human activity and the destruction of the planet

World Human Population: Past, Present and Future

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Up until the industrial revolution, the human population in the world had remained fairly static at around one billion people but, by 1930, it had doubled to 2 billion and had reached the third billion by 1959 (in less than 30 years), the fourth billion was reached another 15 years later (1974), and the fifth billion in only another 13 years (1987). According to the most recent United Nations estimates, the human population of the world is expected to reach 8 billion people by the spring of 2024. And 90% of world’s population now lives in cities.  A big change from the largely agricultural communities that existed before the industrial revolution.

Fig.43  The human population increase since the first century

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Figure 43 shows the human population increase since the first century – an almost identical curve to that in Fig. 7 (Chapter 1), which shows the increase in carbon emissions over the last two centuries.  Thus, there would appear to be a very strong link between human population increases and the increase in carbon emissions, perhaps through the common connection they both have with the industrial revolution.

The population of the world is currently growing at a rate of around 1.13% per year, with the average annual population change currently estimated at around 80 million per year. The annual growth rate reached its peak in the late 1960s, when it was at 2% and above. Population statisticians expect the human population to begin to level off at about 11 billion people, which they think will be reached by the end of this century, mainly because family size is reducing.  In some Asian countries, for example Bangladesh, family size is now just over 2 children per family, having reduced from about 5.5 children per family 50 years ago; this is mainly as a result of better education about birth control and a demonstrated relationship between large family size, poverty and infant mortality.

The most populous country is China, followed by India, the USA and Indonesia.  The pie chart in Figure 47 shows the breakdown by country of those countries with over 100 million people.  The United Kingdom ranks 22nd in the world in terms of population size, with just over 62½ million people.  The smallest nation listed in Wikipedia is the Pitcairn Islands, with a population of just 48.

As long ago as 1798, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)52 warned that population increase might create problems, as his calculations showed that population size increases exponentially (as in the Fig.46 graph), whereas food production increases arithmetically. He thought there would come a time when we would no longer be able to feed ourselves. He predicted that there would be a halt in population increase, followed by a rapid reduction in the population of the world, caused by natural catastrophes, such as famine, disease and war.  He made a number of suggestions about what needed to be done to curb this population increase, such as “moral restraint”, with criminal punishments for those who had more children than they could support. Some of these ideas led to him losing credibility yet, 200+ years later, we can see that his theory has come to be true, surprising in a way, as he came up with his theory long before the human population began its phase of most rapid increase.  And it is interesting that some countries (eg China, Bangladesh) have used his ideas about limiting the number of children they have, though recently China has relaxed this policy because of a shortage of young people to work in their growth industries.


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World Population breakdown for countries with over 100 million people

(from Google Images)

 A recent article in The Guardian condoning China’s relaxation of its one-child policy53 has met with considerable correspondence, especially by population scientists, who are continuing to urge that it is highly important to do something to curb population increase. However, human rights organisations hold a different view on this issue. And economists urge to maintain the numbers of babies being born, in order to keep furure generations to work in the (fossil-fuel-burning) industries to keep the economy growing.  Population dynamics can therefore be contentious issue.

Studies of animal populations have shown that population size tends to increase exponentially (as in the Fig.48 graph) until a point is reached when some external factor causes a decline in the population.  With some carnivorous species, this shows a regular pattern which is very strongly related to the availability of prey.  However, as with food webs, the real situation is rather more complicated than this.


Fig.45: Population size – the relationship between predator (lion) and prey (gazelle)


 In other species, a maximum population size is reached, followed by a slight decline and then a levelling off.  During the 1960s, when human population was increasing at its fastest rate, there were great concerns about the future of the human race and whether the earth would be able to produce enough food to sustain all human life.   Some recent studies by Professor Hans Rosling54 and produced in video form (“Don’t Panic – the facts about population”) have suggested that family size is reducing in most of the world, though not yet in Africa, nor in the UK. His projections show that, by 2050, eighty per cent of the world’s population will live in Asia and Africa, as population size is beginning to decline in Europe and the Americas.

The huge increases in population are undoubtedly the reason why some countries are tampering with the genetic code of certain crops, to develop food crops that give better yields, are less affected by pests etc.  However, I believe that this is another example of human activity changing the face of the earth that we inhabit, without first checking what the long-term consequencies of this tampering might be.

Population increase is probably related to a number of factors: the discovery of antibiotics, which can have the effect of prolonging human life; vaccination programmes, which have eradicated or reduced the incidence of some of the most lethal diseases (eg smallpox); a higher standard of living since the industrial revolution.   There are all kinds of theories promoted by experts in population dynamics as to what point the human population will have reached its zenith and what will be the external factor which triggers a rapid decline in human numbers.  It could be anything: overcrowding, leading to wars; climate change, leading to deaths by increased incidences of weather disasters and poor crop yield; a lack of food; air pollution/ lack of oxygen; industrial accidents, especially connected with the nuclear industry; global warming, leading to deaths from heat exposure – some countries (eg India) are already showing record high temperatures and increased numbers of deaths associated with this; the appearance of new “super-bugs”, resistant to known antibiotics; a meteor strike; or something else, not imagined as yet. An article in the Open University’s “Open Minds” magazine55, entitled “Humanity’s Last Stand” proposed five of the greatest threats to the continued survival of the human race, according to OU experts, as being:

  • The appearance of super-bugs resistant to current antibiotics;
  • Nuclear war;
  • A takeover by robots;
  • A hotter planet;
  • A meteor strike.

At the moment, we can say that the increase in the world population is one untoward consequence of the industrial revolution and its continuum.  We can also say that the increase in the human population has led to increased human activity in those areas which are damaging to our planet. So, there is another interconnectedness here:  climate change/species loss connected to human activity, especially since the industrial revolution; increased human population also since the industrial revolution, also leading to species loss as humans take over new habitats.  But there are other factors also interconnected with these three factors. One of these is affluence.

Affluence and carbon emissions

Statistics promoted by Prof. Hans Rosling demonstrate a clear relationship between extreme poverty and population dynamics.  They also show that, whilst many people are starting to move out of poverty (as a consequence of the better lifestyles of all since the industrial revolution), there are some who cannot manage this without outside help, and these remain in extreme poverty (mainly in Africa and Asia).  His statistics show that the richest people in the world have the greatest use of carbon emitting fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), being responsible for 50% of all carbon emissions.  Indeed further analysis shows that 85% of carbon emissions come from the medium rich to the very rich.  The poorest people on earth, despite their numbers, only contribute towards 15% of carbon emissions.  So, this is another interconnectedness – whilst there might still be large numbers of people living in poverty, they cannot be blamed for the carbon emissions causing climate change. In fact, many of them have become the victims of it.

So, we can see that the increase in carbon emissions has been caused by the industrial revolution but that the exponential rise in the human population has resulted in more and more human activity, causing more and more carbon emissions. Because the human population has been rising exponentially, it has set off an accompanying exponential rise in carbon emissions, the rate of which has surprised many scientists.  It is only by looking at the the interconnections that we can come to these conclusions.

Fig.46  Logo for World Population Day 2016

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However, there are many factors at work here. Just as the food chain is rarely a simple chain but more like a food web, so it is with carbon emissions.  Increased industrialisation – yes – but also increased numbers of people involved in more and more industrialisation.  Because it is more complicated than a simple cause and effect, it will take very sophisticated methods to reverse the trend, which will encroach on every area of life. Also, actions in some countries may not be relevent in other countries, so what is needed is a global response. Some of these issues are discussed by Paul and Ann Ehrlich in their book, “The Dominant Animal; Human Evolution and the Environment” (2008)56.


Bill Gates, founder of the Microsoft corporation, and of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an advisor to the Global Povery Project, which campaigns for the elimination of poverty. As part of the Global Citizen Initiative, a number of ambassadors have been appointed, of whom one is my son Ben, to raise awareness of the fact that poverty could be eliminated by 2030, with relatively small increases in aid budgets. GCI challenges some of the myths and beliefs that the world is getting worse and that extreme poverty cannot be solved.  It has been said that, for the cost of the Iraq war, we could have ended world hunger for 30 years.

However, the sadness is that, when people do lift themselves out of poverty, they then start adding to the total carbon emissions by buying themselves vehicles and household equipment and gadgets that they previously could not afford.  However, I do not think this is a reason not to help people out of poverty.  What we must do is educate people about the consequences of human activity and climate change so that they, with the rest of the world, will start to find new ways of living that do not place the planet at risk.

The Super Rich

Prof. Paul Rogers has published a paper for the Oxford Research Group6,57(Sep. 2012), entitled: “Chances for Peace in the Second Decade – What is going wrong and what we must do.” He identifies two root issues which bring about the likelihood of conflict and/or war.  They are: Socioeconomic divisions and environmental constraints (climate change), which he considers to be interrelated. In a section headed “Rich-Poor World”, he outlines how global economic growth has become more and more unbalanced, leading to the existence of a trans-global elite who own own about 85% of the world’s wealth (1.5 billion people out of a world population of 7 billion), with a super-elite of many thousands of multi-millionaires.  Because of the size of the elite, it acts as a self-contained global entity and persistently fails to recognise the endemic mal-distribution of world wealth and income.  Because of improved education and better communication, many marginalised groups are becoming aware of these divisions and injustices, leading to despair, resentment and anger.  All over the world new social movements are developing, to challenge the old order, leading to unrest, conflict and wars.

Another Professor, Andrew Sayer from Lancaster University, has released a book entitled, “Why we can’t afford the Rich”58, a book which won the 2015 Peter Townsend prize. He states in his book, “We cannot continue to provide the rich and super-rich with unearned income.  Their political power is a threat to democracy,  and their excessive consumption and dependence on never-ending growth are unsustainable.”

Oxfam has recently released figures59 that show that, by 2016, the combined wealth of the richest 1% of people will have overtaken that of the remaining 99% of people.  One in nine people in the world do not have enough to eat and more than a billion live on less than $1.25 a day.

Image result for oxfam statistics in a graph 1% v 99%


From: graph taken from statistics provided by Oxfam (


Fig. 48


There are those who are of the belief that big business is entirely responsible for terrorist attacks.In my first book I argue that it was no coincidence that the 9/11 outrage was targeted at the World Trade Centre – an icon for big business.  In her documentary, “The Economics of Happiness”, Helena Norberg-Hodge60 sets out how the world is moving simultaneously in two directions: Government and big business continue to promote globalisation and the consolidation of corporate power, whilst the rest of the world are resisting those policies and working to forge a very different future, which involves re-building on a more human scale, with the localisation of economics being the goal.


Concomitant with the increase in the world’s population, there has been an increasing trend in people moving to cities, in search of work, so that now 90% of the world’s peoples live in cities.  A good example of this trend occurred with my own family ancestors on my father’s side, who were originally farm labourers in Norfolk. During the mid-1800s, due to imports of vast quantities of American wheat, many British farms went out of business and my ancestors found themselves out of work.  My great great grandfather, John Jackson, and his large family, travelled north to Lincolnshire and then Yorkshire, finding work eventually in the coal mines and coke industry, thus contributing unwittingly to the whole industrialisation process. And a similar story can be told over much of the world, as factories have replaced farms and the IR Continuum spreads.

Industrialisation of Farming

But, there have also been trends to make farms become more like factories, with the introduction of battery farms for the raising of poultry and egg production, the keeping of pigs in restricted metal cages, whilst they give birth, and the transport of live animals across continents under inhumane conditions and without water, only to be slaughtered abroad in sometimes brutal practices.  There has been limited success in abolishing some of the most brutal of practices, by campaigning groups, but there is still a long way to go before animals are seen as related species sharing this world with us, rather than commodities to be sold and slaughtered for profit.

Farmers have also utilised more of their land, with the pressure to become more productive, so that hedgerows have disappeared and, with them, many of the bird species that nest there, along with small mammals61). However, legislation has been introduced to control this61.

Some of the inhumane consequencies of the industrialisation of farming


Fig.49:  Battery hens


Fig 50:  A sow being kept in a restrictive pen after giving birth.  


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Fig 51:  Sheep being shipped by ocean in very cramped inhumane conditions

Another of the situations predicted by Malthus was the development of “gluts” when farm production over-supplied with certain crops and foodstuffs.  In Europe there have been gluts of sugar, butter, wheat and now milk.  And at the time that I write, UK dairy farmers and going out of business because supermarkets are failing to pay a fair price for milk, because they can buy it more cheaply elsewhere.  The Fair Trade system was introduced a few years’ back, to help developing countries sell their goods at a fair price; this sytem also needs to be introduced for dairy farmers in the UK.

In some countries, people have stayed in rural areas and continued to till the land, but because of increased populations, there is less land available.  This has resulted in the felling of forests, in order to produce agricultural land.  And this itself has affected the climate, as these very same forests were the major “sinks” in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was absorbed to produce oxygen, through the process of photosynthesis (chapter 1).  The loss of the forests has also led to the loss of many rare species , as their habitat is lost (chapter 1).

In some countries too, there has been a move to fell forests to grow illicit crops, which are more lucrative, thus fuelling the drugs cartels and parallel economies.


One of the factors associated with a heterogenous world population is that people in different parts of the world grow up with different values and will seek to adhere to those values, wherever they live.  It is part of their cultural identity.  Thus, many in the UK adhere to a protestant work ethic, which may have been behind the industrial revolution.  Their value system also has much in common with Christian values of justice and fairness, even though many people no longer have a faith. In this country we also value education. This is, of course a generalisation, as many from the business world born out of the IR Continuum, do not adhere to the values of justice and fairness but instead see the acquisition of money as their main goal, perhaps because of ancestral links with the landowners of our feudal past.  They are not alone in this, as several of the other cultures settling in this country have different goals and values, mostly based on family and/or the acquisition of wealth.  This may be because they have come from poverty in their own countries, and want to send money to their relatives back home, or because they have come from a value system which admires those who have made a lot of money, rather than those who are well educated. Those coming from cultures which value the family (and father) above all else may find it difficult to adjust to a system based on the employer/employee relationship. In a multi-cultural society like ours, this can lead to conflicts, disaffection and a lack of awareness of the grave issues facing the world today.

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Fig 52: Multi-cultural Britain

The motivation to make money is a strong one and can also lead to a denial of the seriousness of climate change.

Many young people born in this country of parents who emigrated here from commonwealth countries, find themselves torn between two cultures:  the culture which their parents still value and the British culture.  They may feel they do not belong to either and this can lead to disaffection and the attractiveness of joining terrorist groups or criminal gangs, to which they feel they can belong.  It is a development with which we have not yet come to grips in the UK – and a similar situation exists in France, Belgium and Germany and other European countries. I worked in an inner city area of Birmingham for some years, trying to help the unemployed find work, most of them young, ethnic minority men.  It was very difficult as most potential employers just did not want them. I saw many becoming disaffected and angry and others turning to drugs and/or crime.  I do not find it surprising therefore that some young people have been radicalised and have joined terrorist groups.

I believe that it is differences in our value systems, way of life, mother tongue, clothing and appearance that lead to disharmony between ethnic groups and can, if we allow it, lead to racism.

Any strategy for the future needs to acknowledge that, whilst we all have in common our humanity, we may adhere to different value systems – and these need to be respected, if we are to move to greater co-operation and joint efforts to save the planet.

Migration issues

Some of the experts who have tried to predict the future of the human race, as a consequence of the multiple effects of population explosion, climate change and war, have foreseen that, in the future, there would be massive migration from Asian and African countries to Europe, Australasia and America.  As I write this, it would appear that this migration has already started, with thousands of refugees fleeing from the Middle East, Asia and Africa to Europe, at a rate with which the European countries cannot cope.  If the experts are right, this is only going to get worse, with more deaths from drowning in the Mediterrean Sea and more exploitation from ruthless traffickers who are keen to make money out of this human crisis.  It has already led to conflict and division between different European countries about how best to cope with the situation.  Some want to close their borders completely but this strategy is just as inhumane as the practices described earlier in treating farm animals as if they were factory commodities.  The wars in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan have resulted in huge numbers of refugees, including pregnant women, the elderly and children, fleeing the violence in order to find a safe place to live and trekking hundreds of miles across countries to reach their preferred destination.

According to George Monbiot62, one of the likely catalysts for the 2011 uprising in Syria was a massive drought – the worst in the region in the instrumental record – that lasted from 2006 to 2010. It caused the emigration of one and a half million rural workers into Syrian cities, and generated furious resentment when Bashar al-Assad’s government failed to respond effectively. Climate models suggest that man-made global warming more than doubled the likelihood of a drought of this magnitude.

Wars in North African countries have also led to large numbers of people fleeing their countries, trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats, to get to Europe.  Thousands have drowned. Others have ended up in the Greek islands and Greece, already in dire economic circumstances, has had to cope with helping the refugees as best they can. Yet others, trying to get to Britain across the English Channel, are trapped in makeshift camps in Calais.


Fig.53:  Refugees trying to reach the safety of other countries


The computer age, and especially the development of the internet, has led to significant changes and advances in communication.  People are now in touch on a regular basis through social networks and email.  This has transformed the world, both for good and for bad.  Whilst the media still try to control the news and impose their own biases on the public, and have a modicum of success in this, people are also receiving information informally through other networks.  Thus, demonstrations can be organised very quickly and, in some instances, this has brought down governments, as in the Arab Spring and in Ukraine.  There is currently a world-wide disaffection with politicians, who are seen as corrupt and not trusted any more.  Unfortunately, bringing down a government, or a despotic leader, does not always lead to the changes people are seeking, as others come in to fill the vacuum, that are also unpopular and/or corrupt.  There is thus, at the moment, considerable unrest and instability throughout the world and it is difficult to predict where this will end.

It is also difficult to predict where the new-found ease of communication through the internet will take us.  Let’s hope that, ultimately it will be for the betterment of this planet, its peoples and its wildlife.

Image result for Facebook connections throught the world blue map

Facebook connections throughout the world in 2010 and 2013


In some, well-publicised experiments with rats in the 1950’s, Calhoun found that when rats were kept in extremely crowded conditions, but with unlimited water and food and protection from predators, there were a number of changes in their behaviour.  Male rats in the most crowded pens became  violent  and aggressive,  “going berserk, attacking females, juveniles and less-active males.” There was also “sexual deviance.” The mortality rate among females was extremely high and there was a breakdown in maternal behaviour. Mothers stopped caring for their young, stopped building nests and even began to attack their offspring, resulting in a 96 percent mortality rate in the most crowded pens.  Parallels were drawn between these experiments with rats and whether the same could be said to be true for humans, in particular those who lived in cities (Calhoun, in the Scientific American 1962). There were a number of reviews and other experiments following this, which concluded that it was too much social interaction that caused the pathological behaviour, rather than the overcrowding. The studies have been reviewed Carla Garnett63.

A Civilised Society

At the beginning of this book, I included a list of factors important in a civilised society, put together at the turn of this century by Barbara Panvel and me (Table 2).  I believe that any developments that are made in the future to rescue the planet are carried out with this list in mind. Indeed, these characteristics may become even more important as we, as a global population, seek to find ways to co-operate more closely to save the planet.

Much of the unrest caused by better communication through the internet is because the main concerns of ordinary people are about corruption in leaders and unhealthy alliances between politicians and big business.  Some of the issues of importance to ordinary people are just not being taken on board by politicians and leaders, sometimes to their cost. Richard Douthwaite, in his book “The Growth Illusion” (1999)5,64 provides data from research that shows that most people when asked about what is important in the quality of life that they lead, come up with issues that are, in the main, not related to how much cash is available to them.  Things like:

  • The quantity of goods and services produced and consumed;
  • The quality of the environment they live in;
  • The fraction of their time available for leisure;
  • How fairly (or unfairly) available income is distributed;
  • How good or bad working conditions are;
  • How easy it is to get a job;
  • The safety of their future;
  • How healthy they are;
  • The level of cultural activity, the standard of education and ease of acces to it;
  • The quality of the housing available;
  • The chance to develop a satisfactory religious or spiritual life;
  • The strength of one’s family, home and community ties.

There is much in common between this list (from Douthwaite) and the list that Barbara and I produced (Table 2) of the characteristics of a civilised society. Also, a recent report published by the New Economics Foundation65 has used a shorter list to determine the UK’s success in economic terms, under the headings: good jobs, wellbeing, environment, fairness and health. A summary from that report and an extensive quote from Douthwaite are included with Chapter 7, on the economy.

Certainly in the UK, there seems to be an obsession among politicians about the economy and growth but little concern for issues in Douthwaite’s list, nor the effects of global warming and climate change, nor for people in poverty, nor for the many refugees fleeing their homes because of warfare there.  The anomally is that, for the UK at least, some of these wars people are fleeing from were caused by us messing in those very countries from which they are fleeing and actually making things worse for them. People fleeing from war-stricken countries do so in the hope that some of the things in the three lists may be available to them elsewhere.

Population increase and the future of the planet

At the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned that population scientists believe that the human population of the world will level off at 11 billion people at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, this is about the same time that climate scientists are saying we may be facing a mass extinction of species (three generations into the future), which will have a significant effect on the human population.  If we are going to do anything about all of these interrelated issues, it needs to be now – it will not wait until three generations’ time.  Something needs to be done to limit or reduce population increase.


















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