Eighteen years ago, the eminent conservation biologist Gary Meffe warned of what he considered to be the greatest problem in human history – humanity’s inexorable and exponential increase in numbers.

Meffe’s paper, entitled ‘Human Population Control: The Missing Agenda’ published in the journal Conservation Biology, outlined the threats posed by an ever-increasing human population to biodiversity in terms of species extinctions, and to the ecosystem services necessary for our survival. These include water and air purification, hydrologic cycling and food production. Not only is humanity’s deluge drowning the creatures we share the Earth with, but it also runs the risk of submerging itself too. But was this ‘missing agenda’ acknowledged? Was a dam constructed to stem our exponential flow?

The overpopulation zeitgeist. Source: http://www.opinionniche.com

Nearly two decades later and we see the publication of the UN’s State of World Population report 2011. It announced that on October 31st we reached the population milestone of seven billion people inhabiting our world. Instead of warning of future population growth and the associated negative impact, it had a more positive tone that encouraged us to ask “What can I do to make our world better?” rather than “Are we too many?” This is the United Nations after all, and understandably it has to take a progressive and reassuring stance rather than one of doom and gloom. But the angle taken is perhaps revealing of the prevailing attitude of the global collective consciousness – population growth is inevitable and cannot be stopped. Of course there’s no such thing as a global collective consciousness, explaining in part why Meffe’s view has been largely ignored, because humanity lacks a collective impetus and so anything that requires mass cohesion, for instance only having one child or reducing carbon emissions, is doomed to fail.

Source: http://www.susps.org/overview/numbers.html

Seven billion people – it’s enough to make you feel insignificant. Except it’s not, it’s just a number. A very big number too large to visualise, grasp or comprehend. Incidentally, if you’re ever having trouble feeling insignificant, then listen to what the ‘Woody Allen’ of science, Lawrence Krauss has to say. In his recent lecture on cosmic connections for The School of Life he stated that “you are much more insignificant than you thought” before going on to compete with Brian Cox for the title of  ‘King of making outlandish profound points’, by explaining how we are all quite literally “made of stars”. Every atom in our bodies comes from the remnants of an exploded star. It turns out Moby was right (see video below).

This digression aside, the ineffably large human population will continue to increase and even if we wanted to implement population control, doing so would be unethical and practically speaking impossible. Very few people, not even many devout conservationists, would be willing to sacrifice the right to have children. I for one wouldn’t, it is in our evolutionary spirit.

Raising awareness of contraception as a method to stem the human tide.

Instead of tackling the so called ‘root cause’ of the population problem by implementing unrealistic, unfavourable, and unwanted population control, efforts have been directed at addressing offshoot issues such as those relating to overconsumption and overexploitation of natural resources. If we can adopt new cleaner technologies and practices to ensure our impact on the environment is neutral or at least negligible, it will be a step in the right direction.

Just this week the production of a ‘microbial fuel cell’ has been announced which can purportedly produce electricity from human urine! Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE) have found that by utilising anaerobic bacteria as they metabolise organic waste waters, electrons can be harnessed and useful electricity generated. By ‘useful’ it is meant that enough electricity would be generated to charge a battery say, but presumably not enough to heat a home for instance, yet.

For now, no one is suggesting this is the answer to the world’s problems, but switching to technologies that rely less on finite Earth resources and more on recycling waste products will help ameliorate the effects our species has on the planet. Unfortunately though, those who sing the praises of such advances are often branded with the stigma of being too ‘preachy’. Increasing public apathy to important issues such as clean technology, climate change and biodiversity decline should be at least as worrying to everyone as financial crises or global terrorism.