Sustainability Today: The Population Problem

June 13, 2012

Paul Ehrlich

Since its establishment 200 years ago, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has become one of the world’s foremost institutions for collecting, cataloging, and studying a vast array of organisms that populate the earth. Our scientists have collected more than 18 million specimensi, including plants, animals, and minerals from all over the world, some of which areare now extinct. This “library of life” provides a glimpse into the incredible biodiversity of the earth’s creatures.

Humans, too, contribute to biodiversity, and our actions greatly impact the ecosystems in which we live. As the human population grows—the U.S. Census Bureau puts the current estimate well over 7 billionii —so does the rate of the resources we consume and the extent to which we impact the environment. In a 2012 study that measured the rate of resource consumption by humans, the World Wildlife Fund found that we need 18.2 billion biologically productive hectares of land, or global hectares, to sustain usiii. This is an average of about 2.7 global hectares per personiv. This land includes grazing land, land for growing crops, developed land, fishing grounds, and other places from which humans can reap natural resourcesv.

The same report found that global biodiversity declined by about 28 percent between 1970 and 2008vi. In tropical areas, which are labeled as “biodiversity hotspots” for their incredible abundance of life, biodiversity declined by more than 60 percent in the same time periodvii. Aquatic environments—home to many biodiversity hotspots—have suffered from a five-fold increase in fishing from 1950 to 2005 that has left many areas overharvestedviii. Within the United States, human activities and natural rarity have led to drastic biodiversity declines, with nearly one-third of aquatic U.S. species at riskix.

Although its impacts reach into every country, resource consumption is not equally distributed around the globe. Higher-income countries like the United States, Denmark, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates consume five times more resources, on average, than lower-income countriesx. Consequently, countries with rapidly growing wealth and massive populations—most notably China, with a GDP growth rate of 9.2 percent and a population of  well over 1 billionxi—have the potential to push consumption levels even higher. If consumption continues to grow at its current rate, by the year 2030 the global population will require the resources of two planets to meet our demandsxii.

With these significant statistics in mind, scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and worldwide are working to find effective solutions for the population problem. One such scientist is Paul Ehrlich, a biologist and ecologist from Stanford University who addresses these problems and suggests several ways to mitigate them. On June 14, 2012, Ehrlich will speak about population, climate change, and biodiversity as well as about his proposed solutionsxiii. His solutions focus on population reduction through women’s empowerment, movements toward an environmentally conscious economy to reduce the consumption of resources, and an emphasis on local planning and grassroots action.

Through programming with distinguished speakers, in addition to our groundbreaking research, education, and policy efforts, the Academy works to connect people to the breathtaking diversity of the natural world and to make strides towards protecting it.



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