Are there too many human beings on the planet?

Red alert! Global resources are already overexploited, and the population continues to increase.

Date published: 2008-02-25 9:30:18 AM

“The earth could not support 10 billion Canadians,” says Université de Montréal professor of geography Rodolphe De Koninck at the outset. “Even with today’s population of around 6.7 billion people, there would be no planet within a few years if every human being consumed resources at the rate of Canadians or Americans.” To survive, 10 billion human beings would each have to consume half of what we do today on average.

An expert on Southeast Asia and farming questions, Rodolphe De Koninck is categorical: right now we consume more than can be replaced by resource renewal cycles. At present, a Canadian’s or an American’s consumption of the earth’s resources averages four or five times the consumption of a Chinese person. According to the geographer, it is clear that the environmental footprint left by us North Americans weighs too heavily on the future of the earth. More basically, we are setting a bad example. The problem is not the population “bomb” but rather the environmental “bomb”—the way we are using resources such as water, energy, raw materials and farmland.

“The world economy is dominated by two major industries: the automobile and oil industries, both of which are using natural resources at an unsustainable pace, literally mortgaging the biosphere.” Last January Statistics Canada reminded us that we are more or less hooked on the car. Green energy? “It’s a complete fraud,” asserts De Koninck. “It’s absurd to divert global farming resources for energy production, especially since this enables us to avoid facing the real problem: there are, or soon will be, too many vehicles on the planet.” However, De Koninck thinks that conversion of waste to energy is a useful solution, although not necessarily for automobiles.

De Koninck says he is pessimistic when he sees the growing number of “personal assault cars,” the heavy all-terrain vehicles that clog our cities. The launch of the little Nano by Indian automaker Tata, is not good news either. With its low price, it could cause greater congestion on the roads of poor or emerging countries—already in a chaotic state from the growing number of motorbikes—and a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

What, then, can be done? “We must invest heavily in education. We should not only suggest to people what actions they should take but also, and above all, explain to them the reasons behind these choices.” De Koninck believes in the effectiveness of mass transit and has high hopes of young people. “Every day, I see young people who have understood that we cannot continue to squander resources in this way.” We must hope that these young Canadians can convince their fellow citizens so that Canada will play a leadership role in the change of direction required for the survival of our planet.

Rodolphe De Koninck has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council under the Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program and the Standard Research Grants program.