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Environmental Consequences of Human Population Growth

Planet Earth is currently home to nearly eight billion people. Population growth rates have increased drastically over the past 50 years and do not slow down anytime soon. Earth's natural resources, while seemingly abundant, are becoming increasingly limited as the spike in population requires more of those resources to be consumed at a rapid pace. What is the rate of population growth expected to be and what are the most prominent effects on the planet itself?


When discussing current and expected world population growth, it is essential to factor in the carrying capacity for humans. Carrying capacity is defined by Merriam Webster as the “maximum population that an area will support without undergoing deterioration.” In terms of population growth, it is described as the maximum number of people the Earth can support for an indefinite amount of time. Due to unpredictable elements like technological advances, economic changes, and the need for resources, it is relatively impossible to calculate a definitive carrying capacity for the human population. What can be confidently stated, though, is that this species will eventually reach its breaking point, and it may very well be soon. 


According to WorldPopulationHistory.org, Earth’s population is expected to reach around 9.5 billion people by 2050. This calculation is based on fertility rates, life expectancy, and recent yearly population growth. This rapid spike in population and its effects on the planet are so extensive that we as a species are causing a new geological period known as the Anthropocene. Factors like overconsumption of natural resources, climate change, and mass extinctions are all components of this time period - and humans are to blame. 


One of the leading characteristics of the Anthropocene is the rapid depletion occurring in natural resources, which can be attributed to human overconsumption. Everything from cellphones and plastic to clothing and fabric is based upon the use of natural resources like trees, gas, coal, and oil. Friends of the Earth, a UK organization that is working to reverse the effects of overconsumption, stated that “From 1970 to 2010 our natural resource consumption has more than tripled.” Considering the economic and technological advances that have been made since 2010, it can be assumed that consumption has risen drastically even from that statistic. Though the use of natural resources continues to grow, efforts to replenish the resources being exhausted are limited at best. This considerable gap between the service and replacement of resources is just one of the many reasons the human species is responsible for the Anthropocene.


Mass extinctions are another of the causes of this geological epoch. There have been five mass extinction events in the history of Earth, with the most recent one being the Cretaceous period, which wiped out the dinosaurs. The natural extinction rate usually occurs across decades or centuries, giving ecosystems and species time to adjust to the change of a fellow species becoming extinct. As declared by the National History Museum, “the current rate of extinction is between 100 and 1,000 times higher” than the natural extinction rate. In its 4.5 billion years of history, “never before has a single species been responsible for such destruction on Earth.” If this path of destruction continues at the rate it has been, it could mean drastic changes to the ways humans have been living. Though the human species is the most advanced, there are millions of other species that are essential to keeping the population alive.


Among the sources of the Anthropocene, climate change is perhaps the most widely known. It is a topic that has been argued for years, not just in the environmental community, but also in political and social circles. This is still a highly controversial topic that is discredited by many people, though it is backed by extensive scientific research. According to the National Resources Defense Council, “Nine of the ten warmest years since 1880 have occurred since 2005—and the 5 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2015.” Whether people choose to believe it or not, it is evident that humans are to blame for this yearly increase in temperature. Causes of climate change include practices like deforestation, burning fossil fuels, and meeting agricultural demands, all of which are required to support human life. Effects of climate change include natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and extreme droughts around the globe. 


Issues like global warming, mass extinction, and the Anthropocene are not to be ignored because they present challenges to human ways of life. They are the result of decades of detrimental practices performed by a population on the planet that sustains it. The only chance this Earth has to continue supporting life is for humans to begin limiting the techniques causing its deterioration. If it continues to be ignored as it widely has been, the way of life that has been sustained for the past half-century will do more damage than can be repaired.


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