Population Growth, Industrialization, and the Environment
Human population growth was relatively slow for most of human history. Within the past 500 years, however, the advances made in the industrial, transportation, economic, medical, and agricultural revolutions have helped foster an exponential, "J-shaped" rise in human population (Southwick, Figure 15.1, p. 160). The statistics associated with this type of growth are particularly striking: "Human beings took more than 3 million years to reach a population of 1 billion people...The second billion came in only 130 years, the third billion in 30 years, the fourth billion in 15 years, the fifth billion in 12 years..." (Southwick, p. 159). As human population has grown, there has been simultaneous growth within the industrial sector. Both of these increases have greatly contributed to environmental problems, such as natural resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, and global climate change. Also linked with the increasing human population are many social problems, such as poverty and disease. These issues need to be addressed by policy makers in the near future in order to ensure the survival and sustainability of human life.
One of the major effects of the huge population increase has been the depletion of natural resources and the destruction of ecosystems. In the 1960's, theorist Paul Ehrlich predicted that, given the skyrocketing figures of human population, the amount of food produced would not grow at a fast enough rate for human survival (Professor Carr Everbach, personal communication). He predicted mass starvation and death by the year 2000 as the result of uncontrolled population growth. Clearly, this did not occur. Ehrlich did not foresee the advancements made in fertilizer and farming technologies that have enabled humans to greatly increase food production to sufficient levels.
Though Ehrlich was ultimately incorrect in his hypothesis of mass human starvation, he was correct to view the necessary increase in food production as problematic. As more and more land is needed for agricultural purposes, several natural resources are being exhausted. Furthermore, ecosystems are being systematically destroyed in order to support the growing population. The necessary minerals that give soil its fertility are constantly under threat of depletion by over-farming, though new fertilizer technology has lessened this problem somewhat. Difficulties are also occurring as some farmers search for new agricultural locations. This problem is most evident in the destruction of tropical rainforests. The large-scale clear cutting of rainforest, practiced in many parts of South America, has potentially eliminated a significant number of species that depend on the forests for survival. Humans might be able to reap benefits from these unknown species, such as treating certain diseases. Unfortunately, these benefits will remain unrealized with the elimination of large tracts of rainforest. The...