In 1968, Professor Paul Ehrlich published a best seller entitled “The Population Bomb” predicting a population explosion for the world. This has turned out to be premature decades later. Why? It’s not the number of people that matters most. It’s the extent of industrialization, and the resultant environmental pollution that makes the world unsustainable. To put it precisely, population growth coupled with fast industrialization will trigger the environment bomb long before the population bomb can explode. The environment bomb may slow down the birth rate thus preempting the population bomb from exploding.
How many people can the earth sustain? As of 2012, the world’s population has grown to over 7 billion. Although food and water shortages are always present, they are not widespread. Throughout history, famines occurred periodically due to localized weather disruptions, wars, unstable governments, or distribution problems. If there was no industrialization, the earth could possibly sustain even more people as prehistoric hunters and scavengers spread out in the countryside living at a subsistence level. But that cannot happen. Industrialization is inevitable because the human mind is always thinking about how to do things more productively by inventing tools and machines that make life easier, but pollute the world on a large scale at the same time.
Industrialization has brought forth a modern world with a negative consequence of advancing toward an environmental breakdown. Many people may not believe this because they take natural resources for granted. They will be convinced when they personally suffer the debilitating effects of pollution. The environment does not break down suddenly but will take decades or more to reach a point of no return. By then, it will be too late. Regardless of your belief, the relevant question to ask is: Are we polluting the environment faster than it can regenerate itself to sustain us?
Industrialization has altered the world immensely. Two things especially stand out in modern life: urbanization and the ubiquitous automobile, which will only increase in the years to come. These two phenomena will likely trigger the environment bomb. Let’s see how.
In 2010, world urbanization reached a milestone by surpassing the 50% mark for the first time in human history. That means more people are now living in the cities than in the countryside. The pace of urbanization runs faster in developing countries especially in Asia and Africa. People are attracted to the cities because of jobs, entertainment, and other forms of excitement. Urbanization has proceeded very unevenly around the world. For instance, Kuwait is 98% urbanized, Belgium 97%, UK 90%, Brazil 86%, USA 82%, Mexico 77%, Germany 74%, Japan 66%, Indonesia 52%, China 51%, Nigeria 48%, Egypt 43%, India 29%, and Vietnam 28%. Note that many countries with a relatively low urbanization level have large populations going through a rapid rate of industrialization. That means global urbanization will only quicken in the years ahead.
What are the consequences of faster urbanization? The most obvious is the concentration of people in the cities requiring jobs, food, fresh water, shelter, sewage disposal, energy, transportation, and other services. Besides all these pressures put on the cities, it also creates pressures on the countryside with fewer hands now to grow food for and divert fresh water to the city folks. In food production, this requires mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and monoculture of crops to mass-produce with fewer hands. Despite increased productivity, this practice reduces soil fertility and regeneration that require more and more chemical fertilizers to compensate. In addition, the purpose of monoculture is to mass-produce only one strain of crop rather than many. This is a recipe for agricultural disaster. When a plant disease hits or the weather suddenly changes, the whole crop may be wiped out. This would not happen if various strains of the same crop are cultivated, some of which are more resistant to pests or droughts.
Agriculture depends equally on the weather besides soil quality and crop strain. This is where the automobiles spoil the party by polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. At present, the transportation sector consumes about 60% of the world’s oil supply, accounting for the biggest share of carbon dioxide emissions that warms up the globe. It’s very difficult to reverse the warming trend because the automobile and oil industries are so entrenched in modern society. Besides, it takes time to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by replacing the gasoline engine with the electric motor. Global warming is increasingly disrupting the climate resulting in more extreme cases of drought and flood, as well as snow and wind. We have already seen more and more abnormal weather patterns worldwide. There will be more to come. Even non-believers will get scared if one day the changing climate reduces crop production in a big way.
In summary, the world is moving closer to an environmental breakdown that makes it increasingly difficult to sustain our living standard. It’s not the number of people or birth rate that really matters, but the degree of industrialization and the environmental pollution caused. The environment bomb will likely explode long before the population bomb.