“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Richard Feynman


ESA Passes Resolution on Human Population

The Ecological Society of America Public Affairs Office * 2010 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 420 * Washington, D.C. 20036

MEDIA ADVISORY Contact: Nadine Cavender September 2, 1994

Achieving a sustainable balance between human demands and environmental support systems is the focus of a recent resolution passed by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) at its 79th Annual Meeting. In anticipation of the upcoming United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, ESA issued the following statement:

The human population of the Earth, currently at 5.6 billion, is increasing rapidly. Attempting to provide an ever increasing number of people with a reasonable standard of living is certain to fail and to result in degradation of the Earth’s renewable and nonrenewable resources. Thus, improving the quality of human life while maintaining and improving environmental quality requires that major efforts be made to slow and eventually stop the growth of the human population and to achieve a sustainable balance between human demands and the capability of the environment to support these demands.

“Whether you look at a city in a developed country like the United States or a city in a less developed country such as Mexico, the impacts of millions of people and their activities reverberate throughout the surrounding environment—rivers, lakes, plants, animals, air—and back to people and the quality of their lives,” said ESA President, Judy Meyer, an ecologist with the University of Georgia.

“We were motivated to pass this resolution to call greater attention to the influence of population growth on environmental quality and the quality of human life,” added ESA President-Elect, Gordon Orians.

According to reports from the United Nations Environment Program, World Resources Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency and Worldwatch Institute, the effects of overpopulation are manifested around the world. The past 45 years have seen nearly 3 billion acres of soil severely degraded—an area equivalent to China and India combined. Per capita freshwater supplies are a third lower than in 1970 and 26 countries face severe water shortages.

In addition, human numbers and activities have led to depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer, increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and the loss of 42 million acres of tropical forests a year during the 1980s alone. At current human population growth rates, the number of people inhabiting the planet will have at least doubled to 11 billion people by the year 2050.

“For the first time in our history, the pressure of human population growth is going beyond local thresholds and crossing global ones,” noted former ESA President and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. For instance, in many of the world’s oceans, “our demand for fish has greatly depleted populations, making it harder and harder for them to bounce back. When human demands exceed the capacity of a resource to replenish itself, the resource will ultimately disappear.”

During a presentation at ESA’s Annual Meeting, ESA member and Stanford University ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, pointed out that the level of resource consumption, particularly that exerted by individuals in industrialized countries, must not be overlooked. The greatest threat to the environment comes from the world’s wealthiest billion people who use the most resources and generate the greatest waste, and from the poorest billion, who are forced to destroy their meager resources—such as farmland and forests—simply to survive from one day to the next.

Added Ehrlich, “In spite of our ingenuity to stretch resources, man-made alternatives cannot replace our natural capital—nature’s life support systems can only stretch so far before quality of life plummets and you see disease and starvation.”

Although about 95 percent of human population increases over the next 50 years will be in less developed countries, people in the industrialized regions of the world—one fifth of the global population—use two thirds of all resources and generate 75 percent of all wastes and pollution. For example, United States citizens use six times the world per capita average in energy supplies. Among other goals, the UN Conference will aim to commit nations around the world to strive for sustainable resource management, modify unsustainable consumption patterns, and develop and share cleaner technologies.

Meyer noted that many of the environmental services we take for granted, such as freshwater, depend on maintaining natural systems. “It is important that we realize that Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ depends on crucial functions such as the hydrologic cycle, carbon cycle, and nutrient cycles which drive our ability to produce food and obtain water, timber and other human needs,” said Meyer.

The Ecological Society of America is a scientific, nonprofit, 7,500-member organization founded in 1915. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems.

Other resources: Carrying Capacity Network 1325 G Street, NW Suite 1003 Washington, DC 20005