Day 11: The fate of the human population

As a scientist, I have seen thousands of graphs, and they are usually pretty tedious. Usually you don’t use the word “scary” to describe a graph with a simple curve on it and maybe a couple colors. But when I first saw the graph below of the United Nation’s predictions for the human populational growth, I couldn’t help but remember it as the scariest graph I’d ever seen (and three years later, it still is). What scared me so much was the French professor’s explanation:

“Oh, by the way, the human population has three options – we can keep growing the way we have been until we are either limited by food or water; we can consciously halt the growth of our own population by limiting our reproduction so that doesn’t happen, or something will get to us before, like a biological disease or a natural disaster, and it will decimate our population, keeping our numbers healthy, just like we see in other species of animals.”  After those shocking words, the professor shrugged and clicked to the next slide, leaving us to ponder on our inevitable fates and which scenario we thought was most likely.  

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We study the populations of lemmings and owls in school, and how the wax and wane of their populations was all very natural, interconnected, and practical; but when applying that to HUMANS? Not so nice. We think ourselves to be invulnerable because we are so different than other animal populations. We make use of rational thought, we have technology, and we are the lords of the Animal Kingdom, as we basically rule over the fates of other species. But what about the fate of ours? Big as we may be, we can’t escape Nature’s law.  We are doomed to end up the way all species end up when they’ve hit their maximum population .

Either way you look at it, lack of resources or natural catastrophes will stunt our populational growth eventually. We won’t be able to grow forever – no species has. It seems that if we want to continue presiding over the planet, we better do it in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t lead to the depletion of our own resources. And a lot of that (ok, all of it) has to do with conscious populational grooming – i.e., limiting how many new babies we put out in the world.

Now, I have my doubts that this will actually enter the political scenario in time, as I did when I first saw this graph. I still don’t believe we will choose to consciously limit the reproduction of our species before one of the two possible disasters hits. Hindsight says that we humans are more likely to act upon need, not upon prevention.

The human population as of today is at 7.3 billion humans. It took 200 000 years for Homo sapiens to reach 1 billion people, and 200 years for our species to reach 7 billion. 1 billion humans have been added just in the last 14 years.  According to estimates, our population could reach 16.6 billion in 2100. Do we have enough resources for 16.6 billion people? There are people going hungry and fighting over water already.

Could the biggest threat on the planet be . . . ourselves?

It’s worth thinking about.

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