Putting the Bite on Planet Earth: Rapid Human Population Growth Is Devouring Global Natural Resources

Article excerpt

The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) convenes in Cairo, Egypt, this September, gathering political leaders from around the globe to explore how human population growth is likely to affect society and the environment, among other topics. One of the policy issues participants will discuss is the links between human population, sustainable development and the environment. In anticipation of this event, International Wildlife turned to Don Hinrichsen, a UN consultant on environment and population issues, for this special report on the connections between human expansion and natural resources:

Each year about 90 million new people join the human race. This is roughly equivalent to adding three Canadas or another Mexico to the world annually, a rate of growth that will swell human numbers from today's 5.6 billion to about 8.5 billion by 2025.

These figures represent the fastest growth in human numbers ever recorded and raise many vital economic and environmental questions. Is our species reproducing so quickly that we are outpacing the Earth's ability to house and feed us? Is our demand for natural resources destroying the habitats that give us life? If 40 million acres of tropical forest - an area equivalent to twice the size of Austria - are being destroyed or grossly degraded every year, as satellite maps show, how will that affect us? If 27,000 species become extinct yearly because of human development, as some scientists believe, what will that mean for us? If nearly 2 billion people already lack adequate drinking water, a number likely to increase t& 3.6 billion by the year 2000, how can all of us hope to survive?

The answers are hardly easy and go beyond simple demographics, since population works in conjunction with other factors to determine our total impact on resources. Modern technologies and improved efficiency in the use of resources can help to stretch the availability of limited resources. Consumption levels also exert considerable impact on our resource base. Population pressures work in conjunction with these other factors to determine, to a large extent, our total impact on resources.

For example, although everyone contributes to resource waste, the world's bottom-billion poorest and top-billion richest do most of the environmental damage. Poverty compels the world's 1.2 billion bottom-most poor to misuse their environment and ravage resources, while lack of access to better technologies, credit, education, health care and family-planning condemns them to subsistence patterns that offer little chance for concern about their environment. his contrasts with the chest 1.3 billion, who exploit and consume disproportionate amounts of resources and generate disproportionate quantities of waste.

One example is energy consumption. Whereas the average Bangladeshi consumes commercial energy equivalent to three barrels of oil yearly, each American consumes an average of 55 barrels. Population growth in Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations, increased energy use there in 1990 by the equivalent of 8.7 million barrels, while U.S. population growth in the same year increased energy use by 110 million barrels. Of course, the U.S. population of 250 million is more than twice the size of the Bangladeshi population of 113 million, but even if the consumption figures are adjusted for the difference in size, the slower growing U.S. population still increases its energy consumption six or seven times faster yearly than does the more rapidly growing Bangladeshi population.

In the future, the effects of population growth on natural resources will vary locally because growth occurs unevenly across the globe. Over the course of the 1990s, the Third World's population is likely to balloon by more than 900 million, while the population of the developed world will add a mere 56 million. Asia, with 3.4 billion people today, will have 3. …