News and ResourcesPopulation Increase and Resource Depletion - October 16, 2016
The question of how many humans the planet can sustain has been looming over experts for decades. This issue is now more relevant than ever after crossing the 7 billion person milestone in 2011. If one were to look at population trends, they would find that the human population has grown dramatically in the past century. The year 1900 saw a comfortable 1.6 billion human beings, but we have since more than quadrupled that number, and experts worry that we may soon be reaching our limit. By the year 2050, it is estimated that we will reach a staggering number of over 9.5 billion people. So how does this impact the human species, and the planet on which we live?
As populations increase, resources will become scarcer. Natural resources are essential for sustaining life on this planet, and the more people that are living in this world, the fewer resources we will have to go around. Access to resources, such a clean water and food, is already lacking in certain areas of the world. Food shortages in undeveloped countries can be attributed to limited access to irrigation technology and modern farming equipment. Modern filtration systems have made clean water part of everyday life in the United States; however, it is considered a luxury in other parts of the world. Oil and natural gas are reserved for countries that have a surplus of it within their borders, or can afford to have it imported. The politics of resources have become more complicated than the resources themselves. Resource politics will become a bigger issue as the population increases and supply decreases.
If all 7 billion of us were to enjoy the American standard of living, we would only be able to sustain a population of 2 billion people. This means population may not even be the most important problem. An even bigger factor to our resource dilemma is the pattern of resource consumption, particularly in the countries that make up what is called the “Global North.” The Global North represents a division in socio-economic status rather than geographical location, though nearly all of the countries within this group are located in the Northern Hemisphere. The United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and Western Europe make up this subset, and represent a majority of the global wealth. These countries also represent major consumers of natural resources, and interestingly enough, the lowest populations. Countries that make up the Global South—India, Mexico, most of Africa and South America, and various island nations have some of the largest populations, but consume the lowest amount of natural resources. India, which makes up 20% of the global population, only uses about 5% of the world’s resources; whereas the United States makes up 5% of the global population, but consumes 20% of the world’s resources.
With that in mind, it is clear that we need to be looking at how we use resources rather than how many of us are using them. Currently, global aquifers are being pumped faster than can be recharged, topsoil is being lost nearly 40 times faster than it is formed, and our oceans are being overfished. Climate change will make this problem more difficult to solve. A warmer global temperature could mean lower crop yields of wheat, corn and rice; three staple crops that make up much of the American diet. Sea level rise due to melting polar regions will force huge coastal populations to move inland; large migrations of people tend to create conflicts and civil unrest as established regions experience a population influx. We are likely to see our resource problem become more difficult as the climate changes.
In the coming decades it will be important for us to monitor population trends as well as our rates of consumption. We can all make a difference as consumers by doing simple things in our homes such as conserving fresh water by taking shorter showers and unplugging electronics to save energy. Another way to be resource smart is to cook smaller portioned meals, or cook meals for two days to reduce food waste. Small habits like these may not mean much individually but collectively we could save a year’s worth of resources just by giving up some of these minor conveniences. Also, stay informed about the environment and what scientists and our elected officials are doing in our region. Being aware of how we use our natural resources is important to all of us, especially with our rapidly changing climate. We make better decisions as informed citizens; decisions that affect the rest of the world.
White is an intern with Maryland Coastal Bays Program and a senior at Salisbury University.
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