We humans are clearly overrunning the planet, but few understand or will face what is happening. As population hits an all-time peak later this century, life on the planet will get much tougher and there will be no simple answers to the problems that will arise or simply increase in severity. While it is hard to see ahead with any detail, past experience says there will never be a single crisis that challenges humanity like overpopulation does (barring an asteroid impact, a global volcanic surprise, or the sun doing something unexpected). This is because human nature drives us to want to live better and have more children. Can we successfully change ourselves to have less offspring and live more sustainably?
The symptoms of overpopulation – immigration, war, and climate change among them – will increasingly dominate our attention and absorb our efforts. We will spend a lot of time and our dwindling resources trying to deal with these problems, but until the population begins to decline significantly the symptoms will continue to worsen. More and more people are working to address the symptoms through conservation, innovations in renewable energy, and improvement of agricultural and transportation systems among others, but until we address the root cause – too many people – we will only sink farther into a polluted, stormy, strife-filled, declining existence. A sudden rise in sea level of a couple of feet, for instance, is not unlikely and will cause major problems we can only attempt to imagine.
Unfortunately curing the symptoms does not address the root cause. Until humanity gains a deeper understanding of human nature and does something about the overpopulation problem, things will get worse. Eventually the situation will become so bad that people will start dying younger and in larger and larger numbers.
Nature will correct the situation if humans aren’t smart enough to do it. Inevitably, sooner or later the global death rate will exceed the birth rate, and when the population decline reduces demand for resources sufficiently a recovery period will begin. Then I predict big changes in our approach to sustainability will occur, including a population management concept of some kind with global agreement to implement it.
The changes will be messy, and will present new problems. Change rarely takes place for everyone at once. Some areas of the globe will experience shortages of food and materials when demand exceeds the capacity of global shipping systems, and eventually that will increase rates of starvation, especially in the poorest and most elderly populations. Others will experience shortages of key resources without which industries will shut down, eliminating jobs and crippling economies. A point may be reached when millions of people, maybe tens or hundreds of millions, will be starving and dying daily, but the U.S. and the rest of the developed world will have too little resources to be able to help. Those will be dark days for the planet.
Third world populations will be hit first and hardest as they are in much more fragile circumstances than the rest of the world and are already experiencing a lot of political strife, food shortages, and terrorism. Then second world populations will be hit with economic disruption and political turmoil complicated by increasingly massive migrations and sometimes wars. First world countries may maintain standards of living a bit longer than the less advantaged nations, but will eventually succumb to the same problems as everyone else: crumbling infrastructure, political strife, and shortages, to name just a few.
The turnaround of human civilization will be slow after what I hope will only be “the Great Decline”. As we are learning (the hard way), the world is finite and growth cannot go on forever, and businesses will have to see and understand this or they will become increasingly less relevant. It is likely that the concept of a balanced ecology will increasingly be applied in laws and regulations, and some countries will enact “one child” laws to reduce the birthrate.
During the long re-stabilization and recovery period people will make sweeping adjustments. Our descendants will travel daily among huge ruins; most no longer occupied by humans, and will depend on local economies with seasonal availability of different foods. Most people will go back to repairing their clothing when needed instead of dumping some more cash at the big box store. The root cellar, which can prolong food availability without refrigeration, may make a comeback in many homes, and small gardens and canning may become standard during the growing season. In places abandoned by corporate mining operations, for example, unemployed squatters may move in to pick what value they can get from the abandoned and often toxic mines and tailings. Many corporations will decline while others will be born as new needs drive new markets. Many government and business facilities will be closed, and some will need to be cordoned off because of toxic waste left behind. Efforts to clean up mine fields and unexploded munitions from the many human wars will be set aside, warning markers may decay and disappear, and some areas of the world will become far more dangerous as a result. Some people may try to immigrate to unpopulated areas and live off the land, but most will be driven, more than ever, to cities where they can get health services and food, among other things.
Safety and security will be challenged, and will be necessary for civilization to make a comeback. The maintenance of rule of law will define whether a country or society descends into total chaos or maintains some level of civilization. Many countries (mostly the poorest) already have serious problems maintaining rule of law and are unable to ensure their citizens’ security. (That’s one reason for a lot of the illegal immigration around the world.) Without personal safety people will fear to travel to work or school, and how can a society function effectively under such conditions? For most Americans and many Europeans living in a state of physical insecurity will be a new experience, and will provide them insight into how poor people and refugees have lived for decades or centuries the world over.
If one extends current world conditions ahead and adds in the extra pressure of short resources and climate change, it is clear that we are heading for hard times. Each person requires a certain amount of water, food, and shelter each day, and that can only expand with the exploding population. Sadly, nobody is talking about the root cause of our problems, the population explosion, in any meaningful way. If we don’t get serious about it, and just keep working on low-impact stop-gap measures, the news will get a lot worse (and a lot of people will die) before it gets better.
Thanks for reading — Tim