Global Population and the Environment

USA, New York City, Time Square, people walking

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Environmentalists don’t dispute that many if not all of the environmental problems — from climate change to species loss to overzealous resource extraction — are either caused or exacerbated by population growth.

“Trends such as the loss of half of the planet’s forests, the depletion of most of its major fisheries, and the alteration of its atmosphere and climate are closely related to the fact that human population expanded from mere millions in prehistoric times to over six billion today,” says Robert Engelman of Population Action International.

Although the global rate of human population growth peaked around 1963, the number of people living on Earth — and sharing finite resources like water and food — has grown by more than two-thirds since then, topping out at over seven and a half billion today, and human population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. With more people coming, how is this going to affect the environment further?

Population Growth Causes Multiple Environmental Problems

According to Population Connection, population growth since 1950 is behind the clearing of 80 percent of rainforests, the loss of tens of thousands of plant and wildlife species, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of some 400 percent, and the development or commercialization of as much as half of the Earth’s surface land.

The group fears that in the coming decades half of the world’s population will be exposed to "water-stress" or “water-scarce” conditions, which are expected to “intensify difficulties in meeting...consumption levels, and wreak devastating effects on our delicately balanced ecosystems.”

In less developed countries, lack of access to birth control, as well as cultural traditions that encourage women to stay home and have babies, lead to rapid population growth. The result is ever-increasing numbers of poor people across Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere who suffer from malnourishment, lack of clean water, overcrowding, inadequate shelter, and AIDS and other diseases.

And while population numbers in most developed nations are leveling off or diminishing today, high levels of consumption make for a huge drain on resources. Americans, for instance, who represent only four percent of the world population, consume 25 percent of all resources.

Industrialized countries also contribute far more to climate change, ozone depletion, and overfishing than developing countries. And as more and more residents of developing countries get access to Western media, or immigrate to the United States, they want to emulate the consumption-heavy lifestyles they see on their televisions and read about on the Internet.

How Changing U.S. Policy Could Offset Environmental Harm Worldwide

Given the overlap of population growth and environmental problems, many would like to see a change in U.S. policy on global family planning. In 2001, President George W. Bush instituted what some call the “global gag rule,” whereby foreign organizations that provide or endorse abortions were denied U.S. funding support.

Environmentalists considered that stance to be shortsighted because support for family planning is the most effective way to check population growth and relieve pressure on the planet’s environment, and as a result, the global gag rule was rescinded in 2009 by President Obama but put back in place by Donald Trump in 2017.

If only the United States would lead by example by cutting down on consuming, reducing deforestation practices, and relying more on renewable resources in our policies and practices, perhaps the rest of the world would follow suit — or, in some cases, lead the way and the U.S. follow — to ensure a better future for the planet.