Population and Global Warming

Emma Schroeder

In recent years, people have begun to realize the adverse affects of the technologies we use. The tools that humans use to harness energy change the face of the environment around us. When the industrial revolution began, I am sure that no one thought that the innovation taking place could potentially be the cause of a huge change in our surroundings. People were just doing what they thought was the best course of action at that time: the new utilization of resources for the growing population. Unfortunately, we have not retained the same sense of well being.

The shift in energy resources allowed for an increased population or, conversely, an increasing population required the invention of new tools to deal with the environment surrounding humans. Not only were more people needed to man the machines, but more humans could be supported because of the increase in agricultural yield and the new lands that had opened up for colonization. There was the feeling of continuous well being and expansion. I do not think that we are out of the expansionist mindset: the population boom figures prove this. For most organisms, a population grows and then reaches a plateau; in effect, an s-shaped curve. Humans are not following this pattern, or have not reached their plateau. Yet as of now, the human population is increasing exponentially and shows no signs of stopping. The use of resources has expanded to match the continued growth. Because of our history of degradation, growth just means more pressure on the earths systems.

The industrial age began a time in which humans were not just altering their visible surroundings, but began to change the make up of these surroundings as well. Without knowing it, humans began to change the chemical cycles that had been going on around them forever. The environment is made up of many carefully managed check and balance systems. The most important one of these, in terms of climate change, is the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle is a good example of a natural balance system. The carbon cycle contains three parts: terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric pools. Carbon moves between these three parts, changing phases and moving through organisms. Plants fix carbon by using CO2 in photosynthesis, while humans and other animals release carbon (CO2) into the atmosphere through respiration. Decomposition also releases carbon into the atmosphere. Humans have altered this cycle drastically by adding a new source of carbon: that of fossil fuels, carbon-rich sediments that have been part of the terrestrial carbon pool for thousands of years. By burning there fuels, humans have started to change the finely balanced system. [1]

The atmosphere is the section of the carbon cycle that changes the most rapidly: CO2 does not necessarily remain in the atmosphere for long as there are many ways for it to be moved back to the ocean or land. But we have not only been adding more and more carbon to this volatile part of the carbon cycle, but we have also been removing the plants that help balance the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Deforestation has had a major effect on the amount of carbon in the air. In fact, researchers have found that there has been a net increase of 3.5 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere every year. This increase in atmospheric carbon matters because of the nature of CO2: it is a green house gas. This means that it is helping to trap heat near the earth. In fact, the Earths temperature has changed by about 1 degree Celsius in the last century. [2]

Why should this matter? Humans have been becoming more and more advanced. There is no sign to show that our population will reach a plateau any time soon, our death rates and infant mortality have been going down, and we are living longer (Southwick). It seems like the perfect world for us. Everything is going our way. But as proved by the change in the carbon cycle, we are doing something that is drastically changing the world around us. How is changing the environment we live in beneficial to the human population as a whole?

While it seems as though things are mostly going well for the human population as a whole, there are some sectors that are not doing so well. One fifth of the worlds population is malnourished, and 17 million are refugees. Looking at these facts, it doesn't seem as though the society we are in is doing so wonderfully after all. If we are so technologically advanced, why do we have people dying because they are not getting enough to eat? I feel as though the world needs to make some drastic change in the way it is dealing with population and technological expansion. I believe that both the issue of climate change and the number of people suffering shows that we either need a new technology that will change the way we deal with problems such as increased agriculture and industry, or we have actually reached the population the earth is able to contain. If the later is true, we are just fixing the problems as they occur, not finding a real solution to the problem.

The increased use of contraceptives and factors such as literacy and women's rights has decreased the population expansion (class discussion). It could be that our problem will be solved by the population actually decreasing. But before that happens, if we are not going to fix the root of the problem (that of climate change because of human use), we should find better ways of getting energy and using the resources that we have, such as renewable resources and green chemistry. Whatever it is, something must be done to stop the environment from changing so drastically.

[1] Freeman, Scott. Biological Sciences. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 2002.
[2] Freeman, Scott. Biological Sciences. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 2002.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 3/28/03