Population adds to planet pressure cooker

2012-03-27 22:15

London - The world's surging population is a big driver of environmental woes but the issue is complex and solutions are few, experts at a major conference here say.

Answers lie with educating women in poorer countries and widening access to contraception but also with reforming consumption patterns in rich economies, they say.

The four-day meeting on Earth's health, Planet Under Pressure, is unfolding ahead of the Rio+20 Summit in June.

Scientists taking part have pinpointed population growth as a major if indirect contributor to global warming, depletion of resources, pollution and species loss.

But they also mark it as an issue that has disappeared almost completely off political radar screens.

This is partly because of religious sensitivities but also because of traumatic memories of coercive fertility controls in poorer countries in the 1970s that no-one wants to repeat.

Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona, said the link between population growth and environmental damage arose in the mid-20th century.

"The 50 years from 1950 to 2000 were a period of dramatic and unprecedented change in human history," she said.

During that time, the planet's human tally doubled from three billion to six billion. It now stands at seven billion, and by some estimates could reach around nine billion by 2050.


The good news is that the fertility rate - the number of children a women is likely to have - has halved from five to 2.5 since 1950 and will fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 around 2025, Liverman said.

"It means that there is a strong probability that population growth will level off around nine billion and may in fact fall thereafter," said Liverman.

Others caution that raw statistics mask many complexities.

"The world's carrying capacity isn't a single headline figure but depends on lifestyle, technology, and so forth," said Lord Martin Rees of the Royal Society, whose report on demography and the environment will be issued next month.

The population is stabilising or falling in rich countries.

But these economies remain - in per capita terms - by far the biggest sources of environmental damage, with for instance greenhouse gas emissions per head that are double or quadruple those in a developing country.

The big population growth will happen in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

These countries bear least responsibility for climate change but will be hit worst by it, because they lack money and skills to adapt. Thus the higher their population, the more of their people who will be hit by drought, storms, rising seas and floods.

Strategies for working on the demographic drivers of environmental damage are essentially two-pronged, said specialists.

Women's rights

One is to change consumption patterns, so that the rich countries - and the emerging giants rushing to catch up with them - use energy and resources more sustainably.

The other is to protect women's rights, education for women and their access to jobs and contraception.

"If you have economic development and you educate women, and women get labour market opportunities, they tend not only to reduce the number of children but crucially to delay when they start having children," said Sarah Harper, director of the Institute of Population Ageing at the University of Oxford.

"And if you delay the start of having children, you tend to have smaller families."

Such changes can have a "surprisingly fast" effect on reducing birthrates, said Stephen Tyler, who works with group called the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN). He gave the fast-shrinking families in India as an example.

On Sunday, a group of scientists and policy-makers that have won the Blue Planet Prize, a top environmental award, made a pre-conference appeal to intensify green action.

Looking at demography, they said more than 200 million women in developing countries still have unmet needs for family planning.

But funding for access to contraception fell by 30% between 1995 and 2008, "not least as a result of legislative pressure from the religious right in the USA and elsewhere", they said.

  • Smell - 2012-03-27 22:45

    It is not that complicated. Make aid to the developing world contingent on birth control targets.

      Oom - 2012-03-28 06:28

      Pay people to come forward and have themselves sterilised, soon there will be no more need for hand outs, and the population explosion will be curbed. Not a very diplomatic, but very effective way of adressing the problem

      Morn%c3%a9 - 2012-03-28 09:09

      @ Smell: You are addressing only half the problem here and its a bit hypocritical that it happens to be the half that does not impact you directly. The population problem is two-fold, firstly increased population numbers and secondly increased environmental footprints, mostly by the people living first world lifestyles. Our ever increasing demand for bigger and better, the latest technology and the flashiest affordable lifestyle (i.e. naked consumerism) means that every person living the first world lifestyle uses several times the resources of any third world person. I doubt this will be a popular comment as it is easier finding fault with others than it is finding fault with ourselves.

      Spyker - 2012-03-28 11:22

      This is the direct consequence of the hippie-generation of the late 70's and 80's who have connived themselves into positions of global power. They gave the world the most idiotic paradoxes ever - e.g. "POLITICAL CORRECTNESS", "EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE", etc. Viz - there is NOTHING intelligent about emotions, as there is NOTHING correct about politics... We give people who have not invented the wheel yet, the ability to destroy the planet, yet we are not allowed to say it. Before the "hippie" invasion, such a world would NEVER have existed, the mere suggestion of it would have been aptly- and abruptly smashed for what it is - UTTER INSANITY...

      Spyker - 2012-03-28 11:37

      @Morné.., You are wrong. The issue is simply TOO MANY PEOPLE. Technological advancement is the essence of being a human being – if not, you are mere animal. This is the inconvenient verity that we cannot face – nothing else. The human race reached a technological pinnacle when it walked on the moon – it has been in rapid decline since – hence the primitive correlation of an increase in the global population. We have in fact entered: THE AGE OF THE IDIOT. The most pertinent example is the fact we have become so stupid we cannot even solve our own financial problems. The reality is simple: with regards to the development of the human race, QUANTITY SIMPLY IS NOT QUALITY. I would suggest that (contrary to the opinion in the leading article) the quantitative measure of the human population on planet Earth is more definitive, ie: - The human population of Earth CANNOT exceed 3 Billion. - As the ‘human race’ develops, it has to develop as a whole – there is simply no practicable means to cater for a human populace that is still 3/4’s living in the stone-age and/or harbours a stone-age mentality.

      Morné - 2012-03-28 14:14

      Spyker, you might argue that the base for current civilization is technology, but the essence of being human is society. In terms of resource use it is the portion of the population 'living in the stone age', that consume the least amount of resources and the people best placed to reap the wonders of modern technology that are over consuming. Our technological advancement comes at a big environmental cost. We can live at first world standards and have a sustainable population of say 1 billion or at third world standards and have a population of say 4 billion (ballpark). Or we can try and find a middle ground, by reducing the resource use at the top end of the scale. Our environmental problems are likely to increase many fold as the bottom end of scale become more affluent and seek to emulate those at the top. By reducing the equation to mere population numbers/education levels a substantial portion of the problem is ignored. The human race is a social construct. Our technological advancement is as much a product of this as the Hippie culture/collective social conscience alluded to in Spykers comments. Somewhere along the line we are going to have to make some unpopular choices, be that in implementing harsh population control measures or stringent regulation of lifestyle choices to reduce resource consumption. It is in our best interest to voluntarily reduce our family sizes and resource consumption, before these aspects are enforced by regulations.

      Spyker - 2012-03-28 21:36

      Morne.., It is physically impossible to halt-, or even inhibit human advancement. You (in turn) allude to "making some unpopular/inconvenient choices", the bona fide inconvenient reality is: Those who choose technological advancement over those who do not (or some diluted compromise) will clash - there will be war and I do not have to tell you who will win such a war... comfortably, that is...

      Morn%c3%a9 - 2012-03-29 08:47

      Spyker, your logic eludes me.

  • martyn.kilian - 2012-03-27 23:20

    Biggest load of bull ever!!! There are more overweight people in the world than there are hungry people. This earth can easily sustain us and plenty more. The real issue that no one wants to face is human greed and self-centredness.

      Smell - 2012-03-27 23:36

      Disagree. Whether underweight or overweight, the long-term sustainable population for our planet has been pegged at 2-3 billion. We are already exceeding 7 billion. Feed the poor, but also feed them birth control. And we should stop glorifying overindulgence in the developed world.

      Tony Lapson - 2012-03-28 00:50

      "This earth can easily sustain us and many more." Wow...

      zaatheist - 2012-03-28 04:13

      Fat people, thin people, billions of cows, sheep, chickens ......... We are burying ourselves in our own excrement.

      Alfred - 2012-03-28 05:56

      It is difficult to fathom the unbelievable bind stupidity of people like martyn.killian. With humans that dumb we are doomed. This is the type of mind-blowing stupidity that is threatening civilization and the scary thing is he is probably a prolific breeder who besides contributing to overpopulation is also lowering the average I.Q. of Homo Sapiens. Look around you, you brain-dead moron do you really see a pristine undamaged environment ready to absorb billions more humans.

      Harald - 2012-03-28 07:16

      Martyn, you are the problem... go have your 10 kids, and watch them starve; or are you going to wait for a fat person to come feed you!! WTF!! I think Alfred said it best....

      jody.beggs - 2012-03-28 08:16

      @Africa21stcentury I agree religion must go. Old ideas thrown out, because they aren't working and the new generation of scientist must use the technology we have available to make a plan. Faith isn't going to save us, if you read the Bible its just going to end anyway so lets prove the xians wrong again and work together. Technology, be it water purification, birth control , medicine and education is the only way to fix the problems and well we have plenty of man power. Educate the poor and people contributing to the problem into the solution. This planet can sustain the current population growth, if there are changes in every single living person on the planet, to recycle , not waste, grow your own veggies and start living with nature , instead of two hours wasted driving to work , polluting the planet with plastics , no more massive farms but smaller , greener farms with no pesticides and chemicals and f#$k convenience ! Big business is more to blame than over population. Its just a convenient scape goat.

      dracolusus - 2012-03-28 08:38

      You sir are a 'tard. You have been brainwashed since birth by religious "self-centredness" (sic). This world is dying and as Meme said above, the thought that some mystical being is going to rise up and save as all is a fairy tale. We need to rise up and save ourselves and this planet we live on!

      Dewald - 2012-03-28 08:50

      Please, please do not reproduce, martyn.killian. We really, really don't need your genes and thinking patterns in the pool.

      Ed - 2012-03-28 10:04

      dude, what planet are you living on? how in the hell can the planet sustain more people? the fact is that there are ALREADY over 9BILLION people as most of northern china, indo and india is NOT covered in census counts. yes, there are obese people, but at least they eat what they purchase, whereas most humans do not consume what they purchase. in essence, humans are biologically classified as PARASITES. we live off of and kill the organism that we live on... let me give you one more fact, there are 7.5MILLION endangered species (excluding insects and micro-organisms), of those, 2.5MILLION are critically endangered and will not be around in 5 years...face the facts boy, there are too many of us, no matter what the good christians say.

  • Jim - 2012-03-28 02:35

    And right behind population is.... "As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease." Worldwatch Institute, "Is Meat Sustainable?" "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency." UN Food and Agricultural Organization's report "Livestock's Long Shadow" Why would someone choose to be vegan? To slow global warming for one! Here are two uplifting videos to help everyone understand why so many people are making this life affirming choice: and

      Morné - 2012-03-28 08:24

      Jim, this is not intended as vegan bashing, but I think your quote somewhat lacks objectivity. It is not devoid of truth and highlights one of the problems in sustainability, but I do not agree that it’s necessarily one of the biggest problems (especially in SA), nor is going the vegan way the ultimate solution. Veganism is firstly an animal rights issues, then a human health issues and lastly, almost as an afterthought, about conservation and sustainability. To illustrate the point, a few things to think about: - Is there any way in which a ...mmm... devout vegan will change to animal protein consumption if it’s proved to be to the greater good? Say a scientific model/protocol for food and protein consumption is developed, by which sustainability and conservation is optimized through the selective use of domestic animals, would Vegans endorse this and move to non-veganism? - The vegan diet claims increase in life expectancy of 20 to 30 years. This means, even at reduced resource consumption and smaller environmental footprint, a further 20 to 30 years of environmental impacts that can be attributed to each vegan. - The impact on biodiversity caused by clearing land for agriculture is considerably higher that the impact on the same land if it was used for free-range cattle farming.

      Morné - 2012-03-28 08:25

      - It is one of the ironies of modern day society, that we plant large areas of high quality animal feed, fertilize it, water it and then cut it down and landfill it. I'm of course talking about our lovely suburban lawns. If we used this high quality animal feed to say, feed rabbits, that are then slaughtered and eaten, would that not be a step in the right direction in terms of environmental sustainability? Vegans are almost exclusively part of the middle and upper income groups; they get their food from the ‘exclusive store’ that deal in ‘perfect’ products, those vegetables and fruit without blemish. These products are generally out of reach of the lower income groups and come at a much higher environmental price than the products used in the calculation of the comparative vegan/ non vegan sustainability and conservation statistics. This is merely a few words to instil some caution when blindly following one ideology or another. It concerns me when people jump on the bandwagon, just to strength their own preconceived ideas. Think of big business justifying almost any actions/developments in the name of job creation, even when the primary motive is profit. You don’t have to agree with me, or think what I think … BUT , I BEG YOU, THINK!

      jody.beggs - 2012-03-28 09:17

      I agree Jim but small farms would help in this regard with growing your own meat and vegetables. Do you really think the Chinese will buy the vegan diet ?

  • HandyAndy - 2012-03-28 05:20

    There is no doubt that the scale of the population burden on this planet is not sustainable. Controlling the growth is where the problem starts. 1) There are cultural issues to deal with. 2) There are commercial issues , where corporations rely on the growth to boost company profits. 3) There are Religious issues, the denial of birth control and abortion. 4) There are education issues, where the consequences of too many children are not known to the uneducated. 5) There are poverty issues, where the natural resources are depleted in order to feed the poor. 6) There are wealth issues, where the wealthy utilise huge amounts of natural resources to enhance their lifestyles. At the end of the day, there are just too many people on the earth and governments are going to have to tackle this issue, no matter how politically inconvenient it is. Rich countries are going to have to assist the poorer nations, as well as get their own houses in order.

      Oom - 2012-03-28 06:34

      Stuff religious and cultural issues, money has pull no matter which religion you follow. As for education, well i cannot see how that could help, because if you cannot realise that you cannot have 5 children if you can hardly afford to feed yoursels then there's no help for you. Pay them.

  • zaatheist - 2012-03-28 05:41

    Stopping Uncle Fester and his pedo clergy, with their anti birth control and anti abortion message, visiting poorer countries will make a huge impact on the education effort. The sky fairy peddlers who sell this crap are the enemies of a healthy environment, a contented, employed and non-starving populace and our children's future.

  • Douge Fresh - 2012-03-28 06:34

    all countries need to adopt CHINA'S ways of having children. having 18 children & then complaining you got no money or job to support them is your own fault. if every couple had 2 children,that would definately cut down the population.

      veritas.odium.paret - 2012-03-28 07:21

      And significantly improve living standards in every household.

  • Luyolo - 2012-03-28 07:03

    Yes we contribute to pollution but the crazy idea that we contribute to global warming is something last time I checked climate was something that wasn't meant to be constant. 70% of earth is covered with water. Our carbon footprint is very much in cities which cover say 30 % of the land which happens to cover 30 % of the planet and the idea that this small carbon footprint can cause climate change is fallacy. And then in the same bunch of these liars you get those euginists who are so obsessed with population control .Real scientists will tell that temperatures will be fine in the next 100 years and that the planet can even support 9 times current population . If someone is worried about population growth then we have Van Staadens bridge here in P.E they should go there and jump thus reducing it.

      Harald - 2012-03-28 07:22

      WOW!! u doff... You nailed it!! You are the reason we have no hope!! Idiot, can't beleive you write this stuff and beleive it!!

      Luyolo - 2012-03-28 07:37

      Tell that to the distinguished professor who refused to attend the conference in KZN. He said the temperatures are fine and they'll continue to be fine you have to remember that there is no formal evidence linking climate change to human activity. I won't believe that as long as scientists disagree with one another. This will lead to creation of global climate funds which we will have to be taxed and see no results much like the funds that are already there but not helping.It will mean taking funds that could have used for something else developmental and shifted into this climate fund. People in Uganda have lost land over this because companies taking land and planting trees to get paid for reducing carbon. Get rid of corruption and greed so funds can be allocated well.

      veritas.odium.paret - 2012-03-28 07:48

      63 billion people?!? Wow, you're either trying to be humorous in some very obscure way, using some very illegal psychedelics or you're insane. We're in an ecological and biodiversity mess as it is with rats and mice being the only mammals more numerous than humans. Your delusions of a fine world that needs only much more people is absolutely absurd for someone who has access to the world wide web.

      Luyolo - 2012-03-28 07:50

      Climate is not something that is supposed to be constant. It changes Mondays climate won't be the same as Tuesdays. This years climate won't be the same as next years. This decades climate won't be the same as last decades it might be less warmer it might be more warmer. Gees control something natural as Gods climate is like stuff coming out of the movies. They lied to us and some ice caps will be gone as early as 2015 let's wait and see.

      Alfred - 2012-03-28 07:56

      Wow! you are so stupid and ignorant it is shocking. Another brain-dead idiot. This is depressing. So Luyolo got a PhD in metrology, thermodynamics, ecology, biology or any science? Of course not, yet somehow you are an expert, a self appointed expert. Lets see 9 times present population, that would be 63 billion people, and that's just one of the face palmingly stupid things you wrote. The carbon the scientists are talking about is carbon dioxide, its a GAS, its gets distributed THROUGHOUT the atmosphere. What amazes me is people as stupid as you can actually type. You should be ashamed of your ignorance but instead you choose to display it by posting on this site. Like I said above, with idiots like you we are doomed.

      Luyolo - 2012-03-28 08:19

      Where is the evidence ? Theres is no scientific research evidence that show carbon emissions from human activities have an effect on climate change. Where is the research body of knowledge ? I'm not talking about PowerPoint slides.

      Ed - 2012-03-28 10:09

      shoh, had better run for the bridge. you just exposed yourself for what you truly are. study the facts first before opening your mouth or typing. maybe read a bood called 'last chance to see'. in your case, the last 10 pages is all that you need to try and read. fact is that there are over 9BILLION people already (most of n.china, india and indonesia are not counted in census counts). there are also 7.5MILLION endangered species currently, of those, 2.5MILLION are critically endangered and will NOT survive the next 5 years...yet humans continue to breed. join the dots dude.

      Ernst - 2012-03-28 12:39

      @Luyolo: Perhaps you should see the following because I think you are misinformed:

  • veritas.odium.paret - 2012-03-28 08:00

    Sometimes I wish there was some sort of fertility regulating device in all of us. If you're broke, an idiot or both; NO CHILDREN for you!

  • Shaun - 2012-03-28 08:25

    I think we first have to meet everybodies most basic needs. People living in extreme poverty without basic sanitation, potable water or food are vulnerable and tend to have lots of children because they don't have a pension fund for their old age. Then we need to focus on female education and family planning services (access to contraception) as this combination has successfully dropped growth rates in former developing countries in the past. If we cannot achieve this then we cannot achieve sustainable development.

  • mike.clery - 2012-03-28 09:34

    Isn't it all "science's" fault for interfering in perfectly natural mechanisms that keep the human population in check? Eradicating diseases, extending lifespans, lowering the infant mortality rate, developing crops that help maintain populations well over the carrying capacity of the immediate environment, etc. The bad news is that natural selection probably favours breeders over thinkers, so unless you want to re-introduce eugenics and compulsory sterilization, live with it. And talking eugenics, the more technologically advanced societies are supposedly responsible for the greatest environmental damage, so if we really want to "save the world", the culling would have to start there first. Isn't it great to be in a position where all our basic survival needs are met and we can devote time to worrying about what may happen in 200 years?

      Morné - 2012-03-28 10:08

      Spot on Mike. All plant and animal populations are naturally regulated to prevent over population and depletion of resources. Humans have found ingenious ways to circumvent this natural trend for ourselves. It is the humanitarian thing to do, to save as many lives as possible; in the long term it is however not sustainable. In 200 years we might look back and curse the Louis Pasteur's of this world.

  • Ed - 2012-03-28 10:00

    FACT: it is already over 9BILLION as most of india, northern china and indo are not counted in census counts. the planet is fukced no matter what the good christians say.

  • Luyolo - 2012-03-28 11:43

    We have tomato festivals when people are hungry. Some of us live in places whose acres are well over the size of a footbal field. In some situations you have 50 people sitting on dinner tables with food that can feed well over a 1000 people. Some of us own land or properties or wateva in several different countries. Some companies are allowed to pollute because theyu fund politicians in countries where they do business in. Lets address those issues first. You cannot complain about depletion of resiurces when you have people extracting more than they should extract.

  • Rob - 2012-03-28 12:28

    Did anyone see the SABC news item yesterday. Cape Town guy asking for help, living in a shack with 18 children. He didn't appear to feel any responsibility for his situation. Until individuals are held responsible for their actions how can we hope for growth to stabi;ize?

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