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Population & The Environment Essay

Discussions regarding the environmental impact of increasing population densities across the globe never lose their currency. From Thomas Malthus to Paul R. Erlich and onwards, there is a persistent concern that a growing international population may not only reach a tipping point in which the planet’s ability to provide for it is stretched to its limit, but begin to experience detrimental effects in the form of environmental problems.

This concern is not simply a matter of numbers, but a matter of how industrial civilizations have consistently failed to curtail anthropogenic impacts. As Donella Meadows (199) opines, “not only are there so many more of us, but each of us is bigger” when one measures the amount of energy and material we use and the amount of pollutants and waste created by the industries we have created to support our energy and material use. In effect, “The number of people is not what degrades the earth; it’s the number of people times the flow of energy and material each person commands.

” One of the most frequently cited means by which highly dense populations negatively impact the environment is through intense car use. Alex Steffen (2008) notes that intensive car use within a finite geographic territory is not only a massive contributor to greenhouse emissions that are warming the planet, but they also command a large amount of resource use through the inputs necessary to maintain highway infrastructure, build the actual cars and fuel them.

Granted, the resource consumption and greenhouse emissions caused directly by private automobile ownership is absolutely no surprise to anyone, but the less obvious implication that Steffen reports is that exhaust emissions are only a fraction of the environmental impact of the automobile. Over the course of the mid-20th century onwards, the increasing prominence of the automobile as part of modern living has necessitated the construction of massive highway infrastructure.

The result is that when you factor dense populations with intense private ownership and use of automobiles is that not only is there a massive amount of greenhouse emissions, but the amount of pavement this infrastructure commands can contribute significantly to the heat island effect which has become a concern among urban planners as of late. Heat islands not only increase the amount of energy expended on indoor air conditioning, but they can worsen air quality. (Steffen, 2008)

As such, Steffen argues that no matter the great lengths that today’s automobile manufacturers go to in order to make their automobiles into shiny fuel-efficient emissions-reduced green things to sate the eco-minded consumer, it will not be enough to remediate environmental impacts brought about by car use. Take for example the push towards biofuels, which is essentially, a push for auto manufacturers, in collaboration with energy companies, to make automobiles that run on renewable agricultural products that emit a reduced amount of greenhouse gases.

While there is much fuss in the mainstream press about the extent to which the biofuel industry is cannibalizing the food supply, a more overlooked concern is the manner in which the expansion of industrial agriculture to such a massive scale negatively impacts the environment. Simply put, the principal concern is not the ability of agriculture to feed populations, but rather how the expansion of the food supply, combined with the accommodations made for biofuels, has a deleterious effect on the environment.

Manning (85-89) notes that the homogenous and unsustainable approach of industrialized corn-based agriculture is detrimental to the health of the soil. As such, there is a possibility that the massive conversion of lands towards the production of corn could recreate the conditions of The Great Dust Bowl, a period in the American heartland which saw hundreds of thousands of would-be wheat farmers plow the soil to death to profit from golden grain.

Thus, as civilizations increase in population density, so too do their demands in food and automobile use, effectively exerting a greater toll on the planet’s natural environment. In any case, we must be mindful to remember that the problems inherent with a massive human population should not lead us to conclude that humans have no ecologically acceptable place in the planet. Humanity is not a virus on the operating system of the planet. Rather, what human society should begin to acknowledge is that it must begin to take a more comprehensive look at its impacts in order to correct them thoroughly.


Meadows, Donella. “The Deep Six. ” Grist. 12 October 1999. Retrieved online on March 14, 2009 from: http://www. grist. org/comments/citizen/1999/10/12/deep/index. html Steffen, Alex. “My Other Car is a Bright Green City. ” Worldchanging. 23 January 2008. Retrieved online on March 14, 2009 from: http://www. worldchanging. com/archives/007800. html Manning, Richard. Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. New York: North Point Press, 2004.

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