Since the beginning of Industrial Revolution, the rhythm of technological innovation and scientific advancement has accelerated at an unprecedented level. Better understanding of medicine and a general increase of living standards have led to an explosive population growth – from less than one billion to seven billions within the last 200 years. This exponential expansion has since been correlated with tremendous environmental destruction, species extinctions, and natural resources depletion that many consider as “total planetary abuse.” If left unchecked, these “growing pains” could precipitate the extinction of the human race.
In the past, lower life expectancy caused by high infant mortality rates, wars, famine and disease imposed an upper bound on the human population. High total fertility rates nonetheless ensured a slow but steady growth in population that was well below the limit of sustainability. A prime example of this is China, which was under the Qing dynasty’s imperialist rule until the early 20th century and suffered from the warmongering and power struggles common to expansionist regimes. As a result of the human cost of frequent warfare, China was afflicted by a high mortality rate amongst its general population. It also had a deeply rooted tradition of large families. This “bottom-heavy” conception of family ensured its survival and that of its practices. Because of the advancements of technology and medicine, between 1960 and 2015, China experienced a demographic boom. Its population has more than doubled in that time span, from 600 million to 1.4 billions. This extreme growth in population and the rapid industrialization that followed it have been correlated with tremendous fossil fuel consumption, an excessive emission of greenhouse gases, massive environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.
The problem posed such overpopulation certainly doesn’t have an inevitable, disastrous end, neither is its only solution to reduce the population. It is important to realize that the root of the problem really is the scarcity of resources and the rising strain that is put on the biosphere – the Earth’s “carrying capacity” is insufficient. Fortunately, that’s a problem that science and engineering can likely help with by providing more sustainable ways of producing food and improving the environment-friendliness and efficiency of the energy sector.
The food industry has two major components, agriculture and livestock, and for both of those, game-changing technology already exists. On the agricultural side, genetic modification can be used to improve the yield and quality of agricultural produce. Through selective breeding, Norman Borlaug, dubbed ‘the man who saved a billion lives’, discovered a new wheat strain that has a gross agricultural yield that is quadruple of that of other strains. In the 1960s, his work contributed to the increase of India’s wheat production from 11 to 60 million tons (a growth that reached 131 million tons in 1978), and prevented millions of people from starving. This leap in agricultural surplus not only saved India from the brink of famine, but also elevated it to one of the biggest wheat exporters in the world. Soon after, Borlaug’s “high-yielding rice” was deployed throughout Asia, producing similar results than those observed in India. His work of selectively breeding high-yielding crops improved global food security for billions of people, and greatly increased the Earth’s carrying capacity.
Technological advancements can also contribute to meat production, mainly by shifting the industry away from the traditional, resource-intensive livestock farming techniques to “cultured meat” produced in laboratories. However, since human societies have been domesticating livestock for eons, large sectors of the world economy have grown to heavily rely on livestock breeding and meat processing. On top of that, billions of farmers depend on those traditional practices for a living, making global change difficult if not impossible to implement in a short timespan. The “cultured meat” technology itself is still in early development and the manufacturing process associated with it isn’t profitable enough yet to replace current practices. Once it becomes more financially profitable than livestock farming, large corporations will be more likely to adopt it. It is predicted that the future of meat will be completely grown in labs and that this emerging industry’s output will far exceed that of breeding livestock, bringing our planet’s carrying capacity to a new height.
Humanity’s ever-growing headcount also has led to immense surge in energy consumption, reinforcing the need for sustainable energy research. Such projects are already in application around the world. For instance, the city of Burlington, located in Vermont, has become the first American city that runs completely on renewable energy. In 2013, the entire nation of Portugal, a population of 10 million, was able to run solely on renewable energy for 4 consecutive days. Similarly, Costa Rica, a country of 4.8 million, has been running on 100% renewable energy since 2014. It is worth mentioning that these three are not the only places that successfully experimented with renewable energy, the list goes on and on. The renewable energy technology already exists, it is only a matter of implementing them. Overpopulated nations like China are starving for energy: as of 2013, China burns nearly as much coal than the rest of the world combined. While this kind tremendous consumption of fossil fuels certainly contributes to making the Earth less hospitable for its growing population, renewable energy installations are developing at a rapid pace to offset the damage that is being done. The current absentmindedness and neglect of world governments with respect to the transition toward sustainable energy and food strategies will have to change, and those in power will have to set aside their conflicting interests for the sake of the future.
Overpopulation is not an issue for tomorrow, it is an issue for today, and must be taken seriously. Each year, 60 million new people are brought into the world. The destruction of our biosphere is likely waiting for us down the road if the current rate of resource consumption and expansion is maintained. While engineers and scientists will have to apply their knowledge to find more ways to increase the amount of available resources, and develop better renewable energy solutions, everyone else must also participate. Governments have to inform the public about the gravity of overpopulation and its implications for the future, but more importantly, it is up to ordinary people to become aware, stay informed and take appropriate actions. For instance, for every kilowatt hour of electricity that is consumed, 0.43 kilograms of carbon dioxide is released into our environment – turning off lights that are not in use and unplugging household appliances to avoid passive energy consumption can help, especially if it is done by a lot of people. At the current rate of population growth, the world will exceed its carrying capacity of 10 billion by 2050. It is important for the scientists and engineers, the governments and ordinary people to take actions and do everything possible to avoid this bleak future.