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Crowded world

October 25, 2011

The global population is growing at a faster rate than ever before. But can our planet sustain seven billion people? Some politicians and experts are rethinking our current economic and social models.

New born babies
There will be nine billion people by 2050Image: DW/Sanel Kajan

By the end of October, a baby will be born somewhere on this planet that will, according to United Nations estimates, make the global population add up to seven billion.

Experts like to call our population growth a "population explosion." In the last 200 years, the growth rate has been the fastest in the history of humankind. By 2050, the global population is expected to exceed 9.1 billion.

According to the UN, every individual is born with unalienable rights: the right to the protection of his or her dignity, a right to food and water, education, health and housing. Most individuals are likely to dream of material wealth and well-being, based on a Western lifestyle.

Masses in India
India is soon to be the world's most populous countryImage: dpa

But is the planet actually able to support this Western model? "The typical US-American or European lifestyle is not sustainable," says Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, German environmental expert and member of the World Future Council. If the world continues along its current growth part, he is convinced "we would need three planets."

Limitless growth?

Some 40 years ago, the nongovernmental Club of Rome published a now famous study, "Limits to Growth." The club challenged the notion of limitless population growth.

But UN expert Jean Ziegler is convinced that our planet is able to support 12 billion people. In theory, there should be enough food to feed them, he says. In practice, however, food resources would have to be divided in a different manner and rural areas and small-scale farmers in the Global South would need to be supported. Faced with a scarcity of resources in many areas, the world will be unable to continue as before for much longer, he believes.

Limited resources

According to UN predictions, India is set to overtake China as the country with the largest population. At the same time, population figures in industrialized countries are shrinking. Industrialized societies and, increasingly, densely populated emerging economies have the highest consumption rate of resources, be it food, water, earth, fossil fuels or precious metals.

Ralf Fücks of the Green party believes that the fossil era, based on consumption of fossil resources, is no longer sustainable. Neither the current energy nor the transport system can be reproduced at the global level, he says.

And then there's climate change

People wade through a flooded area in Bangkok
Developing nations are at risk of climate-related disastersImage: AP

There are also growing concerns that climate change may lead to average temperatures rising to around four degrees Celsius. Should these concerns become reality, then - according to the United Nations Development Program - some 330 million people would be faced with devastating floods and forced to leave their homes. In Bangladesh alone some 70 million people are likely to be affected.

At the same time, many of the world’s regions may soon become too arid to sustain farming, adding further pressure on global resources, drinking water, food and land.

Limited resources and climate change jar with the current ideas of development based on the assumptions of limitless growth, says von Weizsäcker. He calls such assumptions "absurd," and does not expect the much-promised development through global, liberalized markets to do much to help.

On the contrary, the scientist believes, "the financial crisis of 2008 proved that the almost religious belief in the markets’ creative power was devastatingly wrong. Markets are able to create an incredible amount of damage."

The birth of a new ecological modernity?

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker (Foto: DW)
Von Weizsäcker says we'll need three planets soon to sustain our consumptionImage: DW

Von Weizsäcker demands a deliberalization of markets, coupled with a shift towards a more efficient use of resources.

"What I’m trying to say is that we need to extract three times, or five times as much wealth from each square meter of land, from each kilowatt hour and from each cubic meter of water than we are doing now," he says. "Technologically that is indeed possible." He emphasizes that his vision is by no means utopian, but a new benchmark.

Ecological modernization is not only being discussed within the Green Party.

This debate is also taking place within a newly-founded commission in the Bundestag, the German parliament. The cross-party working group "Growth, Wealth, Quality of Life" has been charged with examining how growth and the use of resources can be separated.

Green jobs and social policies

Creating ecologically friendly jobs for future generations is a top priority for the International Labor Organisation. The ILO’s General Director Juan Somavia recently spoke in favor of creating an economy based on job creation and low-carbon emissions, coupled with new environmental and social policies.

For now, however, the attention of both parliaments and politicians remains firmly focused on the current organizational structure of the economy – and on how to deal with the economic crisis.

In December, members of the UN are meeting in South Africa for the next round of climate change negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the well-being of a growing population is high on the global agenda.

Author: Ulrike Mast-Kirschning / nc

Editor: Ben Knight