Unchecked population growth strains resources, is major international issue

Illustration by Aaron Logan

It’s easy to forget that there are nearly 7 billion people living on our planet. Our own lives demand so much attention that we often don’t consider the greater implications of our choices. Something like the decision to have a child is immensely important for anyone, given that it has the capacity to completely change their lives, and yet we rarely consider how such a choice affects everyone else.

Unfortunately, the time when we had that luxury appears to be passing. The number of people living today has exploded over the past century. According to data from the United States Census Bureau, the world population has more than doubled since the 1960s, and while the rate of expansion has slowed, the numbers keep getting higher. What problems will this growth create?

In some ways, few problems will result from this growth, if any. Economically, increased population is a benefit. More people means more consumers, which leads to opportunity and growth for many industries. Developed countries with plentiful resources can benefit greatly from an increased population, as more citizens leads to more workers, which leads to higher tax revenues.

In many other ways, however, there are significant problems, not the least of which is the water supply. Unlike our population, the Earth’s water supply is finite, and according to the United States Geological Survey, 96 percent of it is undrinkable salt water. Many African and Middle Eastern countries are chronically short of water, especially clean water. Certain countries in Africa lack the proper facilities to provide safe water to drink, many of which have fast-growing populations.

Going hand-in-hand with water is food. Agriculture accounts for the lion’s share of the world’s water consumption, and the industry is going to have to grow if it’s going to feed all the new people being born. It will require more fresh water, along with more land cleared for farming.

And that’s just the start. As impoverished nations become more developed, they will produce more waste and pollution, which requires more expensive facilities to process the contaminants. The air quality in Beijing is often cited as an example of out-of-control pollution and urbanization, both symptoms of economic development. It doesn’t help that industrial contaminants and human waste can seep into and contaminate the water supply.

If we haven’t already, we will soon reach the point at which we can’t support the full human population. And it is at that point that we will have to make some hard decisions on how to deal with this problem.

One option is government-sponsored population control. It’s a tactic that has been embraced by several countries over the years, most prominently China and Iran. Iran, after decades of serious population growth, instituted a policy of denying benefits to families with several children and providing subsidies to contraceptive services, which, according to the World Bank, succeeded in cutting the growth rate from 3.2 percent to 1.2 percent over 15 years. However, last year Iran reversed its position on population control, and has since begun dismantling many of its policies in that regard.

China still maintains a policy of population control, sometimes known as the one-child policy. With some exceptions, it imposes fines on families that birth more than one child, in a bid to keep the population low. By all accounts, it has succeeded in slowing the country’s population growth, but it has also caused unfortunate side effects. Some parents in China view a male child as preferable to a female child, leading to fewer female births compared to male births, a disparity that could have significant social implications if it continues.

Similarly, families that abide by the one-child policy have fewer children to support them as they grow older. Thus they may rely more on the state or charities to provide for them. While the policy remains in place today, there are indications that it may be revised in the future, as it has faced criticism in recent years.

Despite some success, population control is unlikely to be considered a reasonable approach in the future. Population growth is an issue that exists on an international scale and is likely to only get worse as medical technology allows us to live longer. At its core, however, it is the culmination of the individual decisions of millions of people to give birth to children.

People are unlikely to consider the world-spanning implications of bringing new life into the world. To solve this problem, people everywhere need to become educated in the ways their individual decisions affect the rest of humanity. Until that happens, our population will continue to grow, with devastating effects on infrastructure and society.

Randall Hellmer is a senior in mass communications. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.