8 billionth baby and whether there are too many humans for Earth to support

 Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

If the projection by the United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2022, is accurate, the eight billionth baby is expected to be born on November 15. The date may be off by a day or two, but it is certain that the eight billionth baby is due anytime now.

With that baby, the world’s population would have multiplied a little over four times in 100 years. A century ago, the population was about two billion. Barely 200,000 years ago on a planet about 4.5 billion-years-old, the population of homo sapiens was estimated to be between 100,000 and 300,000.

By itself, the eight billionth baby may not tip the climate scale in anyway. The climate scale began tipping decades ago and the world is now at a stage where the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres feels compelled to say that humanity is already on a “highway to climatic hell” with its foot still firmly on the accelerator.

The figure of eight billion is merely to help concentrate minds across the globe about what is in store.

According to the World Population Prospects 2022, the projections suggest that the global population could grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100.

“Population growth is caused in part by declining levels of mortality, as reflected in increased levels of life expectancy at birth. Globally, life expectancy reached 72.8 years in 2019, an increase of almost 9 years since 1990. Further reductions in mortality are projected to result in an average longevity of around 77.2 years globally in 2050,” the report said. Increasing longevity too has implications for the healthy survival of the planet.

In terms of the climate catastrophe posing an existential threat to humanity as a whole, it does not necessarily have to be a slow but steady moving crisis to nearly wipe humans out. It can be one dramatic natural event. For instance, a research paper published in Nature in April 2021, said between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago a population bottleneck occurred due to which effective population size was reduced to between 1000 and 10,000 individuals. There is a school of scientific thought that holds that the Toba supervolcano eruption that occurred some 72,000 years ago on the   in Indonesia could have a possible link to this drastic dwindling in the human population in that period.

Whether the world has become unmanageably overpopulated from the time of the 17th century BC numbering between 27 and 50 million, between 196 million and 250 million in 200 AD, about 800 million around 1798 to eight billion now is a question which has many answers. Broadly, there are those who consider the world to be dangerously overpopulated and those who see it as a case of great success for the species.

The U.N. projections suggest that the world population will touch 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100 and will then begin to plateau to eventually decline.

The impact of high population on global climate is not necessarily entirely because of the number of humans but the amount of consumption, which is often obscenely conspicuous in the West, according to one view. It is not expected that there will be a consensus view anytime soon about whether high population is deeply problematic or broadly beneficial. Someone like the iconic broadcaster David Attenborough, for instance, believes overpopulation poses a direct threat to human survival. In a radio interview in 2013, he was quoted as saying, “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”

However, there are those who take a more nuanced view saying that the planet can support the numbers of humans projected by the U.N. as long as consumption patterns are intelligently managed.

On a separate but related note, according to the World Population Prospects 2022, India is expected to overtake China in 2023 to become the most populous nation in the world. It would be interesting to see whether the eight billionth baby will be born in India, a distinction which many may find very hard to celebrate in the stifling shadow of the climate catastrophe.

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