7.3 billion is a hard number to really comprehend. It’s approximately the number of seconds that go by over the course of 231 years. It’s twice the number of miles Pluto is from the sun, on average. It’s the number of pounds 10 Empire State Buildings would weigh. It is also the number of people currently inhabiting the Earth. And as Worldometers’ population clock demonstrates, that number is growing. Rapidly.
As the below graphic shows, the world’s population is supposed to reach 8 billion by 2025. That’s nearly double the population in 1980. The problem with this, of course, lies in scarcity of resources such as food, clean water, fuel for vehicles, raw materials for products, and livable space, as well as an increase in pollution. While efforts are being made to promote sustainable living and business practices, it is unlikely that these practices will be enough to make the world accommodate 9.6 billion people, the estimated population in 2050.
There are three main factors in population growth: birth rate, infant mortality rate, and average life expectancy. More babies being born means more people, obviously. The number of babies that survive affects the growth of a population, as well as its age distribution. Life expectancy and death rate determine how long these new people will remain a part of the population. Technological progress, something that is accelerating even faster than population growth, is the double-edged sword of the population problem.
The Problem with Progress
If humans have the ability to prevent newborn babies from dying, the decision to do it would be almost unanimous. Additionally, if humans have the ability to make people live longer, the decision to do it would, again, be almost unanimous. We like when people can live. It’s a human thing. When civilizations begin to advance, keeping people alive and healthy is typically high on the list of priorities. Unfortunately, lowering the birth rate is not.
In developing countries, birth rates and infant mortality rates are high, which leaves the population size more-or-less stable. Birth rates are higher in developing countries for a combination of economic and cultural reasons, the most common of which is that children are viewed as assets. Having children means more help with chores and labor, as well as more people to take care of their parents in old age. With high infant mortality rates, due to fewer health services, having more children increases the chance of having some survive.
As living conditions and health services improve, the infant mortality rate declines, but the drive to have more children remains, resulting in massive population growth. These advances also lead to people living longer. Dropping the birth rate too quickly would result, a few decades down the road, in a large elderly population, who are living longer, with a much smaller young population to support them. Convincing people to stop having children would require major cultural, economic, and often political changes. The difficult, controversial kind.
More people are being born healthy and surviving infancy. This is good.
• More people are living longer. This is also good.
• But this is the overpopulation problem.
• This is where space research comes in.
The Search for Habitable Planets
Finding a planet that can provide resources necessary for survival might be the only solution to overpopulation. A planet that people could inhabit. Alas, another problem: no such planet has been found. No solid evidence of even the most basic, microscopic lifeforms has been found outside of Earth’s orbit, and planets with sizeable bodies of liquid water and Earth-like atmospheres have proven to be equally evasive. Further, the right atmosphere and enough water do not necessarily make a planet habitable. Much, much more is required to make a second Earth, ready for human civilization.
Consider food. Everything humans eat is organic matter. This doesn’t mean everything has a nice “USDA approved” sticker on it. It means it comes from living material. This, of course, includes plants, animals, and fungi, as well as more basic biological structures, such as proteins. For much longer than humans have existed, the processes that perpetuate organic material have happened—well…organically, without cultivation or help from any conscious entity. How these processes originated on Earth has been hypothesized, but with a mass, co-dependent ecosystem intertwining all life, it is difficult to pinpoint what came first and in what conditions.
With the absence of basic biological processes elsewhere in the known universe, humans could not just start growing crops on a distant planet to feed themselves, as plant growth relies on an ecosystem of bacteria, insects, and others. Plants are complicated forms of life, and the more complicated the lifeform, the more it requires to survive. Starting an ecosystem on another planet would have to begin with introducing very, very basic forms of life that require less. Growing this environment to support fungi, let alone plants and animals, would take an incredibly long time.
This is why we must be intently focused on space research. Finding several planets that could potentially host these basic biological processes and beginning experiments on each of them may be the closest option to insuring mankind’s future survival that we have. Even null results in these experiments would help narrow the search for the ideal environment to start an ecosystem from scratch.
Finding a potential host planet is not the only project that requires the attention of researchers. Other questions need to be answered in order to ensure that project’s success. How did life begin on the planet? Can GMO’s (despite their negative reputation) be designed to survive in less-demanding circumstances? Can we slow population growth? How can the Earth’s resources be allocated more efficiently and fairly? How can we make space travel more efficient?
The only viable solution to the overpopulation problem lies within the answers to these questions and appropriate action on them. It’s one hell of a starting point, but a starting point nonetheless.