by "History Channel" Staff
"With an estimated 6.6 billion residents roaming the globe today and gobbling up natural resources, Planet Earth is getting crowded and the environment is facing serious risk. According to The Sierra Club: "The growing population and its consumption patterns have profound consequences for the global environment, including species extinction, deforestation, desertification, climate change, and the destruction of natural ecosystems. These global environmental impacts pose a significant threat to the earth's sustainability and impact our quality of life."
The world's population didn't reach 1 billion until 1830; improvements in health care, sanitation and nutrition significantly speeded things up after that. According to the Population Institute: "The second billion was achieved in 100 years, the third billion in 30 years, the fourth billion in 15 years, and the fifth billion in only 12 years." The U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 9 billion people on the planet by 2042. As of March 2008, China had more citizens—1.33 billion—than any other nation on Earth. India was next, with a population of 1.14 billion, followed by the United States, with 303 million.
Today, the rate at which the world's population is growing has actually shrunk, but "global population continues to increase by large numbers and in the regions least able to ensure the health, stability and prosperity of the population," according to Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. Sachs states that: "The rich world added roughly 400 million people between 1950 and 2005, a gain of some 50 percent. The developing world added 3.5 billion people, a gain of 200 percent. In 1950, the developed world (United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand) was roughly one third of the world's population, and by 2005, it had fallen to roughly one sixth of the world's population."
Increasingly, people around the planet are flocking to cities and towns. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that in 2008: "For the first time in history, more than half [the world's] human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor." The UNFPA report adds: "While the world's urban population grew very rapidly (from 220 million to 2.8 billion) over the 20th century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world. This will be particularly notable in Africa and Asia where the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030: That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 81 per cent of urban humanity."
According to Geoffrey Gilbert's World Population, urbanization has both pluses and minuses: "On the positive side, urban residents achieve higher levels of health and education; they also have smaller families&On the other hand, living conditions in many Third World cities are appalling, in part because the rapidity of urban growth has made it impossible for governments to provide an adequate infrastructure of streets, schools, housing, hospitals, and sanitation. A broader concern, and one that relates to both developed and developing nations, is that urban growth (or sprawl) is encroaching ever more deeply on lands needed for agriculture or valued for natural habitat."
In terms of the planet's resources, First World nations such as the United States currently eat up far more than their share. The Sierra Club notes that Americans represent five percent of the world's population but consume approximately 25 percent of its resources. Per-capita consumption rates are smaller in the developing world, but as the economies of rapidly industrializing nations such as China and India continue to expand (China's economy is doubling every seven to 10 years, according to Sachs) and standards of living rise, the strain on natural resources will intensify and environmental problems such as pollution will soar. For example, Jeffrey Sachs reports in Common Wealth that: "As of 2003 [in China]&there were around 24 million motor vehicles, roughly 18 per 1,000 population. In the United States, there are roughly 250 million motor vehicles, or roughly 800 per 1,000 population. China's annual production is now soaring, up to around 7 million per year as of 2006 compared with just 2 million in the year 2000. If China reaches even half of today's U.S. motor vehicle density by 2050, that would mean roughly 560 million Chinese vehicles on the road! The increase is twice the total current stock of U.S. vehicles. Even if the fleet were to get twice the miles per gallon that U.S. vehicles get today, its oil use (and carbon emissions) would roughly equal that of the entire U.S. transport sector today."
Experts debate how much population growth is too much, but there's no question that certain resources, such as oil, won't be available in unlimited supplies. According to Jeffrey Sachs, "The current trajectory of human activity is not sustainable. If we simply do what we are doing on the planet with unchanged technology—but on a much larger scale as China, India, and other population centers experience rapid economic growth—the environmental underpinnings of global well-being will collapse. The limits of the environment itself will defeat our global aspirations for prosperity."
CHINA: With 1.3 billion citizens, China is the planet's most populated nation and its rapid industrialization (which includes constructing two coal-fired power plants per week) and enormous, fast-growing economy have created serious environmental problems. According to Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: "The long list ranges from air pollution, biodiversity losses, cropland losses, desertification, disappearing wetlands, grassland degradation, and increasing scale and frequency of human-induced natural disasters, to invasive species, overgrazing, river flow cessation, salinization, soil erosion, trash accumulation, and water pollution and shortages." Diamond notes that "China's large population, economy, and area also guarantee that its environmental problems will not remain a domestic issue but will spill over to the rest of the world, which is increasingly affected through sharing the same planet, oceans, and atmosphere with China, and which in turn affects China's environment through globalization." Additionally, as the standard of living increases for the Chinese and consumption patterns resemble those of First World countries, the impact on natural resources will be massive.
INDIA: The U.S. Census Bureau projects that India, currently the world's second most populous nation, will reach a population of 1.5 billion in 2030 and surpass China (whose population is predicted at 1.4 billion). Rapid industrialization and urbanization have led to numerous environmental troubles, including increased air and water pollution and deforestation. In 2007, the Blacksmith Institute's list of the world's 10 most polluted places included two areas in China and two in India.
UNITED STATES: America, the world's third most-populated country, is projected to remain in the top-three spot, behind India and China, with an estimated population of 420 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "In the United States, the [total fertility rate] remains at the replacement level rather than below, and in-migration remains very high, so the U.S. population is primed to continue to grow even as many European countries and Japan decline in population," notes Jeffrey D. Sachs in Common Weath. More Americans doesn't necessarily bode well for the environment. Although China recently passed the U.S. as the planet's top emitter of greenhouse gases, Americans represent just five percent of the planet's population but use an estimated 25 percent of its resources. According to a 2006 report from the Population Institute: "If all the people in the world consumed at the rate of the high income countries such as the U.S., the planet could support only 1.8 billion people as opposed to the current 6.5 billion."
NIGERIA: Africa's most populated nation—and the world's ninth most populous—today has some 138 million residents. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts Nigeria will be the world's fourth most populated country by 2050, with approximately 356.5 million people. In 2008, Nigeria's fertility rate was estimated at 5.41 children per woman, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, compared with 2.10 for America. Oil-rich Nigeria has been "long hobbled by political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, and poor macroeconomic management," according to the CIA. The nation also has a poor environmental track record with rapid deforestation a major issue, along with fast-paced urbanization, air and water pollution and damage from oil spills.
INDONESIA: Encompassing 17,508 islands (6,000 of them inhabited), this Southeast Asian nation is the world's fourth most populous, with some 237.5 million residents. The U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 313 million Indonesians by 2050. Logging, mining and other activities have resulted in significant deforestation, which poses a continuing serious threat to Indonesia's highly diverse flora and fauna. "Water pollution from industrial wastes, sewage; air pollution in urban areas; smoke and haze from forest fires," are among other ongoing environmental issues, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency."