Population, Consumption Threaten Earth’s Future—Who’s Surprised?

June 15, 2012

If a consortium of 105 national science academies and a report by 22 scientists in the June 7 Nature are to be believed, overpopulation and unsustainable consumption may already have set humanity on course for a catastrophic future. If only we'd listened to the "popullution" alarmists back in the 1970s, when human numbers were far lower and remedial action might have been easier.

Here's the bad news in detail.

The Global Network of Science Academies (IAP), comprising 105 national science academies worldwide, has released a statement which cites overpopulation and unsustainable consumption, jointly, as among the most critical challenges facing the world. The statement of the Trieste, Italy-based Academy concludes, in part, "If we act now, it is realistic to imagine trajectories where population growth comes to a halt, consumption becomes sustainable, human-induced global change is kept within manageable limits, and human well-being increases. A failure to act will put us on track to alternative futures with severe and potentially catastrophic implications for human well-being. The longer the delay, the more radical and difficult measures will be needed." I hope they're not being over-optimistic. Read the full statement, "IAP Statement on Population and Consumption," at https://www.interacademies.net/File.aspx?id=19193 .

Writing in the June 7 Nature, an interdisciplinary panel of 22 scientists ranging from ecological modelers to paleontologists suggests that the folks at IAP just might be over-optimistic. UC Berkeley biologist Anthony D. Barnosky coordinated an 18-month project that launched the university's Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology. His panelists compared notes across multiple disciplines and discovered that the damage wreaked by overpopulation and overconsumption is compounding at a rate exceeding anything any single panelist has measured in his or her own field.

The panel found that 43 percent of Earth's land surface has now been transformed by human action. As soon as 2025, when the population is expected to reach 8 billion, more than 50 percent of Earth's surface will bear our species' imprint. The authors admit that they cannot predict with any confidence at what point a "tipping point" will be reached after which a recovery to anything like current environmental conditions will be impossible. Which is a fancy way of saying they can't be sure we haven't already passed it ... or that we might pass it on our way to that uncoveted 8 billion benchmark. The Chronicle of Higher Education's report -- bluntly titled "Earth Is Headed for Disaster, Interdisciplinary Team of Scientists Concludes" -- can be read at https://chronicle.com/article/Earth-Is-Headed-for-Disaster/132165/ .

Some scientists feel that even the pessimism of the Barnosky panel is too optimistic. "The scientific community has spoken many times," Stanford's Paul R. Ehrlich told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "But nobody's paying any attention." Ehrlich, an occasional contributor to Free Inquiry, is best remembered for his 1968 book The Population Bomb which predicted imminent catastrophe due to population pressures. The specific disasters Ehrlich foresaw did not occur when he said they would. Ever since, believers that overpopulation is not a threat have pointed to Ehrlich as an example of "Chicken Little" thinking. Yet if the disasters Ehrlich foretold failed to unfold in the 1970s -- partly due to developments in agriculture and technology that may have bought humanity a few decades -- they seem to be looming now. Look at depleted fish stocks, growing shortages of freshwater, and commodity prices continuing to climb despite a worldwide recession, to name just a few.

I've often written in Free Inquiry (too often, some would say) of the need to get serious about not just slowing population growth, but working toward some plan to significantly reduce human numbers over the next several generations. Reports like these make me hope it's not already too late. Have religionists convinced that God ordered man to "subdue the earth" -- teamed up with techno-cornucopians convinced that every extra mouth comes with two extra hands -- already doomed humanity?