World Population – Challenge or Crisis?

by Pete Moore

read : World Population – Challenge or Crisis? (Part 1)

The Need Greed Balance
Opinion diverges on the question of whether there could ever be too many humans. A majority opinion says the world has a finite supply of resources, and the question is how many people would be optimum, before assets are spread too thinly for sustainability or comfortable survival. Another viewpoint challenges the concept that resources are ‘finite’ and maintains we can cope with many more humans if we use our ingenuity and share.

Yet very little of the world is truly available. Around 75% of the world’s surface is oceans and half of the remainder is deserts, mountain ranges or beyond the polar circles. Thus only 13% is habitable. While human ingenuity may permit settlement in large numbers in currently unoccupied regions, this cannot but disturb the habitats currently occupied by other species, above all in the fast-disappearing forests.

Another approach is to estimate humanity’s ecological ‘footprint’. In the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report,11 researches estimated the area of the world that people require, for essential activities such as agriculture, mining and forestry. They claim it currently varies from 0.53 hectares per person for someone in Bangladesh, to 9.70 hectares per person for the average resident in the USA. The figure for people in the UK is 5.35 hectares per person for someone in Bangladesh, to 9.70 hectares per person for the average resident in the USA. The figure for people in the UK is 5.35 hectares per person. When you add all the land-use of the projected 2050 population, the calculation suggests that with the current spectrum of use we will need the biological capacity of more than two earth-sized planets (ie 2.3 times more land than there is). Of course these are only estimates, and changes in lifestyle plus innovation to make better use of resources may reduce the size of the per-person footprint.

Regional variation
Many developed countries are following a different pattern, with concern of a ‘birth dearth’. This is driven by the desire to start families later in life, to have two earning partners in a relationship, and the high frequency of marriage-breakdown. For example, through contraception and abortion women in the UK now have an average of less than 1.8 children ( = 18 chidren in every 10 families), figure that is below the 2.1 total fertility rate needed for a stable population.

Even so, the population in the UK is still rising. This is driven partly by a disproportionate number of women of childbearing age, but also by a sizeable immigration that brings in at least 350.000 people a year. These newcomers are predominantly of childbearing age, often coming from cultures accustomed to large families. A similar situation exists in the USA and in Western Europe.

Water is a critical and finite resource. Iran, for example, has more land available for agriculture that it currently uses. But it does not have enough water to irrigate that land. There is also the issue of energy. Humanity continues to burn through the planet’s oil stocks at a phenomenal pace, and now has to draw this liquid gold from ever more expensive sources. One day the oil will have gone. Nuclear power provides little hope as a back-up resource. At current rates of Uranium we will use all known stocks by 2050.12

Yet the sun supplies an effectively endless source of energy which grows our crops as well as creates wind and waves. Tides that result from the gravitational influence of the moon provide another on-going source of power. Dwindling finite resources will encourage technologies that harness these more capably, but again these need to operate without damaging the planet’s ecology. A critical issue, though, is that none of these are capable of supplying energy in the energy-dense way achieved by oil, gas and coal. These fossil fuels hold thousands of years’ worth of solar energy in a form that we can burn in decades. Even if we covered the world’s cropland in biofuel crops such as oil seed and fast growing forests, we couldn’t capture enough energy year-on-year to fuel our current machines, leave alone those for billions more humans.

How Big is Big Enough?

The issue of human consumption is exacerbated by people in affluent countries profligately consuming and/or wasting food, energy and manufactured goods. The Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) famously said ‘the world has enough for everyone’s greed.’ But while the second part remains true – and rich Christians should set a better example – the first is questionable: at what point are there ‘too many everyones’? What size would each person’s slice of the cake be if it was truly shared equally – and is that slice big enough to support a healthy fulfilled life?

The data in that Living Planet report11 give some scale to the problem. If all the people alive lived at a UK-equivalent lifestyle we would require 34 billion hectares of provision, or 63 billion hectares to achieves a US lifestyle. Yet the report calculates that there are only around 11 billion hectares of sustainable space available.

Shared equally among all people, we would have around 1.7 hectares per person today, and this will drop to 1.2 hectares each by 2050. These are the sorts of levels currently experienced by people in Indonesia, Cameroon, Ghana, and below any currently experienced in Europe or the previous Soviet Block. Even with huge changes in the way we use resources, this is unlikely to support the lifestyle to which people in either developed or developing countries aspire.

Humanity – Home Alone?

We need also to consider the non-human aspects of creation. Although a few disagree, scientists are convinced that human activity has already driven hundreds of species to extinction and thousand are nearing the brink. Increasing human numbers will make this worse.

A few Christians maintain that we are too concerned about animals and not concerned enough for our fellow humans, and believe that humanity should always take precedence because we are the only species created in God’s image.13 Others highlights that Jesus demonstrated that the strong should serve the weak, and our strength gives us a duty to ensure we do not destroy the created order, physical or living. Furthermore, in the creation narratives God views the universe he has made and says it is good – he cannot be too thrilled to see the damage we have now caused. The Psalms also refer to the whole of creation praising God;14 as beings charged with stewarding the world we should nurture our fellow worshippers.

Read more: (Part 3) ….to be continue…


      11. Living Planet Report 2002, World Wide Fund for Nature (Data also at
      12. Energy Green Paper, Towards a European Strategy for the Security of Energy Supply. European Commision 2001.
      13. Genesis 1:26
      14. Eg. Psalm 98:7-8

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 33, 2006