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It was very interesting to watch the most recent episode of  Horizon  where David Attenborough spoke about the grim projections for the world population and its potential impact on our planet.

How recently it was that the number of people topped 5 billion people in the late Eighties – now we are already almost 7 billion. The fact that the resources to sustain this quantity of people are finite means that there are only that many more people who can be accommodated before we run into serious trouble and start fighting for food. Arguably in some parts of the world this process has already started.

In fact, as some scientists think, we have already over-stretched the Earth’s renewable resources beyond the point where they can regenerate (severely depleted Atlantic fish stocks spring to mind straight away) and hence are already living beyond our means. In other words, there are already too many of us about.

There is a maximum limit of people that can be sustained, which can be calculated with reference to their average demand for consumables and the total “productive capacity” of planet Earth. The methodology of calculating these figures obviously is extremely important and I am sure there is no total consensus on the figures – and also hot debate around how these are derived. David Attenborough argues that the “lifestyle” of existing humans is all-important. If everyone wanted to live like US consumers, our planet can only sustain 1.5bn people. If we lived like Rwandans, then it is 18bn.

It’s a scary thought, and one that personally has been on my mind for a while. Whilst we all carry on living our reasonably easy lives in a consumerist society we don’t worry about the impact this is having on our world on a daily basis. So what is one to do? Surely we won’t all give up our cars, nice holidays, stop buying clothes, or quit our jobs so that we can tend our plots and grow our own vegetables.

This brings me to another thought which has already been debated on this blog. The biggest impact humans have on the environment – in terms of our carbon footprint or our demand for scarce resources – is by having more children. After all, by bringing another one kid into this world we create another human being which will end up consuming comparable amounts of “stuff” and creating comparable amounts of “waste” which will have an overall impact when taken en masse.

So whilst after watching Horizon I did indeed started feeling a renewed sense of guilt that I don’t ride a bike everywhere, or have recently indulged myself by buying a few new items of clothing, I guess should I console myself with the fact that since we don’t – and probably can’t – have children, we are sort of doing our bit for this planet, or at least not creating extra future consumers.


Maybe the planet has found a way to self-regulate its population, and that is infertility of its creatures at the top of the food chain. Wise move, Mother Nature!



December 2009
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