Too Many People?
On Oct. 31, 2011, photographers and United Nations officials crowded into a hospital in Manila, awaiting the arrival of a very special visitor. She came just before midnight, instantly greeted by oohs and ahs and popping flashbulbs.
Danica May Camacho was no supermodel or starlet. She was a newborn. The UN had selected her to symbolically represent the planet’s 7 billionth person.
The hype surrounding Danica’s birth was manufactured to draw our attention to the burgeoning global populace—and the challenge of sustaining it. Earth now supports more people than at any time in its history. And serious questions about just how much higher that number can realistically go are weighing on thinking people the world over.
Futurists have predicted for decades that the population explosion would threaten civilization. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, including 65 million Americans, in “a great die-off.” To this point, though, advancements in producing and managing our food, water, energy, pollution, waste and wealth have outpaced the difficulties. And people just keep multiplying. In fact, every single day, births outpace deaths by more than 200,000 people.
Does our world suffer from having just “too many people”? It’s an important—and fascinating—question.
The book of Genesis records God’s command to the first man and woman, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” God wanted the human population to grow, and He provided ample material blessings in order to sustain it.
However, a lot of impoverished people haven’t enjoyed those blessings, and there are more poor than ever. Meanwhile, others’ complex modern lifestyles are devouring resources far faster than ever in human history—not just oil, coal and natural gas, but also metals, minerals and other elements we use every day. If industrialized nations actually started running out of some of these things, the result would be massive disruptions.
The truth is, ominous evidence is already emerging that we are beginning to run out of easily accessible supplies of these resources. Not just a few of them. Practically all of them.
Mankind is nearing a crossroads. The population and standards of living cannot keep rising indefinitely. At some point soon, the human race is going to hit “peak people.”
But again, is the problem simply that there are too many of us? There is a deeper cause we must face.
How Many Is Too Many?
How many people can comfortably live on Earth at one time? Ecologists and other scientists have pondered this “carrying capacity” for years. Now the question is getting more urgent.
How can we keep everyone fed, watered, clean and healthy? How can we dispose of their waste and trash? How can we house everyone and provide them with energy? How many can have electricity, cars, appliances? What happens when demand for oil, coal and natural gas exceeds supply?
These questions are destined to become more urgent as the populace keeps expanding, particularly as expectations about standards of living rise.
In the world’s most populous nation, a burgeoning middle class is suddenly demanding luxuries that have long been restricted to the Western world: more meat on the table, more cars in the garage. China is now actually the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, making more cars last year than the United States and Japan put together.
Right now, America has less than 5 percent of the world’s people and consumes 20 percent of its resources. What happens when 10 or 20 percent of the world wants to live like Americans?
In the early 1990s, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel conceived of the Global Footprint Network (gfn), a model for estimating the ecological demands that various standards of living put on the planet. They calculated that the average person on Earth needs 4.4 acres of land and sea to support him. To maintain current living standards, the average person in China needs 5.4 acres, and the typical American needs nearly 20 acres.
Ehrlich, who still lectures as a professor in population studies at Stanford, estimates that for the average human to live like the average American, we would need four or five more Earths.
Estimates of Earth’s carrying capacity vary wildly. But most serious estimates fall between 10 and 20 billion people.
That size population, though, would require revolutionary changes from our world as it is today, which is already facing supply problems with only 7 billion. Clearly, to bring this planet to the point where it would comfortably support a population two to three times what it is now would require far better stewardship of its resources than we exercise, and far greater cooperation within that population.
Realistically, could that ever happen?
We are beginning to approach the answer to our question.
Those who claim the world is producing too many people have some compelling evidence.
Humanity is clearly on an unsustainable course. We simply cannot continue to mismanage, consume and pollute the way we are right now. Current demand is rapidly depleting current supplies of finite resources like oil, coal, natural gas, metals, minerals and even water. New discoveries of easily accessed sources are getting more rare, and older sources are declining in output.
Meanwhile, demand continues to rise. Last year oil use reached a record high of 87.4 million barrels a day. Based on the gfn model and present rates of growth in demand, Rees and Wackernagel calculate that mankind will need two Earths’ worth of resources—before we even hit 2040. They also estimate that it takes the planet 18 months to regenerate what humanity consumes in 12 months. “Humanity is living off its ecological credit card,” Wackernagel said in 2006.
Peaking supply and rising demand point to an inevitable crunch that, at the very least, will drive prices up to levels that could ruin already fragile economies.
One obvious sign of the approach of this crisis point is the means by which more and more resources are being collected today. Easily accessible reservoirs of crucial resources are disappearing, so governments and corporations have begun to exploit more difficult-to-reach, expensive, environmentally risky and even dangerous sources. Oil is being coaxed out of the inhospitable Arctic and from the ocean depths, where it creates disasters like the massive Gulf of Mexico spill in the summer of 2010. It is coming from tar sands, a costly process that takes an enormous amount of energy to harvest and convert into a usable form. Natural gas is being mined through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which can produce 80 million gallons of toxic wastewater per well and may have other environmental drawbacks. Rare earth minerals, used in a variety of modern technologies, are in short supply. Because of the environmental dangers of mining them, America shut down its rare earth production years ago. Meanwhile, China bought up a virtual monopoly on these commodities, and now is able to practically hold to ransom the rest of the world that seeks to use them.
One of the most basic human needs is food, but modern food production now faces rising oil and gas prices, which increase food production costs at every level of the process, including for the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Phosphorus, crucial for fertilizer, cannot keep up with rising demand. Arable land is becoming scarcer as we degrade and erode our soil with ruinous farming practices. Most of the world’s big fisheries are experiencing dramatic declines in supply. Adverse weather events like droughts and floods are increasing, which reduce crop yields or even wipe out harvests.
Look at these concerns in the big picture: Already, more than a billion of the world’s people are undernourished, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (fao) says. Meanwhile, food production is rising at only about half the rate of global population and food demand.
More People, More Suffering
For those of us who take basic needs like decent food and clean water for granted, it is easy to overlook the vast swaths of fellow Earth-dwellers who have little of either. For so many, the problem of resource scarcity is as real as the gnawing pain in their empty, distended bellies.
Every day almost 4,000 children die from waterborne diseases. Nearly a billion people lack access to safe water. The fao says that number will rise to 1.8 billion by 2025. Over 2.5 billion don’t have adequate sanitation.
Drought and food shortages in the Sahel region of West Africa are putting 23 million lives at risk, the UN says. Several African countries have suffered from these problems consistently for the past few decades, but they are growing worse. The UN Children’s Fund estimated earlier this year that a million young children in the Sahel region risk death or permanent disability from severe acute malnutrition. Malnutrition contributes to about a third of the deaths of children under age 5.
How much of these crises are attributable to the raw pressure of overpopulation? We cannot ignore the plain fact that most of the world’s population growth is happening in less developed areas. While birthrates in much of the First World aren’t even at replacement levels, Africa and Asia are reproducing like mad. Based on current trends, Africa’s population would double to 2.1 billion by 2050; Asia would add another 1.3 billion. By 2050, the world’s less-developed regions would hold 85 percent of the world’s 9.2 billion people. The great majority would grow up in conditions of moderate to extreme want—like the 2 billion people who already survive on less than $2 per day.
Of the 80 million babies born in developing countries each year, 20 million are in the world’s poorest nations. In these cases, growth in human population directly correlates to growth in human suffering.The more people, the more suffering!
However, in most of these cases, blaming the crisis on “too many people” is simplistic and misguided. The truth is more complicated.
Many analysts say there is still plenty of food and water to go around. It just isn’t getting to where it is needed. Why? Economic trouble, poverty, rising unemployment, dropping incomes, rising food prices, bad leadership, corruption, violence, war.
This truth lies at the crux of our fundamental question! The problem isn’t that the Earth lacks good resources, it’s that people lack good resource management. It isn’t too many humans—it’s too much human nature.
This dangerous reality is about to explode in our faces!
With many population- and resource-related issues, one can easily foresee mankind soon starting to hit some immovable walls. There is no “central planning” to address most of these questions.
What is beginning to emerge, then, is an increasingly combative environment in which each country angles to secure its own future by staking its claims at whatever cost it deems necessary. Author Michael Klare says the world is plunging into “a crisis of resource depletion.” The title of his book is as chilling as it is fitting: A Race for What’s Left.
Africa and Latin America are becoming battlegrounds, particularly between China and Europe, over who will control the commodities locked away there. Several countries, especially in Asia, anticipate trouble on the horizon and have been snapping up huge tracts of African farmland—not to feed Africans, but to feed their own people. More and more, major powers are treating each other based on competition over energy resources, with energy exporters virtually weaponizing the political leverage they wield against their dependent importers.
History vividly illustrates the consequences of such rivalries: broken economies, societal upheaval, famine, war.
But it is not just history that should raise our concerns. These are exactly the sorts of perilous conditions that biblical prophecy reveals will besiege our world in its final days, a time we have now entered. Epic clashes over resources, within and among populations, are coming!
The Bible describes these events alongside the sudden emergence of a global economic superpower. This force will strike out in aggressive imperialistic fashion, gobbling up resources and even enslaving whole peoples to satiate its covetousness and stoke its engines! Scripture also describes the exact size of a combined Asiatic army—a multitude that would never have been possible before the population on that continent grew to the size it is today! (Revelation 9:16).
This is how “this present evil world,” as the Bible describes it, will come to its violent end! Scripture says the warfare will become so slaughterous that not a single human being would be left alive—unless God Himself intervenes to stop it! (Matthew 24:21-22).
Thankfully, that is exactly what He will do. These monumental world wars are not the end of the story on the human population. Biblical prophecy also reveals what lies beyond the ferocious end of this age.
The Coming Population Explosion!
The human race has produced four times as many people in the last 100 years as we did in the previous 5,900 years! And consider what happened in the brutal 20th century: two massive world wars and countless smaller wars, several famines, disease epidemics, pestilence. Yet the global population still boomed from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion people today!
The rocketing population rate isn’t a result of people having more children—in fact, birth rates are lower now than during previous periods in history. The difference is that people are living longer and having children who survive infancy.
What would happen if world conditions suddenly changed even more drastically for the better?
What would happen if there were no war, no famine, no disease epidemics, no infant death or other blights that shorten life spans and wipe out whole groups of people? How would this affect quality of life, fertility, life spans—and population growth?
Whether or not you believe it, the sure word of biblical prophecy promises that this is exactly what will happen!
Present world conditions reveal the imminence of the greatest event in history: the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. When He returns, Christ will establish a far better world than the one our children are being born into.
The prophecies in Scripture describe conditions of peace, prosperity, abundance, good health and strong families that will prevail for century after century after century—10 of them, in fact (e.g. Revelation 20:4). They promise that people will obey God’s health laws and spiritual laws on a broad scale. As a result, there will be no sickness, no pain, no suffering. There will be, as Herbert Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages, “vigorous, vibrant good health, filled with dynamic interest in life, enthusiastic interest in constructive activities bringing happiness and joy.”
Clearly, these are conditions extremely conducive to population growth even more explosive than this planet has already seen over the past century.
Now, as the current strains over resources well illustrate, indiscriminate population growth is not desirable. Our planet contains a finite amount of God-given resources over which He has made us stewards.
Earth cannot sustain several billion people who all consume and waste resources like Americans do today. It cannot indefinitely provide for multiplying people who pollute its waters and skies, turn its forests into deserts, strip its soils and depopulate its animal species.
However, biblical prophecy offers practical insight into how these destructive practices will come to an end. It provides exhilarating details about how the questions of population expansion and resource management will be handled. It vividly describes a world where people treat this planet with respect—where they properly steward its resources—where they strive to maximize Earth’s productive potential, not just for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren—and where, as a result, they enjoy God’s richest blessings!
Be Fruitful and Multiply
Just as He told Adam and Eve, God wants human beings to fill the Earth! (e.g. Psalm 128). And He promises that, after He prevents them from annihilating themselves, they will do so again. In Isaiah 27:6, for example, He prophesies, “Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit.”
That future population boom takes on an inspiring dimension when viewed in the context of God’s great purpose for the human race.
God made man in His own image and likeness; He gave him dominion over the animals; He told him to subdue the Earth—to govern it; He commissioned him to dress and keep the world around him—to work it and watch over it (Genesis 1:26-29; 2:15; Psalm 8:4-8). Do you know why?
The Bible makes clear that these responsibilities are intended to prepare human beings for much greater opportunities in the future!
Once you grasp the incredible potential of humanity, then the awesome answer to how many people Earth can support begins to emerge: Ultimately, from God’s perspective, the more human beings, the better.
How to Accommodate a Population Boom
Today, 29 percent of Earth’s surface is land, and only 10 percent of that is cultivatable. Not even 3 percent of the Earth’s surface is suitable for food production.
The Bible prophesies that these restrictive conditions are about to change radically.
Jesus Christ is about to be crowned King of kings and Lord of lords. His government will rule the whole Earth. Thus, with guidance from the Creator, mankind will learn to successfully “dress and keep” the material creation as the first humans were instructed but failed to do. The curse that God placed on the land because of Adam’s sin, which makes farming and food production far more laborious, will be lifted (Genesis 3:17-19; Isaiah 55:13).
Better land management practices, amplified by God’s blessings, will reclaim mile upon mile of wilderness and desert, making them habitable and productive (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6-7). By following God’s agricultural laws, mankind will produce food without depleting the soil. Encumbrances like pests, blights, diseases, droughts, floods and other disasters will be all but eliminated; favorable weather will be the rule (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:4-5, 10, 12; Ezekiel 34:26-27). Fields, crops, orchards and vines will be so productive and yields will be so great that farmers will be unable to keep up; they will still be harvesting when planting season comes (Amos 9:13-14). This and other prophecies describe food production—gardens and animal husbandry—taking place even within cities (e.g. Jeremiah 33:12).
Increased agricultural prosperity and higher crop yields will substantially increase the land’s ability to sustain a burgeoning human population. More people will be able to live off the resources of fewer acres.
In addition, God promises to increase the acreage of habitable land, actually reshaping the planet’s topography in order to make room for more and still more people! Read the description in Isaiah 41:15-16 of a huge threshing instrument leveling mountains. This prophecy provides marvelous proof that the Bible was divinely inspired, not merely the imaginings of uneducated camel herders: The need for such a machine wouldn’t even enter the mind of a man living in a world with only 200 million people! God, however, knew there would come a time when these continents would reach maximum capacity, and humankind would simply need more land!
In the World Tomorrow, under God’s direction, with human beings practicing good stewardship and enjoying phenomenal health and wealth, the world population will grow well beyond 7 billion! It will far surpass 10 billion, even 20 billion!
The deeper into the Millennium we go, and the more populated Earth becomes, the more critical good stewardship will become. Mankind will need to be increasingly cognizant of reducing trash, of employing innovative ways of dealing with human waste, of drawing upon clean, sustainable energy sources. And you can be sure that God won’t simply give mankind all the answers. He will supply laws and guidelines, provide wise counsel, and then challenge us to find our own solutions.
How many people can our planet support? Perhaps the best answer is this: The better stewards we are, the larger the human population can be.
Still More People!
The fact is, God doesn’t tell us how many people Earth can host. It seems likely He had a number in mind when He created the planet at a certain size, with specific amounts of resources, and humans with certain land, soil, water and mineral requirements to sustain a life. But He may continue to let the human race grow in responsibility and wisdom as we approach that answer through analysis and experience.
However it unfolds, we can be sure that the civilization that God governs—even with an enormous human population—will be clean, efficient, organized, harmonious and fabulously beautiful.
Even that, however, is not the end of the story. The Bible also reveals that at the end of a thousand years, there will be a sudden, massive population explosion, when all human beings who have lived and died throughout history without knowing God will be resurrected to physical life (see Revelation 20:11-12; Ezekiel 37:1-14). Historical population estimates suggest that this will be somewhere around 100 billion people!
What a contrast it will be for those people, who only experienced life as it has existed under flawed human mismanagement, suddenly awakening within a world that perfectly provides all the needs of a population several times larger than the one they left! They will receive a powerful, living illustration of the importance of good stewardship!
By the end of that period of judgment, during which those people will build houses and plant vineyards, continuing to tend to the Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25), surely this planet will have been used to its maximum! It will be humming with life, filled with people who have been educated in proper stewardship, caring well for whatever gifts and resources God blesses them with.
At that point, the Bible shows that this remarkable human race will be able to apply those lessons on a much larger scale.
When one understands the unfathomable vastness of God’s plan for man, and our Creator’s awesome purpose for human beings, and the incredible potential bound up within every last child created in His likeness, then one can appreciate the true beauty of this glorious population explosion!
Sidebar: Chilling ‘Solutions’ to Population Growth
Many brilliant people have contemplated our resource reality in great depth. They have recognized the problem, applied their sharpest reasoning, and come up with exactly the opposite of God’s remedy—a “final solution,” if you will: Get rid of the people.
The way they see it, the more people, the worse off we are. They are bigoted against their own human race. Radical environmentalists, for example, freely admit that they think humans are basically viruses. They want to take civilization back to hunter-gatherer days. Their answer is not better resource stewardship. Not less human nature. Fewer humans.
Some of these influential individuals have promoted very draconian and quite chilling ways to accomplish this goal. These people share much in common with some of history’s most oppressive governments. Both use the facts on population and resource use to justify outlawing large families, forced sterilization, aborting babies, female infanticide and other dreadful “solutions.”
In China, over a third of married couples are restricted to having one child. Beijing credits the policy with preventing 400 million births since 1979. The head of the British government’s Sustainable Development Commission, Sir Jonathon Porritt, considers that a smashing success, calling it “the biggest carbon dioxide abatement since Kyoto came into force.” His organization, the Optimum Population Trust, seeks to combat greenhouse gas emissions by cutting Britain’s population in half—through means it doesn’t specify.