The Population Debate

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

is it a source of damage to our natural resources? Paul Harrison, author of The Third Revolution-Population, Environment and a Sustainable World, writes that the population of the earth in the past two decades has risen from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 5.9 billion in 1997. Population may grow to 8.5 billion by 2025 and may surpass 10 billion by 2050, a year our own children will experience. "Consumption per person will at least double," Harrison notes. "The impact of our present population and consumption is already too high, but by 2050 it could increase four times."

Ultimately, of course, the whole picture of planet earth as an increasingly crowded place is a story of humans competing for their share of natural resources. Each person born will go on to consume natural resources for his or her lifetime. In a western society these resources may be cheap fuels for automobiles, aluminum to construct jet fighter planes or lumber to build houses. In poor countries like Vietnam or Haiti, the resources may be as simple as vegetables to eat or a basket of charcoal for cooking.

Harrison lists the core facts of overpopulation. "Three factors work directly on the environment: population-the number of people; consumption-the amount each person consumes; technology-which decides how much space and resources are used, and how much waste is produced, to meet consumption needs. These three are never found apart." We use the earth in three ways, he says. We take natural resources from it, we use it for living space, and we use it as a sink for our wastes.

Darryl Hobbs is director of the Center for Social and Economic Data Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He says much of the growth in Missouri is taking place at the edges of the metro areas and that 65 percent of the population is suburban. Cities are no longer cities he adds, but sprawling metro regions.

As an example he cites the westward development of the St. Louis area, which stretches to Lincoln and Warren counties. The small town of Warrenton now includes an outlet mall. Similar growth is moving east from the edges of the Kansas City metro area.

Hobbs says that in the 1980s growth was slow in Missouri-only 4 percent compared to a national growth rate of 10 percent. "In that decade we had 265,000 more babies born in Missouri than people who died. We should have had

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