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Is there a limit to human population?

Do you believe that the earth can continue to sustain a constantly increasing number of human beings without significant impact on the environment and a lowering quality of life for the rest of us?
Richard Carlisle from York (Age 35-44)

What is the maximum sustainable population of the world, and how are we going to stop ourselves reaching that point before it is forced upon us?
David Irving from Dorset (Aged 35-44)

What is the sustainable human population of earth?
Paul Miller from North Yorkshire (aged 35-44)

How many people do you think could fit or live in the world?
Lexi from Greater London (aged 5-14)

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2 Responses

  1. With the impact we’re already having on the environment and the horrendously low quality of life that many people have, I think we have already passed the limit in your terms.

    There’s only so much room on the planet for growing food, so that definitely puts a limit on the human population that the planet can support, but in reality it would probably be impossible to sustain a population anywhere near that size.

  2. (Also posted as response to “One Response to “What is the maximum human population that this planet could sustain?”)

    The idea that the Earth has a fixed “carrying capacity” has been around for a long time, and estimates of the maximum number of people the Earth can support have varied widely. Today it is common to hear that we will need the equivalent of more than one Earth if we continue consuming resources at current rates.

    The idea of carrying capacity has also been applied at more local scales, for example in terms of livestock or people in a particular area of land. However, many of the theories of carrying capacity that were popular before the end of the twentieth century have been discredited as they have been confounded by reality, for example in the Sahel region of Africa. A severe drought in the Sahel in the 1970s was initially blamed on overstocking, overgrazing and subsequent land degradation. However, the causes of the drought are now thought to be linked to cyclical variations in the strength of the African monsoon, driven by changes in ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Since the drought of the 1970s human populations and livestock numbers have increased, and agriculture has intensified in some parts of the Sahel. This has been achieved with no loss of soil fertility or productivity, despite a decline in rainfall (somewhat reversed in recent years as the region becomes wetter). This “adaptation” to harsher climatic conditions (and harsher global economic conditions) has been achieved as a result of changes in agricultural and soil management practices, and livelihood diversification. By changing the way the land is managed, people have managed to sustain population growth and agricultural intensification in a marginal environment in the face of climatic deterioration.

    The point of the Sahel example is that it illustrates how the numbers of people and livestock that can be supported in any given area depend on the way that area’s resources are managed. Similarly, at a planetary scale, the number of people that can be supported will depend on how we manage our resources. Clearly the Earth cannot support an infinite number of people and there will be limits to the number of people that can be supported sustainably. But these limits are not fixed – the more carefully we manage our resources, the more people the planet will be able to support.

    Perhaps the best approach to the “population problem” is to try and establish what sort of systems for managing the Earth’s resources will be needed in order to support sustainably (i.e. indefinitely, without catastrophic disruption or collapse) the global population we have, and the population we can expect, while at the same time putting the relationship between population and sustainability more firmly on the policy agenda. If world population growth is likely to lead to a resource crisis or a collapse of environmental and social systems under current developmental models, we might seek to adopt new models.

    For example, we might ask whether the growing demand for animal protein and energy consumption can be sustained. If not, changing our patterns of consumption might represent a less ethically and practically problematic solution than attempting to limit population growth in the short term. In the longer term we need to develop ways of supporting a higher global population while at the same time seeking to understand the relationship between population and sustainability, and if necessary limit population growth using the carrot rather than the stick. It is often argued that increased affluence leads to lower birth-rates; if so, improving the economic status of the world’s poorest people, coupled with a reduction in consumption of resources by the world’s wealthiest people, is likely to provide the best means of securing development while avoiding environmental disaster(s). This is likely to be a big challenge, and we might not rise to it sufficiently to prevent large-scale social disruption due to climatic and environmental change. However, in principle there is no reason to believe that we have reached, or are likely to reach this century, an absolute maximum number of people the Earth can support. Much more likely is that it’s a question of how we manage our resources

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