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Population growth and the environment

Many people worry that uncontained population growth will deplete the Earth's resources and trigger social and economic catastrophe.

The Earth is gradually becoming overpopulated. At present, there are more than 7 billion people living on the planet. If the present rate of population growth continues, by the middle of this century there will be more than 11 billion people on Earth.

The main reason for this growth is the simple fact that more people are being born on Earth than are dying. As a result of advances in modern medicine, many diseases can be cured and people are living longer, while at the same time birth rates remain high, especially in Asian and African countries.

Human beings have a very different way of life compared to all other living creatures on the planet. They grow their own food, process it, pack it and transport it. Using vehicles that run on various fuels, people can cover vast distances in a short time. Fuels are also used for heating and lighting. In contrast with animals, human beings attempt to adapt the environment to their needs by consuming huge quantities of resources and energy. This makes their lives far more comfortable, but at the cost of causing serious damage to the ecosystems that surround them.

As the population grows, the use of the Earth's resources intensifies. The more people there are, the more energy is consumed. This leads to problems such as climate change (the greenhouse effect), acid rain, oil spills and the production of radioactive waste.

More people also means greater demand for food and drinking water, which increases the need for agricultural land. On agricultural land already in use, crop yields are enhanced by the use of artificial fertilisers. After an initial increase in production, however, yields drop abruptly due to soil erosion and salinisation.

The relationship between population and environment is complex. Anthropogenic impacts on the environment are a function of three major interconnected aspects: population size; affluence and consumption rate; and technology. Impacts are of two main types:

  • The direct exploitation of resources such as land, food, water, soil and the services provided by healthy ecosystems, such as water filtration through wetlands. Over-consumption exhausts, or severely depletes, non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, and depletes renewable resources such as fisheries and forests if they are used faster than their capacity for replenishment.
  • The generation and emission of waste as a product of consumption-related activities, including air and water pollutants, toxic materials, greenhouse gases and nutrients. Untreated sewage and many other pollutants are a threat to human health. Other types of waste disrupt natural ecosystem functions: excessive nutrients in water bodies, for example, cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen and kill fish.

The increased rate of population growth in the mid-20th century spurred worries about the depletion of food supplies in developing countries. Beginning with India in 1951, dozens of countries launched family planning programmes with support from international organisations and Western governments. These programmes aimed to convince citizens that having large numbers of children was bad for the nation and for individual families. They generally focused on educating married couples about birth control and distributing contraceptives, although some programmes took more coercive approaches.

Most of the projected population growth during this century will take place in developing nations. These countries have faced many challenges in recent decades, including low levels of education, poor health standards, poverty, lack of housing, the depletion of natural resources, wars, and economic and political domination by other countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, industrial development has stalled and most workers are still dependent on subsistence farming. Countries in this situation have generally devoted less energy to addressing environmental issues than their wealthier neighbours, thus environmental problems have intensified. Future population growth is likely to exacerbate environmental deterioration, especially in the poorest countries. However, this does not necessarily mean that countries with low rates of population growth will have cleaner environments.

Almost all European countries, including Belarus, are currently experiencing zero population growth.

Overpopulation is a very serious but ultimately solvable problem. What is known today about the relationship between the number of people on the planet and the ability of ecosystems to provide the necessary resources, materials and living conditions has motivated many countries to take regulatory measures. Successful programmes have been implemented in China and Thailand, for example. However, where such measures have not been taken, nature is unforgiving. In the African countries Ethiopia and Somalia, for example, population growth has led to the deforestation of enormous areas and the destruction of fertile land, which in turn has resulted in drought and starvation.

Finding morally acceptable means of population control in order to protect the ecosystems in which we live is one of the main tasks of present-day governments and international organisations.