There are about 247 births and 107 deaths per minute in the world, making a net increase of 141 people per minute. That's 203,040 people per day, or approximately the population of a city like Reno, Nevada. Compounding the effect of our exploding numbers is the fact that on average each individual uses far more resources than did a person of the previous generation. For instance, in the United States between 1950 and 2005, an average individual’s petroleum consumption tripled and the size of an average new single family home increased by over 2.3 times. The reason we always hear about China being a major polluter is due to China’s enormous population. On a per capita basis the average American is responsible for 2.2 times as much CO2 pollution (16.5 tons) as the average citizen of China (7.5 tons). If everyone on earth lived like Americans the planet would have been decimated long ago.
Right now more than 1 billion people suffer from hunger. 36 million people per year die of it.
Worldwide, half of all children live in horrific poverty. 640 million children live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, and 270 million have no access to health services. Approximately 15,000 children under age 5 die each day.
At least 80% of humanity (more than 6 billion people) live on less than 10 U.S. dollars per day, about half ( more than 3.5 billion people) live on less than $5, and 10% live on less than $1.90 per day. One fourth of humanity lives without electricity. 774 million (more than twice the population of US) can't read. Just 12% of the world's population uses 85% of its water. As our booming population collapses the ecosystems that supply literally everything we have, the laws of supply and demand pull additional multitudes into the clutches of poverty.
Humanity consumes about 100 million metric tons of fish every year; more than four times the amount consumed per year in 1950. To put the number into perspective it works out to 190 metric tons per minute, or approximately the weight of 140 mid-size passenger cars every minute. Many fish stocks, like Newfoundland cod that fed the world for centuries, have virtually disappeared. Most others are well on their way.
From the Arctic and Antarctic to the Mediterranean Sea to America's Great Lakes to Hawaii and from the surface of these waters their depths, no major water body is free of plastic. The average square kilometer of ocean contains around 20,000 micro-plastic pieces. Inland lakes and rivers are much worse. Some researchers estimate there may be more plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050. Plastic never goes away. It only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces until those pieces become too small to see. Some of them become so small that they can pass through the blood-brain barrier in humans and micro-plastic particles are now found in human brain tissue. The effect of this is unknown.
Humans devour about 96 acres of wilderness every minute, and have significantly altered 75% of Earth's land area and 66% of marine ecosystems. More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
The most efficient way to support the maximum number of people is eliminate livestock and most wildlife, and use all 1.4 billion hectares (3.5 billion acres) of the world's arable land to grow plants that people can eat. If we did that, and everyone became vegetarian, the maximum human population the earth could sustainably support would be 9 to 10 billion. The current world population is about 7.7 billion and most of us aren't vegetarian. World population will reach about 9.7 billion by 2050, or about 30 years from now.
One million species already face extinction. On average a distinct species of plant or animal becomes extinct every 20 minutes. The last time anything comparable happened was 65 million years ago when scientists believe a meteorite struck the earth, changed its climate, and caused the last great mass extinction. This time we are the meteor.
Many common “backyard” American songbird populations have declined by over 70 percent since 1967.
Countless lakes in the northeast and Canada, acidified by air pollution that blows in from industrial cities, are so acidic that they are devoid of aquatic life. Clouds over Great Smoky Mountains National Park can often be as acidic as the vinegar in your kitchen.
Insects populations that used to be mostly killed off by winter's cold temperatures now survive winter in northern latitudes. Entire forests are dead or dying across the world. See some photos here, here, and here.
Human activity releases greenhouse gases into our atmosphere at rates well over 700 tons per second. Such rates are unprecedented. NASA photos show that more than one third of all arctic sea ice has melted in recent decades. The U.S. Office of Naval Research predicts that summer sea ice in the arctic may vanish completely by 2050. Polar bears are drowning in record numbers for lack of floating ice upon which to rest. More are starving because they cannot catch enough food in open water. A UN report indicates that 130 million people across Asia could face severe food and water shortages by 2050 and climate change may make it impossible to grow wheat on the African continent by 2080. With the most stringent and extreme mitigation efforts, which have not begun and may never be attempted, things would still get worse before they got better. Without them, people living more than 50 years from now will begin to experience the apocalypse of our own making. No economy can sustain that, and fortunately I will not be around to see it.
I once thought that the root cause of these and many other problems is the world's relentlessly expanding population. Population is certainly a factor, but coupled to it is the ever increasing consumption of resources, and the desire to consume more, by each individual. In different but equivalent terms this is our quest to accumulate wealth. Every dollar that changes hands is the result of, or results in, resource consumption. Every dollar in every stock portfolio, bank account, or wallet came from turning some piece of nature into a product, or fueling that conversion, selling or buying those products, using those products (aka providing services), and the like. Every time one of those dollars is spent, destructive events like these are repeated. The true root cause and driving force behind all environmental problems is the fact that most of the world's economies are growth based. The very indicators of economic health for these economies depend on an expanding population to fill newly created jobs, fuel the new housing starts, and many other things, all of which increase GDP, which is always "good". A stagnant economy is seen as bad, with persistent unemployment, flat job growth, no wage increases, and an absence of the stock market booms most people want. Economic contraction is a precursor to economic hardship and unemployment increases, and for many it is the worst thing that can happen.
I am not an economist, but it is crystal clear that our current path leads directly to an environmental and humanitarian apocalypse in the not too distant future. Deriving happiness and value from the possession of wealth for its own sake is an artificial concept that we value because we have been indoctrinated to do so since birth. The quest to accumulate and wallow in money beyond one's needs is actually a perverse inclination more commonly known as greed. The accumulation of billions that are only invested to generate more billions is undoubtedly among the most destructive acts imaginable.
The kind of value we place on accumulating monetary wealth must instead apply to sustainability, sufficiency, and happiness for all, not only for ourselves. In other words, we need to fundamentally change our definition of "prosperity". Perhaps status should be awarded to those who do the most for the common good, not to those who do the most for themselves. Perhaps billions would be better invested in educating the world's 774 million illiterate people than in growing an economy, destroying the environment, and surrounding oneself with grandiose trappings, especially since people who are better educated tend to have fewer children. In short, perhaps economic output should be invested in people rather than in growth, eventually creating a sustainable and stable population of well educated people whose basic needs can be accommodated. The alternative we subscribe to is one in which the richest 1 percent of the world's population holds 44 percent of the wealth while the poorest 57% holds less than 2 percent. Not surprisingly, the world's richest countries contribute the most to global environmental destruction and ultimately to the demise of humanity. Perhaps someone reading this will know the practicalities of how we might change course toward a better and more sustainable future.
P.S.: I recently read an interesting article related to this topic. The ideas involve decoupling prosperity from growth. As mentioned above, I think we need to change our definition of prosperity, so I have serious doubts about some of what is discussed. Regardless, I am encouraged by the simple fact that some economists are thinking seriously about these issues.