Effects of Overpopulation/Industrialization on the Environment

Thomas K. Madore

Throughout history, the world’s population has expanded in an extremely exponential fashion-- taking over three million years to achieve a one billion person benchmark, it then only took 130, 30, 15, 12, and 11 years to reach subsequent billions, respectively. (Southwick, Charles H., Ch. 15 from "Global Ecology in Human Perspective" Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159) Such a massive and still increasing population, combined with the environmentally detrimental repercussions of industrialization (as a result of the need to sustain such a large population), namely pollution from fossil fuels, has begun to take a serious toll on our planet’s ecosystem. Moreover, “some scientists have calculated that an optimal human population on earth in terms of reasonable living standards is no more than 2 billion people.” (Southwick, pp. 161.) Already, we are well over this “optimal” population level at more than 6 billion people with projections of growing by another 2 to 4 billion in this century. Still, with the advent of modern technologies, primarily in the areas of medicine and agriculture, humans “have effectively increased the size of the globe over the last two centuries, in terms of the maximum population which it will support.” (Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis" 1974, pp. 58.) Nonetheless, in spite of such stark improvements in technological efficiency and capability, the fact remains that one in five people worldwide lives malnourished and without adequate housing. Equally important, and especially pertaining to the topic at hand, is the notion that such overpopulation, in conjunction with industrialization on a global scale, has led to increased emissions of harmful pollutants, some of which can cause ozone depletion and global warming. Global warming, which will be examined shortly, is the phenomenon that is believed to be responsible for the rising of the earth’s temperature and the alteration of its climate.

Regardless of whether or not pollution increases as population increases, (Edwin Dolin strongly refutes this principle that population increases lead to increases in pollution) the statistics nonetheless illustrate that increased population, and now what many consider overpopulation, has without a doubt led to continuingly deteriorating environmental conditions. Especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, new technologies have enabled cultures and communities, initially in the new territories traversed by the Europeans, to expand in populace: “we are forever realizing that the Industrial Revolution has changed forever the relationship between humanity and nature. There is a real concern that by the middle or the end of the 21st century human activities will have changed the basic conditions that have allowed life to thrive on earth.” (http://cop5.unfccc.int/convkp/begconkp.html) These basic conditions include the earth’s natural climate and the depletion and manipulation of its natural resources. Such expansion (since the Industrial Revolution) and creation of new establishments began, on a small scale, to effect the environment in many ways. The first element of the environment that was immediately effected was forests. Massive deforestation occurred, and still does so today, as land was cleared to make way for new towns. Moreover, many construction projects also used wood from trees, not to mention other commercial uses, such as paper, and fuel. Deforestation may not have been deemed a huge problem during previous centuries, but it has become more prevalent now, given the “ever-increasing consumption of the nonrenewable fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas.” (The Second Great Transition, Chapter 13, pp. 288)

Deforestation is a very real threat to the environment in this regard in that trees in forests have an incredible ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which is the product of many of our present day energy sources. Our primary energy sources, the fossil fuels that are, coal, oil (from petroleum), and natural gas, all release this and other potentially harmful “greenhouse gases” upon combustion. The primary greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (from burning fossil fuels), methane (from agriculture), and nitrogen oxides (from automobiles): the emissions of each of these greenhouse gases has greatly increased in the atmosphere as the world’s population has skyrocketed. Due to the chemical makeup of such greenhouse gases, visible light from the sun is allowed to penetrate through to the earth’s surface. However, the infrared radiation that the earth emits back up from its surface is absorbed by these greenhouse gas molecules, which then vibrate, but do not break, and then remit energy back to the earth’s surface. The result of this remitting process is the warming of the earth’s surface. It is believed that increasing concentrations of such greenhouse gases, as a result of growing demands for many modern products of industrialization, such as automobiles, in conjunction with deforestation, are thus causing an increase in the average global temperature. Over the long term this phenomenon, known as global warming, may alter the earth’s climate, agricultural productivity, and increase sea levels. (Chemistry in Context, Applying Chemistry to Society, Chapter 3)

While there is some uncertainty and debate as to whether or not increased human usage of fossil fuels, automobiles, and other pollution inducing activities will greatly alter the earth’s climate over time, preventative measures have nonetheless been taken to alleviate potential harmful effects. The Kyoto Protocol is one such measure, adopted in 1997, as a sort of amendment to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is a “treaty that promotes action in spite of uncertainty on the basis of a recent development in international law and diplomacy called the ‘precautionary principle.’” (http://cop5.unfccc.int/convkp/begconkp.html) The protocol has earnest intents of reducing the world’s or at least the ‘developed’ world’s overall level of energy emission by five percent. Such an agreement between many different countries has been instated given that “every year, human activity releases more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels than is removed from the atmosphere by natural cycles.” (Chemistry in Context, pp. 116) This realization, compounded by the fact that “it is estimated that 2.00*106 km2 of rain forest has been cut down or burned globally from 1980 to 1995” (Ibid., pp. 117) has correctly led many environmentally concerned nations to take this preliminary, precautionary measure.

However, while developed nations have become somewhat more aware of the effects of their activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels on the environment, less economically developed nations, whose populations continue to increase at a much faster rate than those of developed nations, need to be educated and aided in this regard. Less developed nations also contribute to this global problem of fossil fuel emission, since it’s the cheapest known way to produce energy for their overpopulated countries at this time. In terms of population, “the fastest population growth and the greatest increases in total numbers are occurring in the countries least able to support this growth.” (Southwick, pp. 166) There are two major conjectures to explain this correlation between poverty and high population growth. The first is more related to the environmental aspect that I am examining: it states that high population growth leads to poverty (Malthus) simply because the environment does not have sufficient resource bases to support such a large amount of people.

Here, the issue of how to deal with such overpopulated, poor nations arises, in regard to whether or not they should have to abide by the terms of such amendments as the Kyoto Protocol. Considering that the vast majority of developed countries reached the levels of economic development that they operate at today, by emitting dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere, it seems unfair to these underdeveloped nations that they must sacrifice the scarce industry they have, especially considering that the “affect (of, for example, greenhouse gas emissions) is hard to predict because the global climate is a very complicated system.” (http://cop5.unfccc.int/convkp/begconkp.html) However, if developed nations hold true to their commitment to aid developing countries with the transition to more efficient, less environmentally detrimental industrial practices, then the world may be on a tentative path to environmental salvation and continuity. This transition, led by developed nations, must include a commitment to the efficient research, development, and production of alternate fuel sources—those that are renewable, clean, and cost efficient (ie, hydrogen fuel). Otherwise, the uncertain long run implications of our current excessive consumption patterns may bring about the end of existence, as we know it.

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last updated 4/2/03