Population increase in the last two centuries is a cause for alarm if sustainable growth and development is to become a reality in the 21st century. There is a general consensus among scientists that the current rapid population growth is simply unsustainable (Costanza & Patten, 1995). With the subsequent increase in consumption of resources, the rapid growth of human population is simply a threat to the world’s ecosystem. According to environmentalists and development experts, there is an inextricable link between human population expansion and environmental degradation (Daly, 1996). Such problems as pollution, global warming, and increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide are cited as the outcomes of the present state of the world where population growth is increasing at an alarming rate. Presently, the world population is estimated to be over 6 billion and was projected to be more than 9 billion by 2050 (Marshall & Toffel, 2005). However, the latest estimates indicate that the 7.8 billion mark could be realized as early as 2012 thus making the projection of 9 billion for 2050 unrealistic (Diamond, 2005) .At this rate of population growth, the world’s attempt to sustain the environment will be a mirage. This paper discusses what humanity needs to achieve a sustainable population.
Sustainability in human sense may be defined as ability to maintain a long-term well being socially, economically, and environmentally. It encompasses responsible management and use of resources (Marshall and Toffel, 2005). Unchecked population growth is directly linked with environmental degradation. A major impact of unchecked human growth is the inescapable destruction of the world’s biophysical resources, especially its ecosystems. A number of current scientific studies show that the current human population in the world is exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity and that this may have far-reaching effects on human existence if the trend continues indefinitely (Costanza & Patten, 1995). A more comprehensive scientific data on this fact is presented in the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The book Limited to Growth has provided a basis for the later researches, analysis, and commentaries (Marshall & Toffel, 2005). According to Soederbaum (2008), the measurement for human consumption should be based on the biologically productive land required to support human population, as well as to absorb wastes emerging from average person. Based on this description, it was estimated that human population required about 2.7 of the total world hectares per individual, compared to the 2.1 hectares capacity covered by the biologically productive land (Diamond, 2005). This resulted into a big ecological deficit which has to be filled by unsustainable additional sources, which can only be obtained through these three ways: looking for the past through fossil fuels; exploiting future reserves (such as fisheries, forests); and by exploiting the world market (of goods and services).
It is only through healthy and sustainable ecosystem that man and other organisms are able to obtain essential goods and services necessary for their continued existence. However, the impact of human population on our ecosystem can be reduced and this will subsequently have a positive impact on the world ecosystem services. Environmental management is one way through which we can ensure sustainability amid human overpopulation. The rapid growth of human population has greatly been blamed for environmental degradation on the basis that increased population has negatively affected the world’s natural resources thus causing acute demand for the limited resources resulting into their depletion. Disappearance of the world biodiversity is largely due to destruction and loss of habitat and fragmentation caused by humans. As the population grows beyond the world’s carrying capacity, humans utilize land to create room for development, agriculture, and forestry and thus progressively turn the earth’s natural capital into man-made capital (Daly, 1996).
Increased growth of human population has created acute demand for land to be allocated for agriculture, urbanization, pasture, settlement, and other development projects. The change in the utilization of land practices has been a primary concern for many environmentalists and scientists with regards to the operation of our biosphere. Artificial changes imposed on land have a negative impact on biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and carbon as well as on world waters. Consequently, these have detrimental effects on our natural system as well as on human well being. According to Ehrlich & Holden (1974), human consumption has greatly contributed to the lost of world’s forest and about 47 percent has gone in the last two centuries. Currently, the world’s forests only occupy less than 25 percent of the world’s land mass (excluding the ice covered parts), of which half is found in the world’s tropics. Deforestation continue to be a major concern in most parts of the world and if not checked, would cause a major upset to the world’s ecosystems and human’s continued existence (Kendall & Pimentel, 1994).
However, environmental management is arguably at the bottom after a number of indirect factors caused environmental degradation and these were associated with human consumption. A second approach to sustainability should be through management of human demand for resource use. In other words, human consumption should be managed to ensure responsible use and management of the world resources. This will not only sustain the current population but also the generations to come (Kendall & Pimentel, 1994).
Food is not only a basic necessity but also essential to life. As the Chinese would concur, to feed just two billion mouths let alone the world’s six billion, causes a major upset to the world’s natural resources. For the world to feed its populace, about 38 percent of land and about 20 percent of the land’s net basic productivity will be appropriated .In addition to this, other resource-exploiting activities associated with industrial agribusiness from, use of water to irrigate farms, use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, to the pollution caused by food packaging, transportation and retail will continue to eat into the natural reserves of our environment. It is fortunate that the world has realized that industrial agriculture as well as agribusiness pose numerous and serious problems to our ecosystem and needs to be checked if the growth in human population in recent times is to be sustained. Campaigns are ongoing to have farmers and other stakeholders adopt sustainable agricultural practices which include adoption of organic farming. However, more sustainable practices are needed in both agricultural production and agribusiness in order to avert the time bomb awaiting the world in not too distant future (Porritt, 2006).
One of the direct underlying human influences on the ecosystem is through human consumption. To ensure sustainability and to reduce the impact of human consumption, the world needs to look into ways of ensuring that its populace consume less and less. In addition, there is a need to make the entire cycle of food production, consumption and disposal of waste materials more sustainable. Analysis and management of goods and services as well as their use can be successfully done at all levels of social hierarchy by following the chain of consumption. This should start by self-analysis whereby individuals check on the effects of their lifestyle choices as well as their spending patterns on the environment; by analyzing and managing resource demands by some goods and services; and by managing the impacts of the world’s economic sector from the local level to the global stage. A closer look at human consumption patterns reveal a link between environmental problems and the impacts of social and economic sector at all levels of socio-economic hierarchy. It is therefore important to have environmentalists and other scientists to provide much needed knowledge on the detrimental effects of unchecked human production and consumption so as to halt the continued degradation of our environment and depletion of the world’s natural resources. The management of consumption should be narrowed down to following essential resource categories in relation to human needs for instance, water, food, materials, and energy (Kendall & Pimentel, 1994).
On another account, sustainability constitutes a number of actions that are to be performed by the current generation or persons in a manner that such actions do not jeopardize the prospects of the world’s future generation to enjoy natural resources through consumption, welfare, and production of wealth .There is an interface between economics and sustainability through the ecological and social consequences of human economic activities. Analysis of sustainability economics engages a wider interpretation of not only ecological economics but also cultural, social, monetary and health-related issues. Presently, it is argued that the average per capita consumption in developing nations is sustainable; however, the population growth of these countries continue to rise and more and more individuals aspire to live the Western lifestyles associated with high consumption. In contrast, the population growth rate of developed countries is very small but their rate of consumption is relatively high and unsustainable (Nielsen, 2006). In light of these glaring facts, the challenge would be to contain and manage the consumption levels in developed countries while improving the living standards of those living in third world countries without upsetting the environment and increasing their dependency on resource use. To overcome this challenge, the world must look into ways and strategies of de-linking economic growth from resource depletion and environmental degradation (Kendall & Pimentel, 1994).
A potentially major challenge to sustainability is poverty. There is a general consensus that poverty is closely linked with environmental degradation and that it is one of the contributing factors to the environmental problems. In its report titled Our Common Future, Brundtland Commission observed that the war on environmental degradation is far from over, unless the world deals with underlying factors that contribute to international inequalities and world poverty. The report noted poverty as one of “the major cause and effect of global environmental problems” (UN Documents, n.d.). It has been noted that poor people resort to their local environment in order to derive their basic needs and sustain their well-being. Therefore, as the world population continues to grow especially in less developed countries; continued pressure will be applied on the environment to provide some of these basic needs, which include food, water, and medicine. In addition, it has been found that there is a strong correlation between poverty and high fertility. This shows that the poorest countries of the world are categorized with the uppermost population and fertility growth rate (Nielsen, 2006). Alleviation of poverty in these countries would be the first step in ensuring sustainability as we approach the deadline for the meeting of Millennium Development Goals. The populations living in less-developed parts of the world should be sensitized on the best and sustainable environmental practices because they are ignorant of their behaviors. Much financial support is also needed from more developed nations to assist these countries and populations adopt sustainable practices. For instance, the developed nations can promote use of solar instead of charcoal by donating such equipments to the poor countries.
The issues of poverty and fertility are directly related to the status of women in our societies. While in developed countries women are more empowered economically and socially, the same cannot be said of less developed countries where women are still associated primarily with reproductive roles. The low status of women in the less developed countries has condemned them to live in poverty as most would wait at home while their husbands go out to fend for the family. In essence, women’s primary role is child rearing and caring for the family and this has been a contributing factor to high fertility rate in developing countries. It is also vital to realize that issues of birth control are lowly received in these countries where men have all the powers to decide on the number of children and when to have them. The status of women has therefore been linked with environmental degradation since high fertility and poverty are inextricably linked with resource depletion. Therefore for sustainability to be realized, women must be empowered both economically and socially as they hold the key to reduce population growth. Empowerment should be done through education, provision of birth control services targeting both men and women, and engaging women in productive activities (Nielsen, 2006).
It is worth noting that the sustainability of our environment will continue to be a great challenge to the current generation if the fundamental factors contributing to environmental degradation are not checked. We owe it to the future generation to leave this planet intact as we found it so that they may also enjoy its benefits. However, this cannot be said of this generation as we have proved to be greedier than any other generation in history. First and foremost, this generation needs to embark on environmental management by halting any unplanned development and depletion of resources. As is illustrated in this essay, environmental management is entirely dependent on human consumption and use of resources. Any effort aimed at promoting environmental management must device ways and means of empowering the poor without straining our already overburden ecosystem, halting the high consumption rate of the rich, and halting the runaway population growth. It is only through these measures that we may leave at least half of what was left to us by the previous generation to our children.