe that wealthy capitalists would bite the hand that feeds them.

Nov 13, 2011
5:41 AM

there were rules to living on this living breathing entity…this planet is alive with electricity…we are electric beings in an electric universe…everything interacts ..communicates..we did not follow the rules ..we were given new rules which changed as time passed..never the truth…none were in the best interest of the planet…what was for her was for us….religions were the original governments these institutions were power/control/greed …now we are in transition..the galactic center is sending energy to us..this will create change..it already is..the powers that be do not want this change..so they attempt to stop it..control it…. the earth must survive…this is vital for the balance of the solar system…the truth of the planets needs to be told…

Nov 10, 2011
12:05 PM

Why state the the "wealthy" are the only individuals who should consider overpopulation as a threat when they are one group who are contributing the least to overpopulation as far as number of births?

Nov 07, 2011
1:54 PM

Population growth is too good for business in the current economic paradigm for the wealthy to view it as a threat. There is an underlying optimism that what we are doing can be called progress. Is this a myth or are we a species headed for the stars? Can we ignore our biological imperative to reproduce and evolve to survive?

It's pretty clear that we can't continue at the same growth rate without some changes. We need to start using and distributing resources intelligently very soon or hope for our future will perish before we can reach our next milestone.

Nov 04, 2011
8:25 PM

As always, beautifully written. Thank you.

Nov 03, 2011
3:59 PM

if the 1% weren't making the choices for the other 99% perhaps all main issues could be addressed. instead of making a joke out of the systems that are in place to protect us and more importantly THE planet.

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