How to Defuse the Overpopulation Bomb

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08:22   |   Feb 13, 2018


How to Defuse the Overpopulation Bomb
How to Defuse the Overpopulation Bomb thumb How to Defuse the Overpopulation Bomb thumb How to Defuse the Overpopulation Bomb thumb


  • Hey guys, Joe here.
  • I’ve been thinking... if you sang happy birthday to every person who will be born
  • today, you’d be singing for nearly six and a half weeks without stopping.
  • That’s adding 386,000 more birthday cakes and humans, every day.
  • It’s estimated that 1 in 15 humans ever born is alive right now.
  • When I was growing up there were only 5 billion of us, but now Earth is home to 7.6 billion
  • people.
  • And some folks are worried what will happen if things continue at this rate.
  • Space isn’t the problem.
  • If we all lived as densely as people in Manhattan, every human could fit inside Norway, with
  • a fjord or two to spare.
  • But our species’ true footprint is much, MUCH larger.
  • For many, today’s climate and ecological imbalances are proof there’s simply too
  • many people on this planet.
  • But are there really?
  • What IS overpopulation?
  • And how did it get this way?
  • No one really asked these questions until recently, because for tens of thousands of
  • years, our species’ numbers only hovered in the millions.
  • But by the year 1800 or so, there were finally one billion of us, and then things really
  • started to change.
  • While it took tens of thousands of years for the human population to hit 1 billion, it
  • only took 123 years to double that, and just 47 to double again.
  • Since the 1970s the 5th, 6th, and 7th billion have arrived every 12 years.
  • So when does population growth become overpopulation?
  • The answer?
  • It depends.
  • Way back in 1798, Thomas Malthus warned that unchecked population growth would, as a rule,
  • outpace food supply, leading to global mass starvation and violent conflict.
  • Many environmentalists in the 20th century predicted the incoming population bomb would
  • send shockwaves of disease, poverty, and environmental destruction rippling around the globe, basically
  • ruining everything.
  • This hasn’t proven to be the case.
  • Malthus underestimated humanity’s ability to increase Earth’s capacity using good
  • ol’ science.
  • But one thing is true: The way we feed 7 billion people today won’t scale to feed 10 billion
  • tomorrow.
  • I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but many parts of the world have too much food.
  • Maybe we aren’t getting it where it’s needed, because we let imaginary lines on
  • maps make too many rules.
  • A lot of what we grow doesn’t go into our own stomachs.
  • A third of crops go to feeding livestock.
  • Animals raised for food occupy 80% of Earth’s agricultural land, yet provide only 20% of
  • our calories.
  • Beef alone requires ten times as much land per unit of protein as produce, grains, even
  • eggs.
  • We’ve been able to scale up food production so far, but there is SOME upper limit to how
  • many people Earth can feed, no matter how we grow it, and we can’t exactly eat the
  • moon.
  • But what makes populations grow–or not grow?
  • The reality for most of history was that many children would die before adulthood, so you’d
  • better have plenty.
  • Lots of births balanced by lots of deaths kept populations low, but steady, for a long
  • time.
  • But beginning in the 1700s, advances in agriculture and transportation meant fewer people starved.
  • Later, during the Industrial Revolution, public health and economic advancements translated
  • into less disease and higher living standards.
  • Death rates went down, but old habits die hard, so people continued to have lots of
  • babies, which led to rapid population growth.
  • Eventually people caught on that more of their kids were going to survive, and as education
  • and opportunities for women improved, families started having fewer children, and population
  • growth slowed.
  • Eventually, when birth and death rates remain low, populations level off, and become stable,
  • or even start shrinking.
  • Things had gotten a lot better for a lot of people… if they lived in Europe or North
  • America.
  • Not every country moves through these demographic transitions at the same time, so while population
  • growth was slowing or coming to an end in many developed countries, it was just picking
  • up in other places.
  • But developing nations are moving more rapidly through these transitions.
  • It took the United Kingdom 95 years to halve birth rates, while Brazil did it in 26, and
  • Iran just 10.
  • Today birth rates are falling almost everywhere.
  • The less time a country spends in stages of rapid growth, the quicker Earth’s population
  • stops increasing.
  • It’s unlikely that the 12 billionth human will ever be born.
  • And by 2100 our population will most likely peak between 9 and 12 billion.
  • Instead of one big population bomb, the challenge today is defusing a few population “cluster
  • bombs” in pockets of the developing world.
  • There are two big ways to accomplish this.
  • Increasing women’s access to education is the most effective way to lower birth rates.
  • It improves children’s health and leads to better family planning.
  • Empowering women leads to slower population growth.
  • This alone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as all wind energy by 2050.
  • Today, the richest 10% of humans are responsible for almost half of climate emissions, while
  • the poorest half of people are only responsible for a tenth.
  • Developed nations will have to reduce their impact and meet developing nations in a cleaner
  • middle.
  • Populations can’t grow forever without consequences, but under the right circumstances populations
  • control themselves.
  • But 10 billion people is still a lot of mouths to feed, and doing it without ruining nature
  • or anything like that won’t be easy.
  • But it’s not impossible, and it won’t take some apocalyptic robot army of forced
  • population control to do it.
  • While history has taught us that population growth has natural checks and balances, we
  • have yet to find a limit when it comes to creating new ways to live.
  • Stay curious.

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Is overpopulation real? Is Earth filling up with too many humans? How many people can Earth hold, anyway? As our species approaches 8 billion, human overpopulation is a major concern for many people. How can we reduce poverty and our impact on the environment? Do we need a forced one-child policy or something? Maybe not, because when we look at the science and history, populations seem to control themselves. This week we look at all these questions and more.







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