Population Growth Stress on Environment

The world population has increased exponentially over the last 100 years, as technology and development outstrip the ability of the fragile planet to absorb the massive influx of polluting and needy people. To survive people must have land, water and fuel and yet, upon the earth such elements are finite, unless technology meets the demand for sustainable or human created sources of these elements.

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A economic growth, the rise in living standards and increased consumption levels have brought on dramatic increases in per capita demand for land, energy, food and fresh water and, increases of a similar magnitude in the production of wastes and pollutants. With the rapid loss of agricultural land and natural habitats (around 2% per decade in Western Europe), induced by low-density suburban sprawl, strong metropolitan decentralisation trends and the rise of the car, concern has focused on the global significance of the increase in per capita energy consumption and carbon emissions.

(Jenks & Burgess, 2000, p. 12)

The difficulty of this development is that the balance of the environment can be thrown off, unknowingly with the depletion of resources or the development of new resources to create human sustainability at exponential levels of population.

The rapid increase in consumption levels in the wealthy regions of the world and the rapid growth in world population — with the haves eager at least to preserve what they have gained, and the have-nots, with all good reason, claiming an equal share in the increasing standard of living or ‘good life’ — have, during the last decades, made it obvious to almost everyone that natural resources are fragile and the resilience of the world’s ecosystems is limited.

Lindahl-Kiessling & Landberg, 1997, p. v)

Lindahl-Kiessling & Landberg, point out that the challenges of the development of sustainable population growth are not only many but they are exacerbated by the fact that massive population growth often develops out of the desire of those living in poverty to have enough manpower to build a better future. The state of economic depravity, in other words, challenges the environment in that seeking to gain the ability to survive, in an economic sense creates a situation where the planet cannot survive in an environmentally sustainable manner. The resources of given regions are then depleted to such a degree that the large families, seeking to gain a piece of the good life, succeed only in challenging their own environment and becoming poorer.

The limited capacity of change of the basic socio-economic systems and the population growth create, together with these limitations, a real threat to mankind and man as part of nature. It is not a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’ — time is running short for all of us. The environmental impact of high consumption levels in the industrialized world endows the rich countries with a problem of no less importance than fast population growth in the South. It would seem that for scientists and politicians alike the message is clear: the issues of population, development, natural resources, and environment must be considered together.

Lindahl-Kiessling & Landberg, 1997, p. v)

The conclusion, of at least his group of experts is then that the haves retaining wealth and resources for themselves, instead of equitably sharing it with the have nots have furthered a global population explosion that is taxing the very resources, land, water and fuel that sustain this population, and this taxing of the balance of the environment could be the source of global climate change, the beginning of what many think is the end for our ecosystem and our planet.

Land depletion, Resources and Sprawl:

The value of the land on which we build our homes continues to rise as less and less becomes available for traditional building, and at the same time the resources upon this land are being depleted to meet the demand for economic sustainability and growth. “The bigger the city, and the higher its levels of consumption, the greater would be its ecological footprint.” (Jenks & Burgess, 2000, p. 20) the farther one goes fromt the city, to attempt to regain many of the values that are expressed in the idealism of the rural golden age, the more resources are obscured, and the less like the rural golden age the regions become.

Others point out that, in the long-term, urban sprawl is counterproductive. Many of the benefits of the car are short-lived, as rising levels of ownership and use soon lead to congestion and paralysis, undermining the urban structures that the car helped to create. Although low-density living has many supporters, not least among those who enjoy the environmental attractions of suburbia, there is a widespread view that the physical expansion of cities needs to be checked. (Clark, 2003, p. 207)

Early conservation, contrary to the modern idea of resource conservation had the goal of developing resources (or conserving them) exclusively for human use. (Worster, 2002, p. 527) in so doing many regions where altered by development to such a degree that much work has had to be done to restore some semblance of artificial balance in the ecosystems in which we build our homes and businesses and drive our combustible engine cars. “Despite growing knowledge of its impacts and an array of development alternatives, sprawl continues to spread, leaving polluted resources and more sedentary populations in its wake.” (Schmidt, 2004, p. 620) There are countless examples of the “manifest destiny” of the colonial period damning rivers, moving mountains and stripping the land of minerals and fuel to create the potential fro population growth. This is despite the long-term impact such actions could have as well as beyond the ability of the land to sustain the flora and fauna as well as the intricate balance of water and earth. The best laid plans are often the most dangerous. The bottom line being the more people live upon the land the less land and resources there are to be offered by the land. According to Gilpin, an early believer in land expansion, “The Colorado Plateau, like other parts of the West, had been “prepared and equipped by nature in all departments at every point, and throughout its whole length, for the immediate entrance and occupation of organized society, and the densest population” (Worster, 2002, p. 111)

Population and Water:

As all people know water is also an essential element for the sustainability of biological forms, including everything from man to the tiniest single celled organism. Water, is also a powerful force that naturally shapes and changes the earth as it moves through it. Where population increases though the resource of water, which seems infinite to many is polluted or otherwise depleted by the external forces of man.

A the great paradox of water: the man who fights a flood today may go thirsty tomorrow. There is a crisis in water not only in arid deserts but also in those areas that border the great oceans. The water problem is a strange and puzzling phenomenon; yet understand it we must if civilization is to continue to flourish. Recently a United States Senate committee made this considered pronouncement:

We face a water crisis that threatens to limit economic growth, undermine living standards, endanger health and jeopardize national security. We live on the edge of water bankruptcy. (Halacy, 1966, p. 11)

There is a sense that water is abundant and yet we continue to pollute and occasionally destroy it in an attempt to clean it up. “…every one of our major river systems is now polluted. While we had spent almost 18o billion dollars on our nation’s waterworks by 1960, experts tell us that we must spend another 228 billion by 1980, with 50 billion of it needed immediately just to clean up the sewers our waterways have become.” (Halacy, 1966, p. 12) it may seem like there is really only a small problem but in reality most of the water on the planet is salient and another large portion of it is frozen in as yet undervalued ice caps on the poles of the earth. Only a very finite portion of the massive amounts of water on the earth is actually fresh and available for human use, and yet as the population grows we continue to deplete this resource by making what we have non- potable.

Population and Fuel:

We have touched on the issue of finite fuel upon the land and beneath it by briefly discussing the increased consumption of fossil fuels to feed the demand for more and more cars to meet our ability to create urban sprawl. When many people think of fuel these are the issues that come to mind, but there is yet even another fuel crisis in the world that people in developed nations have yet to even begin to understand. As people who rarely if ever use wood to heat or cook, in developed nations we only feel the shortage of wood fuel as a potential inability to continue to build homes at never before seen speed. Yet, in the world today there is an even greater fuel shortage, that can create an even greater human catastrophe, as trees create the oxygen that makes it possible to breath.

A the urgent need to develop more climate-friendly energy technologies is becoming keenly appreciated worldwide. Renewable energy technologies are receiving heightened attention, and modern biomass-based energy — the use of wood, crop residues and dung as fuel — is increasingly seen as an important component of the transition to a low-carbon energy future…. Shortages of wood for cooking meant that women and children had to spend many hours in search of fuels. The growing populations in developing countries were harvesting trees for use as cooking fuels at unsustainable rates — threatening, according to Eckholm, significant deforestation problems. (Barnes & Floor, 1999, p. 237) (Barnes & Floor, 1999, p. 237)

One must also understand that the decay of biological materials is also the long-term source of the fossil fuels that we are depleted at record high levels, as a result of population growth and density. The fuel crisis, on all its levels is a crisis that has been created almost directly by population growth.


Though it may be true that the values of the ideology of conservation have had a reversal, as people are just beginning to realize the unknowns of the massive impact of population growth on the fragile ecosystems of the earth the fact that many of these issues are unknowns and therefore can be infinitely debated compounds the problem. Just as the individual can have a greater or lesser understanding of the impact of population growth on the earth, he or she can also have a greater or lesser understanding of the long-term impacts of the land, water and fuel usage of the individual and in mass the whole of the human population, and yet it should be clear to most that we are utilizing these three resources at unsustainable levels, as a result of population growth and human disconnect from the earth.


Barnes, D.F., & Floor, W. (1999). Biomass Energy and the Poor in the Developing World. Journal of International Affairs, 53(1), 237.

Clark, D. (2003). Urban World/Global City. New York: Routledge.

Halacy, D.S. (1966). The Water Crisis (1st ed.). New York E.P. Dutton.

Jenks, M. & Burgess, R. (Eds.). (2000). Compact Cities: Sustainable Urban Forms for Developing Countries. London: Spon Press.

Lindahl-Kiessling, K., & Landberg, H. (1997). Population, Economic Development, and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, C.W. (2004). Sprawl: The New Manifest Destiny?. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112(11), 620.

Worster, D. (2002). A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press.

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