5 Ways Nature Can Help Us Meet the Population Challenge

Dense traffic and crowds in Antananarivo, Madagascar. As global population increases, cities will expand as well, requiring more natural resources from surrounding areas. (© CI/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Dense traffic and crowds in Antananarivo, Madagascar. As global population increases, cities will expand as well, requiring more natural resources from surrounding areas. (© CI/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Today is World Population Day, a U.N. observance dedicated to raising awareness about the Earth’s growing population, which experts predict will reach 9.6 billion people by 2050.

Population expansion is not inherently a bad thing. Every community and every country has the right to grow and prosper. However, we need to get smart about living within planetary boundaries and making the health of nature’s systems one of our development priorities.

Adding another 2 billion people will exacerbate stresses on our already-taxed planet. We must find solutions — and some of these solutions could lie in sustaining the services that nature has provided since the dawn of humanity.

1. Pollinating crops

You’ve probably seen stories about dying honeybees in the news, but you might not be aware of just how much is at stake.

According to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), 87 out of 115 leading global food crops — including important cash crops like coffee and cocoa — depend upon pollination from bees, birds and even mammals. The UNEP estimates that the monetary value of pollination numbers in the hundreds of billions of dollars, a value which must be maintained or increased if we are to double agricultural production by 2050 to keep up with global food demand.

bee on flower in Sichuan province, China

Bee on a flower in Sichuan province, China. (© CI/photo by Leeanne Alonso)

2. Absorbing CO2

No matter what people do to reduce the disastrous impacts of climate change, human actions have already “locked in” a certain amount of warming.

So as populations (and human needs) grow, maintaining the Earth’s ability to offset the CO2 generated by increased consumption is essential.

The world’s tropical forests absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere — a benefit that only lasts as long as the trees remain standing. Currently, the cutting and burning of tropical forests causes 17% of greenhouse gas emissions — a strong argument for keeping these forests intact.

And did you know that other natural systems play a less publicized, but crucial, role in absorbing CO2? Coastal ecosystems like mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses have been estimated to store up to 50 times the amount of carbon, per acre, as tropical forests.

forest in YUS Conservation Area, Papua New Guinea

Forest in the YUS Conservation Area, Papua New Guinea. (© Trond Larsen)

3. Filtering waste

Without getting graphic, more people means more waste. Wetlands and marshes treat and detoxify a variety of waste products.

This, in turn, reduces or prevents the contamination of the systems that give us our fresh water. These systems also protect ocean life, including many species that humans eat, from runoff. According to UNEP, some wetlands may reduce the concentration of nitrate — a major component of fertilizers — by more than 80%.

windmills in Madagascar

Windmills provide power for the town of Daraina, Madagascar. (© CI/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

4. Generating renewable energy

As more of us come to require energy to power our cars, turn on our lights and heat and cool our buildings, the planet’s ever-dwindling supply of nonrenewable power sources like oil and coal will not be enough. Fortunately, the Earth contains many renewable sources of energy: solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, even algae.

And here’s more good news: expanding industries could provide new sustainable economic opportunities for people in sunny, windy climes such as Mongolia and the American tribal nations on the Great Plains.

5. Preventing the spread of disease

When humans degrade ecosystems, it can spread disease — by altering the habitat of species that carry infectious diseases.

For example, cutting down forests can lead to more mosquitoes by changing the distribution of surface water where mosquitoes breed. As more people move in to the deforested area, this could increase the number of people infected with malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.

The good news for all of us is that there are some positive signs that population growth is slowing.

But as global demands for food, water and energy continue to grow, the free services that nature provides will be crucial to ensure the well-being of current and future generations.

And nature can’t keep doing these things for us if we don’t protect it.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature.

Comments

  1. James Gonsman says

    Molly,

    I am unable to reconcile three fundamental points made in your article.

    1. Population expansion is not inherently a bad thing.
    2. … double agricultural production by 2050 to keep up with global food demand.
    3. Adding another 2 billion people will exacerbate stresses on our already-taxed planet. We must find solutions — and some of these solutions could lie in sustaining the services that nature has provided since the dawn of humanity.

    Currently, agriculture consumes 40 to 50 percent of the planet’s arable land and, still, a significant portion of the world’s population is undernourished. Remaining portions of arable land and the oceans (where some food is produced or harvested) are already compromised by other human activities. Short of miracle, if we are to double food production we will have to dedicate another 40 to 50 percent of arable land to agriculture.

    How do we sustain the services of nature if there is no room for nature?

    1. Molly Bergen says Post author

      Hi James — thanks for your comment. When I said “Population expansion is not inherently a bad thing,” I meant that population growth itself is not the problem; instead, the challenge is finding a way to provide for all these people.

      How can we sustain nature’s services where there is no room for nature? That is the ultimate question that many in the environmental and international development fields are struggling with, and there’s no easy answer. However, CI’s experience shows us that communities, governments and companies work better when they consider the role that nature plays in human well-being. Villages and cities must protect nearby forests and freshwater sources if they wish to maintain the resources on which they depend. Countries like Guyana and Liberia are making room for nature in their national development strategies. And global businesses are greening their practices as they recognize that doing so is essential to maintaining their bottom lines.

      My point in this post was to emphasize that nature has provided people with innumerable free services that we depend upon for survival — and that we must value and protect these services if we are to have any hope of maintaining (or even improving) human well-being for generations to come.

    2. Rose says

      Further population expansion has become a VERY BADthing. There are definite limits to the carrying capacity of this planet. We need to not only grow and distribute food, provide clothing, housing and most importantly CLEAN WATER. I suspect that the water problem will be bearing upon us very soon. I am shocked that an intelligent person does not get this. I have a BA in Biology with a Chemistry minor and 5 years of graduate studies in Zoology and History of Science. By 1965 I knew I would have two children at most. One of my two sisters had 1 child and the other none. Neither of my husband’s two sisters had any children at all. Our families have done our share to keep population under control.

      1. Kevin says

        Tell that to India and all of the other third world countries who are the ones to blame for the ongoing and unrelenting population explosion. Most of these people already live in absolute squalor, and yet they keep having more and more children because they are uneducated and lack the resources to prevent more unwanted and quite frankly, “unneeded” pregnancies. You are correct… the earth simply cannot sustain 10 billion people. The birth rate in the U.S. is declining, while at the same time it is climbing exponentially in countries who already cannot properly care for (feed, clothe, house, educate, etc, etc, etc) the children they already have!

    3. Michael says

      Thank you.

      The problem to which you refer has several parameters. An important one is that it is natural for humans to look through the lens of self-interest. That trait is so necessary that it must develop in any species.
      Because the article is nearly entire human self-interest, no real population reduction can occur in response to such an article.
      Humans have presumed that technology will solve the population problem, when of course it has no history of doing so. Feeding increased population is counterproductive to the necessity of reduction.
      Outside of climate change, the most pressing degradations are soil loss and exploitation/habitat loss.
      No government will prioritise what is known as rewilding over resource exploitation and growth.
      Nature does not exist for servicing the human species, but our evolved characteristics have allowed us to be the most successful large animal species.
      There are enough billions now to develop technologies and techniques to overcome natural population controls, and it is extremely likely that we must so degrade our habitat, which is now nearly all earth, that few vertebrate or other large animal species will survive our continued growth, or even present population size.

      The concept of rewilding has been embraced by some who hope to establish ecosystem and species survival sufficiently enough that the inevitable human population crash will leave as much species diversity and ecosystem resilience as possible in the next era.

  2. shridhar shenoy says

    It sometimes really surprises me to see people around me totally unaware of these things. Even starting from dumping waste just as they want, wasting water, power and what not..
    I do believe that educating people about the problems we are going to face in near future has to be done at priority.

    Thanks a lot for the great effort taken by you in presenting this to the world. Hope many more like me reads this.

  3. Tim Upham says

    Support the United Nations Population Fund. The United States cut off funding to it, because of family planning abuses in China, but it also effected 149 countries as well. By reducing poverty and improving maternal health.

  4. Ronald says

    In order to protect the natural resources we have to manage them.
    Investment in EDUCATION to prepare Professionals that know how to do the job is need it

  5. Christopher says

    How about role of phytoplankton is Co2 absoprtion and 02 production trough photosynthesis. Everyone bangs on about the forests, yet it is phytoplankton in the fundamentally challenged oceans and seas that make up 70% of the earth’s surface that do the bulk of the work, yet poor old pyhtoplankton never gets a mention as we fill the oceans with lquid pollutiants and plastic and kill it’s apex predators at an insane rate.

  6. Justin says

    May I suggest that it’s time to seriously take on the difficult conversation about decreasing the human population over time through education, women’s empowerment, and by encouraging people around the globe to have smaller families? I feel that it is extremely optimistic, and in my opinion irresponsible, to suggest that the planet can tolerate significantly larger human population, regardless of what well-intentioned initiatives we are proposed to mitigate the problems.

  7. James Gonsman says

    Thank you for the reply Molly. Your point emphasizing the essential connections between nature and people is well made.

    My problem is that for a long time I have believed that nature can not compete even with our current global population given that everyone now alive could and should enjoy the same prosperity that is available to the top 10 percent. Perhaps the biggest factor is food. The risks we are taking to have our cake and eat it too are enormous and the consequences, if we fail, are permanent. Extinction is forever. It puzzles me why so few people are willing to consider a path that would control and then reduce global population. This, of course, would be difficult but II’ll ask the questions of you as I have with others. What other practical choice do we have and what is the downside of a smaller population?

    Never the less, I enjoyed your article.

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  9. Robert Bernal says

    I like your article, but was wondering how the UN predicts “only” 9.6 billion. It seems (despite slowing) we are still on a path to almost double by that time.
    Now, I’m not really concerned about if that happens, just that my urgent concern is that we don’t really seem to be solving the answers to supporting even half of our population… even as we already know how to.
    To me, excess CO2 and deforestation are the most important things to “fix”. And, we should be able to do this with laws preventing deforestation and a small price on carbon. This way, solar and wind will reach max grid integration in less than the 20 years it would take if subsidies are simply reduced (which must happen if they are to become ever more mainstream). However, do we “know” that the advanced machine automation required to make large scale utility energy storage cheap and efficient enough to actually REPLACE FF’s with solar and wind? This can take 50 years (which may be too late)!
    I view deep geothermal as in the same boat with fusion, fraught with tech difficulties.
    And I don’t really like the idea of putting water, high pressures and nuclear fuel i the same place, the LWR (that can only be used up to like 2% do to the nature of fission products and solid fuels being mostly incompatible).
    However, I do like the idea of the molten fuels reactor which have been proven (albeit, a few tech problems of their own) because they can NOT meltdown. There are the IFR, HGR, PRISM, MSR, LFTR, concepts, etc which, if could be mostly proven decades ago, must be able to be fine tuned, now. What gets me is that (if all powerplants were replaced with LFTR) less than 10,000 tons of thorium would replace the 70,000 tons of uranium, the billions of cubic feet of NG and the billions of tons of coal (and all of those wastes, both on land and in the air).
    Besides, we will most probably need MORE energy per person, just to bring the standard of living up for all the people without adequate infrastructure AND so that we can power the mass production of the renewables, their storage… and something else that is often overlooked…

    Machines that convert the excess CO2 into calcium carbonates (or the power required to mine large amounts of olivine in order to have nature do it for us on a speedy time scale). Yep, this is probably priority number 1.

    1. Michael says

      Robert,
      Since exploitation has already resulted in losses of over 90% of formerly common large species and historical oceanic fish stocks, as well as well over 1/2 of vital wetlands, and other ecosystems, the present population is well beyond what can be sustained.
      On the other hand, you can see indicators of human exploitation and reduction of nontraditional food sources in places like China, overpopulated for centuries if not millennia.

      The quest for and use of zooplankton is at present largely for domestic animal feed, but a number of attempts and investments are occurring to develop it as human food.

      These considerations and more show clearly that the present 7 billion is far too great a number to sustain.

      At the moment, medical science is catching up to the challenge of antibiotic resistance and malaria resistance to historic treatments.
      For reasons associated with such technological accelerations, I expect the only likely scenario for reduction will end u being widespread nuclear war. War technologies are in part focused on preventing this, and I see a reduction in this likelihood occurring.

      In short, there is no foreseeable answer to the present overpopulation, except massive ecosystem failure, taking down the earth that some of us love along with our own species.

  10. Terri Rose says

    Hi,
    I am very concerned about the impact of fracking. I feel that this takes up a lot of space. It also drills into fault lines which makes me wonder if The climate change and global warming is real or if it is being created for the purpose of drilling for natural gas. There is enough sun and wind power to provide for the entire world 5 times over according to the movie entitled : ” gasland 2 ” so why are they causing calamities around the world by drilling ? I fear if this is not stopped that we may not have life sustaining planet in 2050. Stopping this greedy practice is a major concern that warrants attention !

  11. Barbara Jo Moller says

    [Editor's note: this comment has been edited for violation of Human Nature's commenting policy.]

    My comments have to do with both Mother Earth and the population boom.

    first of all, humanity must begin to respect Mother Earth. STOP POLLUTING, START PLANTING TREES TO REDUCE THE CARBON DIOXIDE, BE AWARE THAT WHEN THE OCEAN DIES SO TO WILL HUMANITY AND ALL LIFE ON THIS PLANET.

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