Why do we have to be so many?

“How to feed a population of 9 billion people in 2050?” That’s the way roughly half of my classes begin as a Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture student.

From there, my lecturers steer the conversation into a specific dimension of food production: soil, intensive farming, meat demand, crops, yields, etc.

“But wait!” I raise my hand and ask, “why do we have to be so many people? Wouldn’t it be easier to stabilise the population to manage our planet sustainably?”

Since I haven’t done that in any of my classes so far, that’s what I intend to explore with this post.

I checked today and it’s estimated that in July 2015 we’ll be 7.325 billion lovely faces on this planet according to the UN Population Division statisticians.

Max Roser (2015) – ‘World Population Growth’.  Click to the image to go to the source and one of my favourite websites http://ourworldindata.org

Max Roser (2015) – ‘World Population Growth’. 
Click to the image to go to the source and one of my favourite websites http://ourworldindata.org

The opening question gets much more complicated if we combine factors like dietary preferences and increasing purchasing power. What this means is that, typically, as a person earns more, they can afford foods they formerly couldn’t and generate demand for them. Beef, salmon, cheese, dairy are part of these increasingly preferred foods. The problem with this dietary liking is that these foods are very resource intensive to produce (i.e. water, animal feeds, fuel for transportation).

It is really difficult to feed 9 billion people meat and dairy considering that we’re failing to feed our current population and simultaneously pushing planetary boundaries.

Click the image to go the Stockholm Resilience Centre where this framework was developed.

Click the image to go the Stockholm Resilience Centre where this framework was developed.

If you’re still not overwhelmed, let’s add, you know it was coming, climate change into the problem. Extreme weather, associated to climate change, has affected and will continue to affect food production. You see, agriculture is pretty risky. In 2012, drought and heat waves impacted maize production in the U.S. reducing it 29% compared to trend. What this meant for the U.S. was less exports, and since the U.S. is the largest exporter of maize in the world (72%), countries depending on these  maize imports, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Latin America and Caribbean region, had less food as a consequence (Gbegbelegbe, Chung, Shiferaw, Msangi, & Tesfaye, 2014).

These are just a few constraints that exacerbate the problem. There are plenty more because resources are limited. That’s the fundamental truth behind life. Humans have limited time and Earth has limited resources.

Why do we have to be so many? Why can’t we just stabilise the population? It seems reasonable at a large scale, but then I think about enforcing the policies on a personal level. As an example, China’s one-child policy to me feels like it crosses self-determination. Who is anyone to tell someone else, “no, you can’t have three children. You need to have one, deal with it!”

It’s aggressive and it’s an invasion of rights. But then I go back to this speedy population growth and everyone eating meat. Even if magically we all woke up vegetarians, under current climate change scenarios, crop production and distribution is tricky.

The planet is, however, finite. Are we going to keep multiplying until resources harshly limit us like rats in the famous Calhoun experiments. Are we not smart enough to self-stabilise? What is the way forward?

This is a very contestable topic, that’s why I’d like to start a conversation about it here. Let me know your stance in the comments below.

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