In 2014, our planet added approximately 80 million new Earthlings. That equates to the population of California, New York and Florida added to a world with depleting natural resources, unprecedented water scarcity and citizens with a "throwaway" mentality. As scientists predict that Earth's population will only continue to grow, our fate will be determined by strides toward sustainable life now and in the future.
Population growth is an issue that transcends age, race, religion and borders. It touches on every environmental issue facing our planet -- clean water, energy usage, public lands and wilderness use, endangered species, raw materials and food. And yet, it is the one issue that most major environmental organizations are not mentioning, let alone addressing. Humankind needs to become more educated on this topic. It's vital to the survival of our species.
Take a second to think about the following statistics:
• 1 billion people are added to the planet every 12 years.
• Today, nearly 1 billion people do not have access to food and safe drinking water.
• 2.2 million acres of forest and ranch land are destroyed every year in the U.S, due to sprawl.
• Deforestation limits our planet's ability to control temperature.
• Every human generates 4.3 lbs. of waste per day.
One can easily grasp from these numbers that a growing population in a habitat with diminishing resources is not only detrimental, but is deadly.
Consider water. We rely on water for sanitation, sustenance and agriculture. What's mind-boggling is that only 2.5 percent of the Earth's water is fresh, and we only have access to one percent of it! What's more, UN research suggests that water usage is growing at twice the rate of the population and that by 2025, approximately 23 percent of the population will live in an area affected by water scarcity. Our growing population is and will further strain our diminishing freshwater, and has already been the cause of domestic unrest in the U.S. (for example, "The American Nile").
Another serious issue is waste. We often treat Mother Earth as a perpetual trash can. Too often the "use and throw away" mentality trumps all. The public is bombarded with products that are not designed for reuse. The trash often provides the graveyard for modern consumerism.
According to a robust breakdown by the EPA, in 2012 the U.S. incurred the highest levels of municipal solid waste generation so far in the 21st century (with 2012 being the second highest ever on record). A chilling, yet opportunistic, finding in the report is that Americans' largest component of discarded waste is organic and recyclable. This means that Americans are putting too much paper, paperboard and compostable materials in landfills rather than recycling and reusing.
The silver lining is that Americans have an opportunity to better our practices by educating communities on recycling and composting programs, and providing accessible and affordable options. Convenience play a major factor in the adoption of recycling. However, compared to our European counterparts, we have a long way to go. Population growth requires us to abandon the traditional "use and discard" method.
Another pressure of population growth has been the impacts to our public lands and wild areas. Millions of acres of previously undeveloped lands are sacrificed each year in the U.S. to support urban growth, energy development and other private interests. Public lands, which support diverse ecosystems and exploratory outlets for those channeling their inner John Muir, are diminishing. Visits in 2014 to our National Treasures are up 20 million visitors over 2013. Conflicts between disparate users of public lands are becoming higher profile. Ranchers and gun owners protesting curtailment of public use, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and hikers coming into conflict, and the growth invasive species (often transported by human visitors and their machines) all threaten our public lands.
In addition, our forests are also shrinking. Saving America's forests is rooted in protecting our wild, undeveloped areas. The Natural Resources Defense Council cites how U.S. energy companies in the Southeast are putting a tremendous strain on the local forests to produce energy for their fossil fuel burning plants. The U.S. also utilizes domestic forests for international profit agendas, and the Southeast has become the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world.
Urban growth also puts pressure on wild lands and has garnered serious attention from the Center for Biological Diversity (Director of Population and Sustainability Stephanie Feldstein's blog), NYU (Urbanization Project), and the World Urban Forum. All three agree that population growth is a humanitarian issue, which requires careful attention and planning from urban and rural centers now.
Finally, there is the hard truth about birth rates. While falling world-wide, we are still replacing each human on the planet with two, four, and in some places, upward of eight children per adult! Though some economists believe world economic growth might be negatively impacted by a reduction of birthrates, our planet cannot sustain our current use of resources. Each year, we use the equivalent of 1.5 Earths. If current population growth and use statistics continue on the path we're on, it is projected that we will be using two Earths of resources every year by the 2030s.
Meanwhile in the U.S., 397,122 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. A total of 101,666 of these children are eligible for adoption. Around the world, an estimated 153 million orphans have lost one parent, and there are 17,900,000 orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets - and lack the care and attention required for healthy development. These children are at risk for disease, malnutrition and death. In other words, there are many children worldwide needing homes, but yet we as Americans compound our sustainability and environmental problem by having children at a rate that dwarfs the adoption rate by over 500 times.
Many small organizations, including my own, are scrupulously working toward protecting our growing population. While I believe that contributions from smaller organizations help enact change, it is also imperative that larger organizations with more robust resources get involved. Mobilization and activation are critical if we are going to make any real preparations to host our fast-growing family on Earth.