Ecologist Says Unchecked Population Growth Could Bring Misery
Ithaca, N.Y. — As the earth’s population surpasses the 6 billion
mark, some researchers are predicting how the planet’s burgeoning
population will affect the environment and quality of life for
humans in another 100 years.
David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and
agricultural sciences, sees several possible scenarios for the 22nd
century: A planet with 2 billion people thriving in harmony with
the environment; or, at the other extreme, 12 billion miserable
humans suffering a difficult life with limited resources and
widespread famine. Pimentel says the next century is crucial
because the human population could pass sustainable limits.
‘We must avoid letting human numbers continue to increase and
surpass the limit of the earth’s natural resources and forcing
natural forces to control our number by disease, malnutrition and
violent conflicts over resources,’ Pimentel writes in his report,
‘Will Limits of the Earth’s Resources Control Human Numbers?’ which
appeared in the first issue of the journal Environment, Development
Pimental says the only way to manage the earth’s population is
to reduce the number of children per couple. He estimates that if
people average 1.5 children per couple, the optimal earth
population of 2 billion could be achieved in 100 years. Even
slightly more children per couple will make the earth’s number’s
swell in short order: ‘If we adopted a policy of 2.1 children
starting tomorrow, the world population will continue to increase
and 60 years from now we will have close to 12 billion people,’ he
Pimentel says that in order for every person on earth to have
adequate resources of food, shelter and clothing, the ideal
population on the earth should be about 2 billion — approximately
the number of people living on the planet in the 1950s. These
fortunate 2 billion will be free from poverty and starvation,
living in an environment capable of sustaining human life with
dignity, the report suggests.
But even at a reduced world population — achieved, ideally, by
democratically determined population control practices and sound
resource-management policies — life for the average person cannot
be as luxurious as it is for many Americans today, with a standard
of living about half of that in the United States in the 1990s, or
the standard experienced by the average European today.
In addition to reducing the earth’s population, cropland needs
to be preserved, and water and energy must be conserved, Pimentel
says. ‘None of these solutions, unfortunately, will be painless,’
Pimentel points out. While Pimentel holds some optimism that if
people recognize the problem there will be a movement toward a
solution: ‘But the question is, when will we recognize that this is
a problem? History dictates that we humans never get at a problem
until there is a crisis.’
Pimentel concedes that the findings of the report are
disturbing: ‘I found that it’s a lot worse than I had anticipated.
I have children and grandchildren and, unless something is done,
the future doesn’t look too bright,’ he said.
Contact: David Pimentel, professor of ecology and
agricultural sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY,
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