One of the most basic determinants of whether we weather the impending ecological storm is a simple issue: How many of us are there? And for as long as I can recall, demographers have agreed that the world’s population is likely to peak at around 9-10 billion people.
Is that a sustainable number? Hardly. We passed the Earth’s carrying capacity in about 1980, and the current population is consuming the Earth’s resources at least 25% faster than can be sustained. For seven of the last eight years we have consumed more grain than we produced, the most important energy resources are peaking as I write, and all the other basics of life – water, every other major food source, the majority of major ecosystems – all are becoming less able, not more, to support even the present population.
And that assumes we stand still, which simply isn’t going to happen. China alone catching up with western standards of consumption – currently scheduled for about 2030 – will double the burden humanity places on the environment. Add to that India’s expected 1,500,000,000, and then twice as many again as the rest of the world joins us here at the top table, and we are talking about resources running out far ahead of the 9 billion mark.
For example, if the whole world shared America’s gas-guzzling habits, oil production would have to rise from about 81 to 450 million barrels per day. Yet there probably isn’t enough oil in existence for it to exceed 100 million – and that may be a very optimistic figure, given how implausible so many claimed oil reserve figures are.
In such conditions, the world will not have to wait until the tradition ‘demographic transition’ is over. We don’t have to wait for decades until the cultures of high-growth countries catches up with the novel fact of low mortality. There is no need to wonder when population will reach the magic figure – because it never will. The environmental catastrophe that will result from this impossible balancing act – the disaster that befalls us as we collectively tumble from the tightrope of history – means the mortality rate will soon restore itself to a number far above the fertility rate. Far from being a sustainable number, 9,000,000,000 isn’t even achievable. Far from billions of extra births, we can all look forward to billions of deaths from hunger, disease and war.
No problem then, eh?