Sustainability and the Human Population Growth


The human population is growing, and growing rapidly. Naturally, this raises the question of when we will hit our planet’s carrying capacity as well as if it is possible to continue our current levels of consumption and production without doing so. The general consensus is that our planet has already hit or will hit this capacity very shortly. Because of this, a number of countries have begun sustainability initiatives in an effort to try to combat our society’s want for development with our planet’s need for sustainability. These two terms are often intertwined and often conflicting. This paper works to help explain this relationship, as well as elaborate upon the issues that our society is being presented with in an effort to sustain our own growth.


It is fairly common knowledge that the population of the world is growing rapidly. By 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9.2 billion with the greatest amount of growth occurring in the developing world. In these developing countries, the populations are expected to increase from 5.4 to 7.9 billion as opposed to remaining at 1.2 billion in developed countries (Sherbinin, 2007, p. 346). There are several potential problems that accompany this population growth including a scarcity of food, energy availability, natural resources and materials as well as a negative impact on our environment. Therefore, the question is whether or not we can sustain the growing population of the earth in a way that allows us to meet human needs and reduce hunger and poverty without depleting the essential life support systems of the planet needed for survival. In this paper, I will work to address the human population growth topics above related to our planet’s, as well as our population’s, sustainability. To do this, I will be incorporating three relevant journal articles that I have obtained from the Annual Review of Environment and Resources online. All three of these resources help explain how the human population interacts with the environment in a way that harms it or in a way that allows it to be sustained. Furthermore, they address the severity of the problem, what is being done about it, and what can be done about it.



As mentioned in the introduction, our planet’s human population is expected to grow very quickly over the next century, particularly in the developing areas of our world. For example, in the next 43 years the number of inhabitants in Africa are expected to double from 965 million people to nearly 2 billion people (Sharbinin, 2007, p. 347). In an attempt to try to curb this population growth to a reasonable rate, demographers have attributed the population growth over the past century to three causes: the unsolved need for contraception by families who wish to use it, the culturally common and desired too-large family size (particularly in Africa and South Asia), and the huge number of young people of reproductive age in developing countries.

By identifying these causes, many hope that they can work to achieve sustainable development. Sustainable development is a loosely defined term, but essentially it describes our population’s potential ability to better and advance the well-being of our people, economy, and society while not eliminating (or sustaining, in other words) things like our environment and community bonds (Parris, 2003, 561). Table 1 below gives a list depicting things that we aim to sustain, and things that we aim to develop. The table also shows how closely interlocked the two sides are.


TABLE1 Taxonomy of sustainable development goals
What is to be sustained What is to be developed




Earth Child survival
Biodiversity Life expectancy
Ecosystems Education
  Equal opportunity

Life support



Ecosystem services Wealth
Resources Productive sectors
Environment Consumption




Cultures Institutions
Groups Social capital
Places States

Board Sustain. Dev.1999. Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. Washington, DC: Natl. Acad.

Naturally, this would pose a problem as we aim to both sustain and develop similar aspects. Therefore, we should be striving to find a balance of both sustainability and development. This idea makes the following question vital: can life be sustained on earth with the continued desire for development?

The Issues

As mentioned before, there are several major issues when it comes to human growth sustainability. Two of the largest focuses are the ideas of sustaining our food, and of sustaining our environment.

When it comes to food sustainability, one of the major problems is that population tends to grow exponentially, while food production tends to grow linearly. This can be seen clearly by examining Graph 2 on the following page. In this illustration, the straight line (gold) marks the linear growth of the food supply. As the population increases, so does the food supply, but at a significantly lower rate. This is because as the population increases

Populations Growth

Graph 2: A depiction of the food required per population growth (green line) vs the food produced (gold line)

society becomes more and more urbanized. Because of this, fewer desire to work in agriculture and food supply fields as many prefer to be involved in careers in the new, urbanized centers, thus limiting the amount of workers that supply food.

Population Growth

Graph 3: World Population Growth Through History

On the other side of things in Graph 2, the green, heavily sloped line depicts the population growth of our planet, which naturally also depicts the level that the food supply needs to be at to sustain this new level of our population. However, as seen in Graph 3, this rapid increase of in human population is a very new phenomenon for our planet which is why many are unsure of how to cope with it.

The food sustainability mentioned above is a combination of our want to develop and reform the food system of our world as well as our attempt to sustain our population growth. The combination of development and sustainability is not an uncommon theme in the issues within our population growth. When it comes to the environment, our desires to develop our technology, economy, and overall satisfaction with life has come at the expense of sustaining our environment. If we continue wasting, consuming, and producing at our current rates, we have little hope for sustaining our planet’s health and natural resources. Since the dawn of agriculture (approximately 10,000 years ago), humans have deforested enough forest to cover the continental U.S., and have withdrawn water in an amount greater than that of Lake Huron each year. Furthermore, half of the ecosystems of ice-free land have been altered, managed, or utilized by people (Kates, 2001, 16). This trend in overusing the earth’s resources can absolutely be attributed to our consumption, and therefore production patterns. GDP today is 20 times higher than it was in 1900, growing at approximately 2.7% per year. Perhaps because of this, CO2 have been growing at a rate of 3.5% since 1900 (Sherbinin, 2007, 348). The clear correlation of these two events can be seen below in Graph 4.

Population Growth


Graph 4: World Population Growth vs. Carbon Emission Growth


Overall, our planet’s rapid population growth is not something that should be considered lightly. However, if we take the proper measures we should be able to find a system that allows us to sustain our human growth and our environment, while still leaving room for our society to continue to develop as they please. Some of these measures may include implementing government waste and production limits or implementing programs to educate the public about the importance of eco-friendly decisions. Robert W. Kates, an independent scholar from Maine, says simple individual choices are the key by substituting “renewable[s] for non-renewables, toxics with less-toxics, ozone depleting chemicals with more benign substitutes, [and] natural gas for coal” (2001, 19). All in all, there is plenty that we can do to try to make our earth sustainable for future generations by being aware and making conscience and educated decisions.


Kates, R. W. (2001). Queries on the human use of the earth. Annual Review of Energy and the

            Environment, 26, 1-26. Retrieved from


Parris, T. M., & Kates, R. W. (2003). Characterizing and measuring sustainable development.

            Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 28, 559-86. Retrieved from http://

Sherbinin, A., & Carr, D., & Cassels, S., & Jiang, L. (2007). Population and environment.

Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 32, 345-73. Retrieved from http://


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