The United Nations recently released a dire report that said the world population could reach 12.3 billion by 2100. If the figures are accurate, the human race will have to overcome tremendous challenges including food shortages, environmental destruction, and political instability.
Previous estimates had figured that the world population would peak this century, and then start to decline slightly, ending with about 7.2 billion people at 2100. The new report has destroyed those expectations for humanity’s future. The new estimate says that there is an 80 percent chance that the world population will be between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion.
The X factor is Africa. The continent is poised for a massive baby boom, perhaps quadrupling its inhabitants from about 1 billion today to 4 billion. The rest of the world, on the other hand, will see population growth level off, even in Asia and Latin America where growth is still high.
Researchers attribute the population stability in most of the world to contraceptive use, women’s education, and economic opportunities leading to smaller families. In Africa, those factors are lacking. Only about half of sub-Saharan African women can read and write, and there are still 36 million women who cannot get contraceptives.
By no means is anything certain in this world, and any number of scenarios could change humanities current course. That being said, if the projections are correct, the human race will need to develop methods and policies to keep people fed and the environment in tact, and fast.
The phrase Malthusian disaster has been thrown out there a lot in history, but once again the possibility seems clear. Rather than looking at the carrying capacity of the world as a food crisis, we now see it as a consumption and lifestyle problem.
Scientists estimate that the world carrying capacity, the amount of people the Earth can sustain, is between 2 billion and 40 billion. The massive discrepancy between those two numbers is because of different consumption levels in different countries. If every person in the world consumed as much as an average American, the carrying capacity is probably around 2 billion. But if everyone got only the bare minimum they need to survive, that capacity rises to 40 billion.
With more and more people rising out of poverty across the world, the negative effects of the population surge may be doubled, and humans will be forced to fiercely compete for dwindling resources.
The question remains: What will we have to give up in this century? For beef lovers and people who enjoy wide-open spaces, the future might be a dark place.
Nevertheless, researchers remain positive about the world population. Statistician and sociologist Adrian Raftery of the University of Washington said, “A rapidly growing population with bring challenges, but I think these challenges can be met.”
[Image Credit: James Cridland/Flickr]