Sometimes it’s hard to stay cheerful in this job. Later on this week, the world will see its human population grow to 7 billion and estimates would suggest there could be 8 billion of us by 2025 and 9 billion by 2045. That’s a lot of people to feed, a lot of people to house and a lot of people to find jobs for. And already, there are around a billion people across the globe who don’t have enough to eat or drink every day. I have three children, so I guess my wife and I are part of the problem.
The number of babies being born per woman is gradually declining, but there are so many of us on the planet already that we aren’t likely to see the human population stabilise for quite some time. The year 2030 will witness the largest generation of young people the planet has ever seen ever reach childbearing age, and even if they choose only to have two children each, the world’s population will continue to grow for another quarter century or so. Even on the UN’s most optimistic forecast, there will be 8 billion humans on the planet by 2050.
When you consider that the human population only reached 2 billion in 1930, it’s clear that we’ve been increasing at an alarming rate and we look set to continue to do so, at least until the middle of this century. But then that’s also possibly some grounds for optimism. The planet’s population may have quadrupled within a century, but so far, it has been able to sustain us. The big questions are going to be can it continue to do so and can we adjust our needs to allow the planet’s resources to recover?
If the human population were the only problem we faced, it wouldn’t perhaps be so bad. But it’s not. We also have climate change and the effects of that could be enormous. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, experts at a conference held in London suggested that climate change posed an ‘immediate, growing and grave threat to international security.
Some of the world’s poorest areas are likely to be the hardest hit by climate change. Much of the world’s trade flows through these regions. If, as suggested, conflict over resources happens as a result of climate change, trade will become more difficult and prices will increase. That conflict could happen over drinking water, over fertile lands and even over space to live, especially if sea levels rise and the land available to us to use decreases.
Since 2000, food and energy prices have shown a continuing trend of increase and that’s not going to stop anytime soon. With more and more people on the planet, demand for these vital resources is going to increase. The growing economies of countries like China and India will produce another billion middle class people, all wanting cars, gadgets and holidays by the middle of the century. Indeed, a recent UN report has suggested that the world’s demand for resources like fossil fuels, minerals and ores could treble from current levels to 140 billion tonnes per year by 2050!
And here I haven’t even mentioned the impacts on habitats and animal and plant species that will inevitably be affected as the human population continues to surge and our demand for energy and food continues to grow.
So how can we stay cheerful in the face of all this? Well, the fact is there are plenty of people out there who care about what we’re doing and they want to do something about it. Every day, YPTE’s staff see more and more young people who have a real interest in protecting their planet for the future. The challenges are huge and we should never try to underestimate or belittle them. But at the same time we should take comfort from the fact that while we humans can be stupid, selfish and put short term gain over long term benefits, we are also a highly intelligent and adaptable species, capable of devising ways of coping with change and living in challenging environments.
Eventually, enough people will realise that we can’t carry on as we are and we need to change. This won’t happen overnight and I’m sure there will be suffering before the world’s population comes to a collective realisation. Maybe we don’t need economic growth to make us happy. Would stasis really be so bad? Maybe we could all get by with a bit less stuff and get a lot better at sharing our stuff with those who hardly have anything at all. Maybe we could all get better at re-using what we already have. Maybe we’ll be able to find ways of reducing our need for natural resources and harnessing renewable energies. It’s that maybe that gets me to work every morning and it’s that maybe keeps me optimistic in the face of the doom and gloom we see every day in the media.