Can the world support ten billion people? Since the industrial revolution, the number of humans has increased exponentially: in 1800, one billion people lived on our planet, then it took 127 years for the Earth’s population to double. Since then, however, doubling has taken place at ever shorter intervals and there are now almost 8 billion people. Experts estimate that there will be between 10 and 12 billion by the year 2100. Can population growth go on forever?

How do we feed 12 billion people (without resorting to Soylent Green)? Our rapidly growing world population presents us with a problem, because more people means greater resource consumption. We are already using up non-renewable raw materials at an alarming rate, and the burning of fossil fuels is driving us towards catastrophic climate change.

Not all people consume equally. If everybody in the world consumed as much as Europeans, we would need 2.8 planets worth of resources to sustain us. If we all lived like Americans, we would need almost 5 planets. How many people can the Earth support sustainably?

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Boris arguing that our planet simply cannot support a global population of more than 7 billion people. Is that true?

We put Boris’ question to population research expert Dr Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. In his 1996 book “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” he investigated what factors influence the capacity of the Earth to support humans. So, how many people does he think the Earth can support?

Nobody knows. I wrote a 550-page book called ‘How Many People Can the Earth Support?’. I have reviewed estimates ranging from less than 1 billion to more than a trillion, or 1,000 billion people. The reason people give such different answers is because people make different assumptions about how people live.

Are they starving, or living in poverty or great wealth? By what means do they have to make a living? Will we have horse-drawn ploughs or will we have tractors? Will we have solar energy or energy from fossil fuels? Will we resolve our conflicts by killing each other or will we resolve our conflicts through diplomacy, mediation and peaceful means? All these questions and many more need to be answered and are usually assumed before a number is given. Therefore, I cannot answer your question. I am very sorry, but if someone tells you ‘I know the answer’, then that person is not thinking deeply.

For another perspective, we also put Boris’ comment to Robin Maynard, Director of Population Matters, which advocates for ethical and free will-based ways to slow and prevent population growth. What does he think?

That’s a good question, Boris. It’s also fantastic to hear that more and more young people are asking this question, because it is your future that this pressure will really affect. The truth is that, in terms of a fair and just world, we cannot currently feed humanity fairly with a population of 7.8 billion people. In Europe we live very well, but if everyone wanted to live like we do, we would need three Earths. And we don’t have three Earths.

So, you are right to ask the question: ‘How many people can the Earth support?’. There’s a whole range of factors there, but of course we at Population Matters want the population to decline in a controlled, free and unconstrained way, which is quite possible. Because that will make life better for future generations of humans, for the other species we share the planet with, and of course for our one living Earth.

Next up, we had a comment from Tamzin pointing out that it’s not just a question of feeding ten billion people, but also the “tons of rubbish” that a growing population produces. On the other hand, could a circular economy support a larger population? How would Robin Maynard of Population Matters respond?

Well, Tamzin, we don’t just talk about human populations at Population Matters. We talk about populations of things. So, for example: consumer waste. I think people have woken up to waste. It’s not just ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and we really need to get to a circular economy. There is a lot of good work being done. When I was your age, Tamzin, people didn’t recycle at all; we just threw everything away. It’s encouraging to see that across generations recycling is now something that everyone does. But we still have a long way to go.

Of course, it’s not just about the visible waste. It is the pollutants in the form of gases, especially climate gases, and pesticide residues in our soils that are still there after 50 years. So we have some real problems to deal with and I can only hope that the technological part of the equation will enable us to deal with that, but we still need to use less stuff. I think that’s the hardest part. For us in the West, with a high standard of living, we have to consume less and waste less and allow others in the developing world to consume a bit more but still waste less to balance things out.

What does population researcher Dr Joel Cohen think? What are his thoughts on the possibilities of a circular economy to support a growing population and reduce the amount of waste produced?

There is nothing on this Earth that can be thrown away. We cannot throw anything away except our time and our lives. Every physical object only changes its form and Tamzin is right that we must consider everything we use as something we will reuse. In every breath you and I breathe are molecules that the Roman emperors breathed. You can work out that in my breath now there is a certain number of molecules that Julius Caesar breathed, because in every breath there are a lot of molecules. So, yes, a circular economy is the future. But we need to see this future in a wider context.

In 1900, people were very worried that there would be no population growth in New York City because the horses would produce so much manure that the city would be knee-deep in horse manure if the population of New York continued to grow, and more people brought more horses. That didn’t happen because something changed. Transportation switched to cars, which don’t produce horse manure. Instead, they produce invisible manure – carbon dioxide – from burning fossil fuels, and now we are up to our necks in carbon in our atmosphere from cars and other sources. We need to learn that there is no way to throw this manure away.

We need renewable energy and recyclable materials of all kinds. A circular economy is the way of the future. But it will take a lot of ingenuity, hard work and a lot of vision to get there, because we have not been trained to think in terms of a circular economy.

How many people can the Earth support? Are our resources too scarce to feed a growing world population? Can a circular economy lead to better resource use? Do we need to slow down population growth? What do you think? Write to us!

Image Credits: Bigstock (c) Varavin88


72 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Julia

    I don’t see the EU giving the billions of poor starving people any food at all. And what about the famous food mountains where perfectly good food is thrown away to keep food prices higher? I know some corporations think they can play monopoly with the planet and sell people soylent green with the new deceive, evade, scare, shame marketing tactics, but modern as they are they are relics keeping humanity back from greatness. Technology can be used to grow food as naturally as possible and help poor countries become self-sufficient for their food needs. Green energy can replace fossil fuels. Money can be created to pay for basic needs and the profit system could be layered on top. Genetics, precision medicine and precision nutrition can become new businesses. These power hungry money mad monopoly players are old school. They don’t realise that they are on their way down and out because they think they are reaching their peak. It may be a rough ride for a decade, but they will be trashed and recycled. Hopefully before they destroy the world.

  2. avatar
    catherine benning

    How many people can the Earth support?

    The reason we have a planet population explosion is, in numerous ways, a direct cause of ‘European’ people and their obsession with so called ‘goodness.’ In future, ‘goodness for whom’ may best be considered, as hindsight is not a good way to learn the lesson of too much power in the wrong direction, when that is utterly destructive. Feeding the five thousand was a Christian thing to do, but, at the time this took place the people on this planet were very few and not a drain on our planets resources.

    Now, European leaders feed the world to the point of ludicrousness. Vaccinations, nets, money for clean water, money spent to prolong unproductive life is now out of hand. The people being encouraged to breed are unable to take care of those they bring into life. Which creates more non productive breading and the planet is suffering unable to ‘produce’ as a result of ill thought out concepts that cannot be coped with on any realistic level.

    On top of that, you promote and instil an expectation that the productive owe a living to the unproductive, which creates resentment across the board. Those receiving charity resent those giving charity and those giving it, resent being forced to give whilst they remain unable to reach their full potential from lack of their stolen resources. Creating this insincere nowhere land of extraordinary chaos designed from a human condition believing they can play ‘God’ or the ‘force of nature’ without having the insight to see they create nothing but destruction. Their thinking is the equivalent of a wild fire burning the forest to stretches of barren wasteland…. Grow up and face reality before you finish our entire species the way you are finishing numerous other worthy life forms we have as Earths gifts. Nature knows life is only worthy to producers of advance awareness or those who clean up in some form, not billions of useless eaters.

  3. avatar
    Mark O'Brien

    Like a cancer eating it’s host until it dies, humans are doing the same to Earth.

  4. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive

    Thank you, DE for giving us a breather- instead of bombarding us with 5 questions a week- only 3 days left!

    Who knows best, has guts and speaks with conviction? Some facts first:
    https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth

    The global population clock shows: 7.87 billion & growing!
    https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

    • Dr Joel Cohen advocates a “circular economy” but honestly admits: “I cannot answer your question”

    • Robin Maynard, Director of Population Matters advocates free will-based ways to slow and prevent population growth”. He says: “which is quite possible.”
    It follows that he thinks he knows!

    • Sir David Attenborough- Population Matters patron philosophically says:
    “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder- and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”

    • Or, a courageous comment by Catherine Benning?

    I believe it is impossible to convince the First world to accept and subscribe to a “frugal existence”!
    The EU is a prime example by counteracting the Brexit shortfall by increasing the maximum “allowed level of own resources” from its Members maximum allowed 1.20 % to 1.40 % to keep their (wasteful) bureaucratic ship afloat!
    A typical example of self-interest & indulgence- while preaching one thing but not heading their own advice! This is not frugal governing!

    All say similar things, but which country, which politician or party will act first and risk being labelled xenophobes, racist, mean and risking their careers by standing up against the tide of rising criticism and abuse from those who have their head deep in the sand and squander billions from well-wishers?

    These are the smart eternal professional politicians, underachievers, takers and wasters of donations, grants and well-meaning development aid. Such common thieves have no intentions to uplift their poor & suffering fellow kind, but are busy lining their pockets by increasing their bank accounts in tax havens.

    Such ilk should be exposed as what they are- as the most dishonest, disgusting, destructive, sinister & egoistic breed of politicians on earth- to be disposed of & prosecuted.

    Seems a bright star in the dark political universe is rising?
    Is a bold & brave first step by the BREXIT UK on the cards?

    https://reliefweb.int/report/world/reaction-uk-announcement-cuts-foreign-aid

    Elon Musk is not only a clever player in the e-car, rocket & Bitcoin game- will he be a winner in the population game- by advocating a “population collapse”? Has he become a clairvoyant, prophet or crystal-gazer? Fewer people to buy e-cars, install solar systems, fly into space & buy Bitcoins? Sell his shares!

    https://www.businessinsider.co.za/elon-musk-reiterates-global-population-is-headed-for-collapse-2019-6?r=US&IR=T

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      EU Reform Proactive

      You really should go to the top pf the class for this post. And have an added prize for it. Well done.

      It is exacerbation not bravery that stimulates being outspoken. All I meet say the same as the huge majority who speak but are muffled. Those in government are some kind of nemesis to the productive fruit of our people and where they reside is not their rightful place. They diminish those who try to expose what is taking place, doing it by some kind of suffocation and pretence of truth and reality. Believing this will sill stifle change. Which, presently, it appears it does.

  5. avatar
    Tom

    The problem never was overpopulation, the problem is overconsumption. This has even been proven time and time again by professor Rosling among others.

  6. avatar
    Elsje

    Als de cabal geen oorlogen zou voeren om het volk bewust op hopen te krijgen en als de cabal niet het land zou afpakken van zwerversvolkeren en natuurvolkeren en als het niet hun duivelse bedoeling ware om de mensen tot steden te formeren en dat hen daarbij alle middelen het doel heiligen (zoals brandstichting en veel moorden) ware er geen reden tot een debat dat tot het oneindige (of tot de satanisten hun straf krijgen) duurt en geld opbrengt voor de cabal-regering.

  7. avatar
    Diri

    The world population was about 100 million at the height of the Roman Empire. It now stands at nearly 8 billion. We don’t need that many people.

  8. avatar
    Stijn

    Most models put the cap around 9-10 billion, and that is with our current technology. With population growth comes innovation growth(more humans=more ideas) so no worries. As GDP increases child birth naturally falls, so that isn’t a problem either. And certainly not in western countries with a negative population growth. All this overpopulation nonsens comes from a very anti human sentiment wich is neither scientific nor moral.

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      Stijn

      There is no such thing as ‘no population growth.’ Europe has more people now than ever before. Migrant population. Most all of it unproductive. Meaning, it does not feed itself. It comes to be fed. This removes room for growth in the indigenous population. Masses now line up at food banks after doing a full weeks work. Something never seen in the west except in European wars. The standard of living is dropping at a rate that is terrifying. Not to mention how is it that what you spout is utter rubbish and you feel it won’t be challenged. The population of the planet is growing at a rate totally unsustainably, yet, you tell us it will shrink. Oh, yes, and when will that be? It hasn’t for at least one thousand years and it isn’t going down today. But, guess what, it is growing and growing exponentially.

      The indigenous population today finds difficulty accessing maternity wards to give birth safely, turned away at the doors for the influx of too many immigrants filling the beds as they have poor facilities for home birth. Our country is the equivalent of souk for third world baby birthing. All free at the point of use. But costing our tax payers their money as well as their life.

      https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/122820/Babies-being-born-in-lifts-in-maternity-beds-crisis

      This being the tip of the iceberg. And whose morality are you speaking of? Please do elaborate on that one. And one more addition, in this scenario it is more humans less ideas. The population grows dumber and barely able to function. The only growth industry is that of pretence via PC propaganda bull spread through every outlet. As well as on here.

  9. avatar
    Paka

    The anger, the contempt, the hatred, the lies, the big money and big power corruption, the totalitarian repression, the lockdowns, the violence, the burn-outs, the depressions, the diseases, the suicides, the poverty, the hunger, the increasing inhumane living conditions, crises and migration, the wars, the compulsory mouth mask wear, covid mass vaccination coerced and lured, …:http://tumia.org/en/directory/en/instance.php?tiname=The%20Contemporary%20Societal%20Collapse%20caused%20by%20Climate%20Change,%20the%206th%20Mass%20Extinction%20and%20Inequality&relationship=All&drsid=0&pisid=0&page=1
    [PHOTO] https://external.ffor11-1.fna.fbcdn.net/safe_image.php?d=AQGv93xixdxvLo_x&w=381&h=396&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.dongo.org%2Fpictures%2Fa_world.jpg&ccb=3-5&_nc_hash=AQHniusv3DIiPBPB

  10. avatar
    Jurgen

    Put more morons in front of everything boe no abortion oh taking the pill is bad and so on and on and my favorite more rabbit faking immigrants.

  11. avatar
    Miguel

    As you can see… fake book philanthropists are more worried about vaccines than world hunger…

  12. avatar
    Pat

    Il faut arrêtez toutes aide au développement et stopper l’immigration

  13. avatar
    Gilou

    it just depends of how those people consume ….25 billions africans could be okbut not more than 500 millions americans

  14. avatar
    Patrick

    No it isn’t thats again a big lie by the elite . All the people of the world fit in to the State Off Alaska with each 100m2

  15. avatar
    Kevin

    how about stop importing the crime waves here

  16. avatar
    Bas

    We aren’t to many, the greedy just don’t what to share… There’s enough for all of us

  17. avatar
    Christian

    Don’t worry, Bill Gates is working on the problem…

  18. avatar
    Marjan

    There is still plenty of room and soon populations will start shrinking rapidly and dramatically … stop catastrophizing!

  19. avatar
    Mark

    Go for good quality of live: 1.miljard mensen

  20. avatar
    Fred

    there is room for 100 billion reasonable, humble people. 1 billion with current behavior.

  21. avatar
    Phil

    Malthus was as stupid as the fatuous Paul Ehrlich. And that’s some going. The real story in the real world over the next century will be population decline. Homework homies! Watch a couple of Hans Rosling YouTube videos on the good news about population.

  22. avatar
    Buncle

    One thing is for sure… in our Western societies we never see ourselves as being the problem of overpopulation.

  23. avatar
    Marjan
  24. avatar
    Red

    Oh great depopulation research, maybe only the rich should live? Wouldn’t that be great for you assholes…..??

  25. avatar
    Tim

    castration, no vacination, …. enough solutions

  26. avatar
    Römann

    Overpopulation is a myth created by the same psychopaths who have no issue committing mass genocide

  27. avatar
    Yannick

    Earth’s pop will cap at around 11 billion, after that we’ll see a decline.

  28. avatar
    Stijn

    time for birth control world wide …

  29. avatar
    Michel

    c’est un piratage,ou bien ils sont sérieux?

  30. avatar
    Thierry GODFROID

    It is absolutely not about feeding people, it is about how those people would like to live with the image the “American way of life” has been disseminated around the world. If the world’s population continue to grow, it is obvious people will have to decrease the life standards we have in Europe and North-America.
    I am not sure younger people who benefit from those standards provided by “boomers” will accept to live an ant’s life …

  31. avatar
    Koşan

    Dont worry sperm quality of the most polluting/consuming group is declining rapidly

  32. avatar
    Geanina

    Well they are vaccinating pretty soon lot less I guess. But don’t you worry it’s all for the good of us…

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