Environment Opinion

Population almost 8 billion: Pressures on the planet? Countless

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Australia’s human population reached the 26 million milestone recently (Image by Dan Jensen)

A world population milestone of 8 billion. An exploitative economic system that assumes infinite growth on a finite planet that's getting hotter. You do the maths, writes Michael Bayliss.

ON 15 NOVEMBER, the world’s population is expected to reach a new milestone of 8 billion. But what does this mean for the planet, the natural environment and for you?

In just 11 years we have added an additional 1 billion more to the world’s population. This is because the world continues to grow by up to 90 million people every year — so, population growth remains a very important issue.

This is despite the fact that forecasters often tell us it is not a concern because the percentage of population growth is slowing down. However, this lower percentage rate is much less relevant due to the massive numbers involved. This is why we have added a population that is almost the size of India in a little over a decade.

An obsession with percentages rather than absolute numbers distracts from the fact that half of all pregnancies worldwide continue to be unintended. It also leads to a lot of confusion on the subject and a misguided belief that the overall global population is heading towards a downward trajectory.

Even the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) suggests that population growth is slowing in their statement for World Population Day

UNPFA also optimistically suggests that:

'In an ideal world, 8 billion people means 8 billion opportunities...'

And further states:

'A world of 8 billion: towards a resilient future for all...'

One might be forgiven for believing that the UN holds the authoritative position on this milestone and that any opinion to the contrary should be treated with suspicion.

After all, UNPFA says:

'… there will be alarmists claiming that the world is on the verge of either disastrous overpopulation or catastrophic population collapse.'

And also:

'Let no alarmist headline distract from the work at hand...'

However, there remains credible opposition to these claims. This includes many Australian voices.

Coincidentally, Australia’s population reached a new milestone recently — 26 million people. This growth trajectory has also been swift. We have added 8.3 million people since 1990 and at our peak, we were growing by the equivalent of a new Canberra every year.

This is seen as a success story for many, including the political, business and property developer communities. Also, for some on the Left of the political spectrum – including many environmentalists – population growth is often seen as an inevitability that must never be questioned.

However, according to 'Australia State of the Environment 2021', population growth is a significant contributor to the pressures that are being exerted on Australia’s natural environment. 

For example, this report states:

'Population, climate change and industry each put pressure on our environment… increasing urban density, as well as urban sprawl, puts pressure on the natural environment and heritage.'

Renowned Australian physicist and scientist professor Ian Lowe recently co-authored a discussion paper titled 'Population and Climate Change'

The paper refers to the fact that only climate change models using the low-population versions of the IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) shared socioeconomic pathways" can prevent greater than 2oC warming.

More recently, on 7 September, the Federal Member for Makin (SA) Tony Zappia gave an extraordinary speech in Parliament, in which he said:

“There are now many who believe that, on all three issues of climate change, population growth and environmental loss, the world reached a tipping point some years ago… yet the pursuit of economic growth, which is driven by population growth and consumption, dominates both corporate and government thinking.”

There are many opinions on this important issue from a range of high-profile people and institutions, but what does 8 billion people mean to you? Are you as optimistic as the UNPFA, in that 8 billion of us means 8 billion opportunities, or are you more cautious?

Absolutely nothing should be a distraction from reducing the dangerous per-capita emissions of the Global North, but can we redistribute the excesses of the top 25 per cent in the world among the remaining 7 billion, while simultaneously reducing our aggregate ecological footprint by over 50 per cent — while also adding another 90 million a year?

Do you believe that it is possible to transition – rapidly – away from an exploitative economic system that presupposes infinite growth on a finite planet? Also, can Australia’s population reach 36 million by 2050 in a way that secures our food bowl and biodiversity, while preventing urban sprawl and overdevelopment? If there is a way forward, should there be a population policy with much stricter development guidelines in place as a prerequisite?

If we are unable to transition away from an exploitative growth-based economic system that is at the core of an ecologically deteriorating, hotter planet, is it better that fewer or more of us shoulder the consequences? Should this consideration inform our choices of whether or not to have children?

Even if you don’t believe that population is an issue, do you believe in reproductive freedom and access to quality reproductive health care and family planning services for all women, regardless of where they live? 

If empowered women with access to family planning services tend toward smaller families and if this means that world population may stabilise or even decline over time, is this okay? Consider the current fact that 221 million women have an unmet need for reproductive health services.

Many of us have felt disinclined to be open and honest about our true fears and feelings about the human population. Can we change the story as we enter 8 billion? 

Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) is hosting a competition for "8 billion day". In 100 words or less, SPA would like to know what 8 billion means for the planet, the environment and for you. More information about this competition can be found here.

Michael Bayliss is the communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning. You can follow him on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia HERE.

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