Population growth: Are humans overwhelming planet Earth?

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 23, 2019 at 8:39 AM

When it comes to discussions about climate change and environmental degradation, the topic of population growth often comes to mind for some locals.

A sense of urgency has fueled many youth-led protests for environmental legislation across the world after last year’s report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said humanity has only 12 years to turn the tide on climate change.

If environmental trends do not change, scientists say Earth will experience more droughts, extreme heat, the devastation of entire ecosystems and rising sea levels projected to displace tens of millions.

Some activists elsewhere recently vowed not to have children to protest world governments’ insufficient efforts against climate change, calling it a #BirthStrike.

On Monday morning, Johnson City Press spoke with attendees and participants at East Tennessee State University’s Inaugural Earth Day Fair to get their perspectives on the connection between climate change and population growth.

“The population problem, I think, is central to the issue of climate change,” Frances Lamberts of the Citizens Climate Lobby said.

According to statistics from the Population Reference Bureau, the world population will reach 9.9 billion by 2050, marking a 29 percent jump from now.

The population of 26 countries, nearly all in Africa, will double. The United States is projected to reach 390 million — up from 328 million in 2018.

With growth such as this, some people believe environmental sustainability could be hard to achieve or maintain.

“I think our Earth is overpopulated right now in general,” Katie Holliday, a graduate assistant for the ETSU Department of Sustainability, said.

“The more people we have, the more people we have to feed,” she continued. “With climate change and the way it is right now, we’re going to be facing famine, droughts and all sorts of things.

“I understand why people are saying they aren’t going to have kids because of climate change.”

Lamberts said some measures should be taken to curb population growth, including expanding access to birth control and family planning education globally.

Some existing population control measures, such as China’s “one-child policy,” have been criticized globally as a draconian measure leading to lower female birth rates.

While the policy has been relaxed in recent years, Lamberts said measures like these are understandable. According to the PRB, China’s population is projected to decrease by 54 million to 1.34 billion by 2050.

“Had they not done it, it would be much worse,” she said. “They realized that they needed to, and they realize now they are already dependent on other resources from other countries.”

Connor McClelland, an ETSU Earth Day student organizer, disagreed with the notion that population growth is a central issue when it comes to climate change.

“I don’t know how much environmental degradation has to do with the population as much as it has to do with lifestyles,” he said.

According to the United Nations, 100 multinational corporations are responsible for approximately 70 percent of the effects of climate change. Many of them are based in the United States.

“Some of those (other) countries don’t have as much of a carbon output or waste output as we do, and we have a lot fewer people, so I think it’s about how you organize your society,” McClelland said.

He said he thinks the discussion should be “more about how you structure society than it should be controlling population or not having children.”

“It’s possible to have a large number of people while also protecting your environment, so I don’t really know if population control is really the method we need to go by here,” he said.

“I can see why someone would do that, but I think your first priority before ‘birth striking’ would be to convince more people to restructure.”

Some projections from the most recent PRB Report: 

• Niger in West Africa will see its population nearly triple by 2050. Its neighbor, Nigeria, will become the third-most-populous country as its population rises to 411 million. This will represent a 109 percent increase from 2018.

• The population of the United States will reach 390 million, up from 328 million in 2018.

• China’s population will decrease by about 50 million to 1.34 billion. 

• India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country with 1.68 billion people.

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