Over the last half century the population of the world has exploded. At the time of writing there are seven billion people on the planet and this number is projected to grow in a short period of time.
Of all of the environmental challenges facing the planet today overpopulation is one that sometimes slips under the radar. Issues like pollution, climate change and water shortages all seem to take precedence, but overpopulation is one of the main contributors to many other environmental issues.
Overpopulation will place great demands on resources and land, leading to widespread environmental issues in addition to impacting global economies and standards of living.
The issue is compounded by the difficulty in providing solutions for this problem and misunderstanding of the causes and effects of overpopulation.
Here we will cover both causes and effects of overpopulation in order for you to have a more informed view of the risks that come with it.
There are a number of factors that contribute to overpopulation. These are the leading causes:
Poverty is believed to be the leading cause of overpopulation. A lack of educational resources, coupled with high death rates leading to higher birth rates, result in impoverished areas seeing large booms in population.
The effect is so extensive that the UN has predicted that the forty-eight poorest countries in the world are also likely to be the biggest contributors to population growth. Their estimates state that the combined population of these countries is likely to balloon to 1.7 billion in 2050, from 850 million in 2010.
Poor Contraceptive Use
Though the availability of contraceptives is widespread in developed countries, poor planning on both partners’ parts can lead to unexpected pregnancies. Statistics have shown that in Great Britain 76% of women aged between 16 and 49 used at least one form of contraceptive, leaving a quarter open to unexpected pregnancies.
This issue is exacerbated in underdeveloped areas. A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that this usage figure drops to 43% in countries that are blighted by issues like poverty, which leads to higher birth rates.
As distressing as it may be to hear, child labor is still used extensively in many parts of the world. UNICEF estimates that approximately 150 million children are currently working, primarily in countries that have few child labor laws.
This can result in children being seen as a source of income by impoverished families. Furthermore, children who begin work too young also lose the educational opportunities they should be granted, particularly when it comes to birth control.
Reduced Mortality Rates
Improvement in medical technology has led to lower mortality rates for many serious diseases. Particularly dangerous viruses and ailments such as polio, smallpox and measles have been practically eradicated by such advances.
While this is positive news in many ways, it also means that people are living longer than ever before. This “delay” in the cycle of life and death has led to birth rates outstripping death rates by over two to one in modern times.
Though it only plays a minor role in comparison to the other causes of overpopulation, improved fertility treatments have made it possible for more people to have children.
The number of women using various fertility treatments has been on the rise since their inception. Now most have the option of conceiving children, even if they may not have been able to do so without such treatments.
Unchecked immigration into countries may lead to overpopulation to the point where those countries no longer have the required resources for their population. This is particularly problematic in countries where immigration numbers far exceed emigration numbers.
In some cases, immigrants may be attempting to escape overpopulation in their own countries, only to contribute to the same issues in the countries they move to. However, data also exists to show the immigration can bolster economies, with the effect in the UK being particularly pronounced.
Overpopulation can have a number of effects, most of which are negative as examined below.
Lack of Water
Overpopulation creates greater demand on the world’s freshwater supplies. As only roughly 1% of the world’s water is fresh and accessible, this creates a major issue.
Some estimates state that human demand for fresh water will stand at approximately 70% of what is available on the planet by 2025. This will place those living in impoverished areas that already have limited access to such water at great risk.
Lower Life Expectancy
While higher life expectancy is leading to increases in population in developed countries, lower life expectancy may be caused by the booms in population that less developed nations are experiencing.
A large proportion of the world’s population growth occurs in less developed countries. This stretches the resources these countries have thinner resulting in less access to medical care, fresh water, food and jobs, all resulting in a fall in life expectancy.
The effect of overpopulation on the world’s wildlife is also a major issue. As demand for land grows, so too does the destruction of natural habitats, such as forests.
Some scientists warn that if present trends continue, as many as 50% of the world’s wildlife species will be at risk of extinction. Data has also been collected to show that there is a direct link between increases in human population and decreases in the number of species on the planet.
As the population grows, so too does the amount of resources needed to keep so many people alive. Food, water and fossil fuels are all being consumed at record rates, placing greater demands on producers and the planet itself.
Ironically, it is the discovery of many of these natural resources – particularly fossil fuels – that have contributed to conditions that are favorable to population growth. A study has shown that the world’s ecosystem changed more rapidly in the latter-half of the twentieth century than at any other point in history because of increased use of these resources.
Increased Intensive Farming
As population has grown over the years, farming practices have evolved to produce enough food to feed larger numbers of people. However, intensive farming methods also cause damage to local ecosystems and the land, which may pose problems in the future.
Furthermore, intensive farming is also considered a major contributor to climate change due to the machinery required. This effect will likely intensify if the population continues to grow at its current rate.
Faster Climate Change
Overpopulation directly correlates to climate change, particularly as larger nations, like China and India, continue to develop their industrial capacities. They now rank as two of the three largest contributors to emissions in the world, alongside the United States.
97% of the scientific community agrees that human activities are changing global temperatures. Larger populations may speed these changes up, especially if more is not done to reduce individual carbon footprints on a wide scale.
So now we know more about overpopulation and the effects it can have, but what can be done about it? There are a number of proposed solutions.
Better Sex Education
A lack of sex education – or poorly-implemented education – has led to overpopulation issues in many countries. The issue is so pronounced that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is calling for improvements to be made, particularly in poorer areas of the world.
Better education will help people understand more about the potential consequences of having sex as they relate to child birth. It will also do away with many of the myths that surround the sexual act and introduce scientifically-proven methods of birth control.
Access to Contraceptives
Access to birth control must go hand-in-hand with better sex education. After all, without it people cannot put what they have learned into practice.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that 225 million women who are living in the developing countries would prefer to postpone giving birth but are not using any form of contraception. Many organizations, such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), also support improving access to contraceptives.
Changes in Policy
Many nations offer rewards, whether in the form of financial incentives or increased benefits, to those who have more children. This may lead to some couples having more children than they otherwise would if they needed to worry about the financial consequences.
This is a difficult issue to confront. China’s “One-Child’ policy was recently abandoned, in part, because of the restrictions it placed on freedom, and it is likely that similar policies would be seen as equally restrictive.
Education on the Subject
While a number of organizations exist to provide schools with curricula and teaching materials to cover the subject of overpopulation, it is still a subject that is not covered in schools as well as it should be.
This education should extend beyond talking about sex and into the global consequences of overpopulation. Dialog about the subject needs to be more open, with sites like debate.org offering useful resources that allow the issue to be confronted rationally.
The Final Word
Overpopulation is a crisis that potentially stands alongside climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today.
Despite this, there is little in the way of education or dialog relating to the issue, particularly in schools.
If this doesn’t change, the issues highlighted in this article may continue to grow unabated. If that happens, this one issue could have a knock-on effect that will lead to untold problems in the future.
If you wish to share your own opinions about overpopulation, please do continue the debate in the comments section below. Alternatively, share this article on social media to encourage a conversation in your own community.
Featured Image Credit: James Cridland @ Flickr