The Link Between Population and the Environment

Jen Crick

No factor has had such a severe and systematic effect on the environment as population. Population growth magnifies current environmental stressors, creates new ones, and prevents people from advancing themselves to a point at which it possible for them to care for the environment. The world’s population is most concentrated in developing countries where there is the greatest wealth of biodiversity and consequently the highest need for environmental conservation [1]. The developing world also has the greatest need for not simply industrialization; but for simpler things, like access to education, healthcare and “the better life” that Western countries already enjoy. Until we overcome the rising population boom, we will never be able to help people in developing nations to achieve the lifestyle that they both want and deserve. Without the cooperation of people in countries where population growth and biodiversity are huge issues, the environmentally concerned people in the developed world will never be able to achieve sustainable environmentalism across the entire planet.

Time and again, failed environmental initiatives have proven that developed nations cannot simply go into an environmental hotspot and dictate to the people who live there how to manage their resources [2]. If a family doesn’t have running water, health care, or access to education for their children, can the wealthiest nations in the world really expect them to put the few resources and precious time that they have into protecting the environment? Furthermore, how can we ask them to give up the fishing, slash and burn farming, or poaching that keeps their family fed without providing another viable solution that is just as effective? The general public is willing to set aside only so much land as wildlife preserves, and the government will only pass so many laws protecting the planet. As shown by the Philippines’ and Ethiopia’s PHE Network (Population, Health and the Environment), some of the most effective and sustainable methods of protecting the environment on both large and small scales are community-led, grassroots initiatives [2]. Without the commitment of the people who live in and rely on the environment that needs to be protected, no Western-led environmental project will continue on after the funding is cut off. Communities are the most able to care about and consequently for themselves, but a burgeoning population makes less available the resources with which these communities can achieve their goals. It is much easier to create and enforce a thousand hectares of ocean as a protected area that will allow fish populations to replenish which helps both the community and concerned environmentalists in an area with 50,000 people versus an area with 500,000 [3].

Families in developing nations where population growth is highest often cannot rely on the government, NGO’s or any other sort of organization to help them survive, so by default they must rely on their last recourse, the environment [2]. It does not require a Swarthmore education to see how deleterious the effects of non-sustainable farming can be; but when faced with destroying the environment or starving, the choice is obvious for most people. Population growth at its current rate exacerbates this already massive crisis. The unmet need for everything from education to dental care to family planning and other necessities like food, water and shelter in this world is still huge, and will take much time and effort to assuage. If the population continues to grow unabated, not only will the need increase exponentially, but the Earth will become less and less capable of meeting these needs [3].

Sustaining the environment for future generations is pivotal, but long-term goal. The people living in the most environmentally sensitive areas in the world are themselves victims of the inevitable harmful effects of an out-of-control population growth rate, but there is nothing they can do about it without family planning resources. Obtaining these resources, along with protecting where they live, will never take priority over the immediate need of providing for themselves and their children.

Conversely, the population of the developed world has just as colossal an impact on the environment, but in a different way. While the population of the developing world may impact the environment through force of sheer numbers, the impact of an individual living in a country like Zimbabwe is very small [5]. In the developing world, however, just the opposite is true. One average American consumes more and produces more waste than an average Filipino family. The developed world is largely responsible for the emissions that cause global warming, while the developing world is mostly responsible for modern habitat destruction in biodiversity-sensitive areas [5]. It would be nonsensical for the developed world to imperiously swoop in to a developing country and chastise them for their growing population, when their own population has horrendous impact on the environment as well. The argument has also been successfully made, as evidenced by the 1994 UN conference on population at Cairo, that the developing world should not be responsible for environmental protection and reforming their population practices until they have the opportunity to catch up to the living standards that people in America and the EU take for granted [4]. No one can deny that all people have equal right to the same standard of living, which makes population a difficult issue to handle tactfully and effectively.

Because population is such a tricky subject, and because it is such a vast and difficult issue to even start work on, population is often the last thing that people think about when they want to protect the planet. Yet population growth is not something that takes a break for humanity to figure out how to manage it responsibly [6]. In the time that it takes us to come up with an effective solution to the problem, it may have grown to a point at which we can no longer have the resources to do anything about it [6]. If integrated approaches to meeting the people’s needs in addition to helping them care for their environment is the most effective way for environmentalists to address the population issue, we need to get started immediately [1]. If the current trend in population growth continues, by the year 2040, there will be 9 billion people on this planet, needing resources and the environment to live [7]. If, through integrated PHE programs environmentalists and average people alike can decrease population growth, allieviate poverty, and create sustainable programs for protecting the environment, we need to get started immediately, before the population feedback loop becomes too hard to overcome.



  • USAID Fact Sheet. “Balancing People and the Environmetn to Promote Resilient Communities.” Jan 2008.
  • Conservation International Philippines Fact Sheet. “PHE Projects by Country – Philippines.” <>.
  • USAID Fact Sheet. “Project Integrates Family Planning and Reproductive Health into Coastal Resource Management.” Jan 2008.
  • Linkages Information on Cairo Conference. <>.
  • Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis" 1974, pp. 55-72.
  • Dasgupta, Susmita, et al. "Confronting the Environmental Kuznets Curve." The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol. 16, No. 1. Winter 2002. pp. 147-168.
  • Edmond, Janet. Lecture at 3 rd Annual PHE Conference. Tagaytay City, Philippines. 5 March 2008.

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last updated 2/18/08