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The population debate: are there too many people on the planet?

The world population is 7.7 billion. What do our growing numbers mean for economic security, climate change, environmental degradation and the likelihood of pandemics?


November 11, 2020

By Richard Webb

People undoubtedly overuse the world’s resources

Keith Sherwood / Getty Images

In the once-shabby Soho district, about a 10-minute walk from the New Scientist offices in London, a pump, plaque and pub commemorate one of the greatest breakthroughs in human history: a decisive step towards the conquest of Infectious disease.

Our current global health crisis is a reminder of how little we want to go back to the days when deadly infections carried most of us away. But in some ways, progress was a first step on the way to the destruction of the planet. The success against infectious diseases, among other important developments, has dramatically improved our survival, increasing the number of people from just over 1.25 billion people to 7.7 billion.

Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of the biosphere and the coronavirus are now forcing us to consider the legacy of this success. The pandemic is becoming the newest focus of an ancient, uniquely controversial question: are there just too many of us on the planet?

The basic argument is hard to deny. With fewer of us there would be less greenhouse gas emissions, less pollution and waste, more space for us and the rest of the natural world to survive and thrive.

So let’s bite the bullet. Let’s talk about the population – where it is moving globally, what this means for the planet, and what, if anything, we should be doing to limit its growth. Be warned, however, finding answers is nowhere near as easy as asking questions. And with scenes of sexism, racism, nationalism, misogyny and eugenics, what sometimes follows makes for uncomfortable viewing. …