In 1798, Thomas Malthus, an English economist and demographer, published “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” in which he predicted that human population growth would eventually exceed the Earth’s ability to provide enough food for everyone. This would lead to famine, disease, war and other associated travails. So far, that hasn’t happened.
In 1968, 170 years later, Paul Ehrlich published a book titled, The Population Bomb, another doomsaying work predicting that human fecundity would soon drain the planet’s resources and send Earthlings into a death spiral. Widespread starvation, Ehrlich argued, was both inevitable and imminent. But that bomb hasn’t gone off either.
Read More: We’ve Been Worried About Overpopulation for Millennia
This past November, the U.N. announced that Earth’s population had reached eight billion. And we’re still here. On top of that, according to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been steadily decreasing over the last three decades. However, the pandemic reversed the trend somewhat — temporarily, we hope.
Yet eight billion hungry souls — hungry not just for food but for housing, clothing, computers and other resource-intensive necessities — are straining the planet’s resources. We’re talking not only about running out of the basic necessities of life but about the combined effects of humans on the environment. The more of us there are, the more we take from the environment.
Read More: The Domino Effects of a Global Food Shortage
As the number of humans is increasing, wildlife is decreasing. According to the United Nations Global Resources Outlook 2019, resource use has more than tripled since 1970, including a 45 percent increase in the use of fossil fuels. Or as the U.N. puts it on their Act Now website: “We are using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to maintain our current way of life, and ecosystems cannot keep up with our demands.”
Our planet is currently headed toward catastrophe. If we don’t make any changes, the looming crisis so many have predicted and are still predicting will almost certainly occur. However, reaching this population milestone may not be what tips the scales. Eight billion souls bring hazard but also hope.
"A Grand Success"
According to Rachel Snow, Chief of the Population and Development Branch at the United Nations Population Fund, reaching the eight billion mark, rather than a catastrophe, is a “grand success.” Making it to a world population of eight billion means that life expectancy, healthcare, rates of education and standards of living are improving worldwide, and not just in wealthy nations.
And population growth is slowing. The pace of population growth peaked in 1964 and has been trending downward ever since. At one point, the population was expected to reach 11 billion by 2100, but based on current projections, the population is expected to plateau in the coming decades and reach only 10 billion by 2100, when it may begin to decline. More than 50 countries are already in population decline.
Still, says Snow, eight billion and counting could be a catastrophe if governments can’t prepare for what’s coming in the next few decades. Narrowly avoiding a Malthusian and environmental disaster will require determination, commitment and ingenuity. And ingenuity is where those eight billion come in. Reaching the eight billion mark means “eight billion people who will develop unique, original, creative ideas to make the world a better place,” she says.
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If you look just at the numbers, eight billion is terrifying. But it’s not just a matter of numbers. If it were, Malthus’ predictions would have long since come true. It’s a matter of how well we manage resources and how well we care for the planet. It’s a matter of how well we develop ideas for correcting the damage of the past and protecting the future. We have a lot of work to do if humanity is to survive. But we have eight billion people to help do it.