The Human Population and the Environment

The Human Population and the Environment

Basic Concepts of Population Dynamics

One of the most important properties of living things is that their abundances change over time and space. This is as true for our own species as it is for all others, including those that directly or indirectly affect our lives — for example, by providing our food, or materials for our shelter, or causing diseases and other problems—and those that we just like having around us or knowing that they exist.


You should also familiarize yourself with the following definitions and ideas:

  1. Population Dynamics is the general study of population changes.
  2. A population is a group of individuals of the same species living in the same area or interbreeding and sharing genetic information.
  3. A species is all individuals that are capable of interbreeding, and so a species is composed of one or more populations.
  4. Demography is the statistical study of human populations, and people who study the human population include demographers.
  5. Five key properties of any population are abundance, which is the size of a population; birth rates; death rates; growth rates; and age structure. How rapidly a population’s abundance changes over time depends on its growth rate, which is the difference between the birth rate and the death rate.


The three rates—birth, death, and growth—are usually expressed as a percentage of a population per unit of time. For people, the unit of time is typically a year or greater.


The Human Population as an Exponential Growth Curve

It is common to say that human populations, like that of the United States, grow at an exponential rate, which means that the annual growth rate is a constant percentage of the population. The annual growth rate has changed over time, increasing in the early years, in part because of large immigrations to North America, and decreasing later. An exponential curve growing at 2% per year lags the actual increase in the U.S. population for most of the nation’s history but catches up with it today. That is because the growth rate has slowed considerably. It is now 0.6%; in contrast, between 1790 and 1860, the year the Civil War began, the population increased more than 30% per year! (This is a rate that for a human population can be sustained only by immigration.)

Like that of the U.S. population, the world’s human population growth is typically also shown as an exponential, although we know very little about the variation in the number of people during the early history of our species.


Usually in discussions of population dynamics, birth, death, and growth rates are expressed as percentages (the number per 100 individuals). But because the human population is so huge, percentages are too crude a measure, so it is common to state these rates in terms of the number per 1,000, which is referred to as the crude rate. Thus we have the crude birth rate, crude death rate, and crude growth rate. More specifically, here is a list of terms that are used frequently in discussions of human population change and will be useful to us in this book from time to time.


Projecting Future Population Growth

With human population growth a central issue, it is important that we develop ways to forecast what will happen to our population in the future. One of the simplest approaches is to calculate the doubling time.


Exponential Growth and Doubling Time

Doubling time, a concept used frequently in discussing human population growth, is the time required for a population to double in size. The standard way to estimate doubling time is to assume that the population is growing exponentially and then divide 70 by the annual growth rate stated as a percentage. (Dividing into 70 is a consequence of the mathematics of

exponential growth.)


The doubling time based on exponential growth is very sensitive to the growth rate—it changes quickly as the growth rate changes. A few examples demonstrate this sensitivity. With a current population growth of 1.0%, the United States has a doubling time of 70 years.


In contrast, the current growth rate of Nicaragua is 2.0%, giving that nation a doubling time of 35 years. Sweden, with an annual rate of about 0.2%, has a doubling time of 350 years. The world’s most populous country, China, has a growth rate of 0.6% and a 117-year doubling time.

The world’s population growth rate peaked in the 1960s at about 2.2% and is now about 1.1%.

If the growth rate had continued indefinitely at the 1960s peak, the world population would have doubled in 32 years. At today’s rate, it would double in 64 years.


Human Population as a Logistic Growth Curve

An exponentially growing population theoretically increases forever. However, on Earth, which is limited in size, this is not possible, as Thomas Henry Malthus pointed out in the 18th century. Eventually the population would run out of food and space and become increasingly vulnerable to catastrophes, as we are already beginning to observe. Consider, a population of 100 increasing at 5% per year would grow to 1 billion in less than 325 years. If the human population had increased at this rate since the beginning of recorded history, it would now exceed all the known matter in the universe.


If a population cannot increase forever, what changes in the population can we expect over time? One of the first suggestions made about population growth is that it would follow a smooth S-shaped curve known as the Logistic growth curve.


A logistic population would increase exponentially only temporarily. After that, the rate of growth would gradually decline (i.e., the population would increase more slowly) until an upper population limit, called the logistic carrying capacity, was reached. Once that had been reached, the population would remain at that number.


Although the logistic growth curve is an improvement over the exponential, it too involves assumptions that are unrealistic for humans and other mammals. Both the exponential and logistic assume a constant environment and a homogeneous population—one in which all individuals are identical in their effects on each other. In addition to these two assumptions, the logistic assumes a constant carrying capacity, which is also unrealistic in most cases. There is, in short, little evidence that human populations—or any animal populations, for that matter—actually follow this growth curve, for reasons that are pretty obvious if you think about all the things that can affect a population.


The point at which the curve changes are the inflection point, and until a population has reached this point, we cannot project its final logistic size. The human population had not yet made the bend around the inflection point, but forecasters typically dealt with this problem by assuming that the population was just reaching the inflection point at the time the forecast was made. This standard practice inevitably led to a great underestimate of the maximum population. For example, one of the first projections of the upper limit of the U.S. population, made in the 1930s, assumed that the inflection point had been reached then. That assumption resulted in an estimate that the final population of the United States would be approximately 200 million.


Age Structure

The two standard methods for forecasting human population growth—the exponential and the logistic—ignore all characteristics of the environment and in that way are seriously incomplete. A more comprehensive approach would take into account the effects of the supply of food, water, and shelter; the prevalence of diseases; and other factors that can affect birth and death rates. But with long-lived organisms like ourselves, these environmental factors have different effects on different age groups, and so the next step is to find a way to express how a population is divided among ages. This is known as the population age structure, which is the proportion of the population of each age group. The age structure of a population affects current and future birth rates, death rates, and growth rates; has an impact on the environment; and has implications for current and future social and economic conditions.


We can picture a population’s age structure as a pile of blocks, one for each age group, with the size of each block representing the number of people in that group. Although age structures can take many shapes, four general types are most important to our discussion: a pyramid, a column, an inverted pyramid (top-heavy), and a column with a bulge. The pyramid age structure occurs in a population that has many young people and a high death rate at each age—and therefore a high birth rate, characteristic of a rapidly growing population and also of a population with a relatively short average lifetime. A column shape occurs where the birth rate and death rate are low and a high percentage of the population is elderly. A bulge occurs if some event in the past caused a high birth rate or death rate for some age group but not others. An inverted pyramid occurs when a population has older than younger people.


In developing countries today, about 34% of the populations are under 15 years of age. Such an age structure indicates that the population will grow very rapidly in the future, when the young reach marriage and reproductive ages, and it suggests that the future for such a nation requires more jobs for the young.


In contrast, the age structure of the United States is more like a column, showing a population with slow growth, while Japan’s top-heavy pyramid shows a nation with declining growth.


The Demographic Transition

The Demographic Transition is a three-stage pattern of change in birth rates and death rates that has occurred during the process of industrial and economic development of Western nations. It leads to a decline in population growth.


A decline in the death rate is the first stage of the demographic transition. In a nonindustrial country, birth rates and death rates are high, and the growth rate is low. With industrialization, health and sanitation improve and the death rate drops rapidly. The birth rate remains high, however, and the population enters Stage II, a period with a high growth rate.


Most European nations passed through this period in the 18th and 19th centuries. As education and the standard of living increase and as family-planning methods become more widely used, the population reaches Stage III. The birth rate drops toward the death rate, and the growth rate therefore declines, eventually to a low or zero growth rate. However, the birth rate declines only if families believe there is a direct connection between future economic well-being and funds spent on the education and care of their young. Such families have few children and put all their resources toward the education and well-being of those few.


Historically, parents have preferred to have large families. Without other means of support, aging parents can depend on grown children for a kind of “social security,” and even young children help with many kinds of hunting, gathering, and low-technology farming. Unless there is a change in attitude among parents—unless they see more benefits from a few well-educated children than from many poorer children— nations face a problem in making the transition from Stage II to Stage III. Some developed countries are approaching Stage III, but it is an open question whether developing nations will make the transition before a serious population crash occurs. The key point here is that the demographic transition will take place only if parents come to believe that having a small family is to their benefit. Here we again see the connection between science and values. Scientific analysis can show the value of small families, but this knowledge must become part of cultural values to have an effect.


Potential Effects of Medical Advances on the Demographic Transition

Although the demographic transition is traditionally defined as consisting of three stages, advances in treating chronic health problems such as heart disease can lead a Stage III country to a second decline in the death rate.


This could bring about a second transitional phase of population growth (Stage IV), in which the birth rate would remain the same while the death rate fell. A second stable phase of low or zero growth (Stage V) would be achieved only when the birth rate declined even further to match the decline in the death rate. Thus, there is danger of a new spurt of growth even in industrialized nations that have passed through the standard demographic transition.


Longevity and Its Effect on Population Growth

The maximum lifetime is the genetically determined maximum possible age to which an individual of a species can live. Life expectancy is the average number of years an individual can expect to live given the individual’s present age. Technically, life expectancy is an age-specific number: Each age class within a population has its own life expectancy. For general comparison, however, we use the life expectancy at birth.


Life expectancy is much higher in developed, more prosperous nations. Nationally, the highest life expectancy is 84 years, in the tiny nation of Macau. Of the major nations, Japan has the highest life expectancy, 82.1 years. Sixteen other nations have a life expectancy of 80 years or more: Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, France, Guernsey, Sweden, Switzerland, Israel, Anguilla, Iceland, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, New Zealand, Gibraltar, and

Italy. The United States, one of the richest countries in the world, ranks 50th among nations in life expectancy, at 78 years. China has a life expectancy of just over 73 years; India just over 69 years. Swaziland has the lowest of all nations at 32 years. The ten nations with the shortest life expectancies are all in Africa.19 Not surprisingly, there is a relationship between per capita income and life expectancy.


A surprising aspect of the second and third periods in the history of human population is that population growth occurred with little or no change in the maximum lifetime. What changed were birth rates, death rates, population growth rates, age structure, and average life expectancy. Ages at death, from information carved on tombstones, tell us that the chances of a 75-year-old living to age 90 were greater in ancient Rome than they are today in England. These also suggest that death rates were much higher in Rome than in 20th-century England. In ancient Rome, the life expectancy of a 1-year-old was about 22 years, while in 20th-century England it was about 50 years. Life expectancy in 20th-century England was greater than in ancient Rome for all ages until age 55, after which it appears to have been higher for ancient Romans than for 20th-century Britons. This suggests that many hazards of modern life may be concentrated more on the aged. Pollution-induced diseases are one factor in this change.


Human Death Rates and the Rise of Industrial Societies

We return now to further consideration of the first stage in the demographic transition. We can get an idea of the first stage by comparing a modern industrialized country, such as Switzerland, which has a crude death rate of 8.59 per 1,000, with a developing nation, such as Sierra Leone, which has a crude death rate of 21.9. Modern medicine has greatly reduced death rates from disease in countries such as Switzerland, particularly with respect to death from acute or epidemic diseases, such as flu, SARS, and West Nile virus, which we discussed in the chapter’s opening case study.


An acute disease or epidemic disease appears rapidly in the population, affects a comparatively large percentage of it, and then declines or almost disappears for a while, only to reappear later. Epidemic diseases typically are rare but have occasional outbreaks during which a large proportion of the population is infected. A chronic disease, in contrast, is always present in a population, typically occurring in a relatively small but relatively constant percentage of the population. Heart disease, cancer, and stroke are examples.


The great decrease in the percentage of deaths due to acute or epidemic diseases can be seen in a comparison of causes of deaths in Ecuador in 1987 and in the United States in 1900, 1987, and 1998. In Ecuador, a developing nation, acute diseases and those listed as “all others” accounted for about 60% of mortality in 1987. In the United States in 1987, these accounted for only 20% of mortality. Chronic diseases account for about 70% of mortality in the modern United States.


The Human Population’s Effects on the Earth

The danger that the human population poses to the environment is the result of two factors: the number of people and the environmental impact of each person. When there were few people on Earth and limited technology, the human impact was primarily local. Even so, people have affected the environment for a surprisingly long time. It started with the use of fire to clear land, and it continued, new research shows, with large effects on the environment by early civilizations. For example, the Mayan temples in South America, standing now in the midst of what were recently believed to be ancient rain forests, actually stood in large areas of farmed land cleared by the Maya. Large areas of North America were modified by American Indians, who used fire for a variety of reasons and modified the forests of the eastern United States.22


The problem now is that there are so many people and our technologies are so powerful that our effects on the environment are even more global and significant. This could cause a negative feedback—the more people, the worse the environment; the worse the environment, the fewer people.


The simplest way to characterize the total impact of the human population on the environment is to multiply the average impact of an individual by the total number of individuals, or

T = P X I


where P is the population size—the number of people— and I is the average environmental impact per person. Of course, the impact per person varies widely, within the same nation and also among nations. The average impact of a person who lives in the United States is much greater than the impact of a person who lives in a low-technology society. But even in a poor, low-technology nation like Bangladesh, the sheer number of people leads to large scale environmental effects.


Modern technology increases the use of resources and enables us to affect the environment in many new ways, compared with hunters and gatherers or people who farmed with simple wooden and stone tools. For example, before the invention of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are used as propellants in spray cans and as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners, we were not causing depletion of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.


Similarly, before we started driving automobiles, there was much less demand for steel, little demand for oil, and much less air pollution.


The population-times-technology equation reveals a great irony involving two standard goals of international aid: improving the standard of living and slowing overall human population growth. Improving the standard of living increases the total environmental impact, countering the environmental benefits of a decline in population growth.


The Human Carrying Capacity of Earth

What is the Human Carrying Capacity of Earth—that is, how many people can live on Earth at the same time? The answer depends on what quality of life people desire and are willing to accept. On our finite planet the human population will eventually be limited by some factor or combination of factors. We can group limiting factors into those that affect a population during the year in which they become limiting (short-term factors), those whose effects are apparent after one year but before ten years (intermediate-term factors), and those whose effects are not apparent for ten years (long-term factors). Some factors fit into more than one category, having, say, both short-term and intermediate-term effects. An important short-term factor is the disruption of food distribution in a country, commonly caused by drought or by a shortage of energy for transporting food.


Intermediate-term factors include desertification; dispersal of certain pollutants, such as toxic metals, into waters and fisheries; disruption in the supply of nonrenewable resources, such as rare metals used in making steel alloys for transportation machinery; and a decrease in the supply of firewood or other fuels for heating and cooking.


Long-term factors include soil erosion, a decline in groundwater supplies, and climate change. A decline in resources available per person suggests that we may already have exceeded Earth’s long-term human carrying capacity. For example, wood production peaked at 0.67 m3/person (0.88 yd3/person) in 1967, fish production at 5.5 kg/person (12.1 lb/person) in 1970, beef at 11.81 kg/person (26.0 lb/person) in 1977, mutton at 1.92 kg/person (4.21 lb/person) in 1972, wool at 0.86 kg/person (1.9 lb/person) in 1960, and cereal crops at 342 kg/person (754.1 lb/person) in 1977.


Before these peaks were reached, per capita production of each resource had grown rapidly. Since the rise of the modern environmental movement in the second half of the 20th century, much attention has focused on estimating the human carrying capacity of Earth—the total number of people that our planet could support indefinitely. This estimation has typically involved three methods. One method, which we have already discussed, is to simply extrapolate from past growth, assuming that the population will follow an S-shaped logistic growth curve and gradually level off. The second method can be referred to as the packing problem approach.


This method simply considers how many people might be packed onto Earth, not taking into sufficient account the need for land and oceans to provide food, water, energy, construction materials, the need to maintain biological diversity, and the human need for scenic beauty. This approach, which could also be called the standing-room-only approach, has led to very high estimates of the total number of people that might occupy Earth—as many as 50 billion.


More recently, a philosophical movement has developed at the other extreme. Known as deep ecology, this third method makes sustaining the biosphere the primary moral imperative. Its proponents argue that the whole Earth is necessary to sustain life, and therefore everything else must be sacrificed to the goal of sustaining the biosphere. People are considered active agents of destruction of the biosphere, and therefore the total number of people should be greatly reduced.25 Estimates based on this rationale for the desirable number of people vary greatly, from a few million up, just on the amount of space available but also on technology, which in turn is affected by science. Scientific understanding also tells us what is required to meet each quality-of-life level. The options vary. If all the people of the world were to live at the same level as those of the United States, with our high resource use, then the carrying capacity would be comparatively low. If all the people of the world were to live at the level of those in Bangladesh, with all of its risks as well as its poverty and its heavy drain on biological diversity and scenic beauty, the carrying capacity would be much higher.


In summary, the acceptable carrying capacity is not simply a scientific issue; it is an issue combining science and values, within which science plays two roles. First, by leading to new knowledge, which in turn leads to new technology, it makes possible both a greater impact per individual on Earth’s resources and a higher density of human beings. Second, scientific methods can be used to forecast a probable carrying capacity once a goal for the average quality of life, in terms of human values, is chosen. In this second use, science can tell us the implications of our value judgments, but it cannot provide those value judgments.


Can We Achieve Zero Population Growth?

We have surveyed several aspects of population dynamics. The underlying question is: Can we achieve Zero Population Growth —a condition in which the human population, on average, neither increases nor decreases? Much of environmental concern has focused on how to lower the human birth rate and decrease our population growth. As with any long-lived animal population, our species could take several possible approaches to achieving zero population growth. Here are a few.


Age of First Childbearing

The simplest and one of the most effective means of slowing population growth is to delay the age of first childbearing.26 As more women enter the workforce\ and as education levels and standards of living rise, this delay occurs naturally. Social pressures that lead to deferred marriage and childbearing can also be effective.


Typically, countries where early marriage is common have high population growth rates. In South Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa, about 50% of women marry between the ages of 15 and 19, and in Bangladesh women marry on average at age 16. In Sri Lanka, however, the average age for marriage is 25. The World Bank estimates that if Bangladesh adopted Sri Lanka’s marriage pattern, families could average 2.2 fewer children.26 For many countries, raising the marriage age could account for 40–50% of the drop in fertility required to achieve zero population growth.


Birth Control: Biological and Societal

Another simple way to lower the birth rate is breast feeding, which can delay resumption of ovulation after childbirth. Women in a number of countries use this deliberately as a birth-control method—in fact, according to the World Bank, in the mid-1970s breast feeding provided more protection against conception in developing countries than did family-planning programs.


Traditional methods range from abstinence to the use of natural agents to induced sterility. Modern methods include the birth-control pill, which prevents ovulation through control of hormone levels; surgical techniques for permanent sterility; and mechanical devices. Contraceptive devices are used widely in many parts of the world, especially in East Asia, where data show that 78% of women use them. In Africa, only 18% of women use them; in Central and South America, the numbers are 53% and 62%, respectively. Abortion is also widespread and is one of the most important birth-control methods in terms of its effects on birth rates—approximately 46 million abortions are performed each year.


National Programs to Reduce Birth Rates

Reducing birth rates requires a change in attitude, knowledge of the means of birth control, and the ability to afford these means. As we have seen, a change in attitude can occur simply with a rise in the standard of living. In many countries, however, it has been necessary to provide formal family-planning programs to explain the problems arising from rapid population growth and to describe the ways that individuals will benefit from reduced population growth. These programs also provide information about birth-control methods and provide access to these methods. Which methods to promote and use involves social, moral, and religious beliefs, which vary from country to country.


The first country to adopt an official population policy was India in 1952. Few developing countries had official family-planning programs before 1965. Since 1965, many such programs have been introduced, and the World Bank has lent $4.2 billion to more than 80 countries to support “reproductive” health projects. Although most countries now have some kind of family planning program, effectiveness varies greatly.


A wide range of approaches have been used, from simply providing more information to promoting and providing means for birth control, offering rewards, and imposing penalties. Penalties usually take the form of taxes. Ghana, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, and the Philippines have used a combination of methods, including limits on tax allowances for children and on maternity benefits. Tanzania has restricted paid maternity leave for women to a frequency of once in three years. Singapore does not take family size into account in allocating government-built housing, so larger families are more crowded. Singapore also gives higher priority in school admission to children from smaller families. Some countries, including Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka, have paid people to be voluntarily sterilized. In Sri Lanka, this practice has applied only to families with two children, and only when a voluntary statement of consent is signed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *