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Can Humans Continue To Survive On Planet Earth?

Updated on November 19, 2013

The Vulnerable Blue Planet



Thomas Malthus, the first to identify the perils of population growth.
Thomas Malthus, the first to identify the perils of population growth. | Source

Planet Human

Scenes like this, are typical of urban centres around the world. Some cities have more than 30 million people living within its confines.
Scenes like this, are typical of urban centres around the world. Some cities have more than 30 million people living within its confines. | Source

Can Human Populations Keep On Rising?

In 1798 an English economist called Thomas Malthus published an essay that predicted imminent disaster. Within fifty years, he claimed, the human race would have increased to such an extent that there would not be sufficient food to sustain it. The problem, wrote Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population, was that the human population was growing far more quickly than the supply of food the earth could produce. If disasters resulting from human vices, such as war, didn’t cut humanity’s numbers sufficiently, then nature would take over, in the form of disease, famine and starvation, until the proportion of population to food supply regained its proper balance.

At the time, Malthus’s essay came as a great shock to many people in Europe and America. They believed, mostly for religious reasons, that thanks to the gift of a superior intellect and a divine soul mankind was different from all living things. But what if Malthus was right?

The massive increase in the world population in the two centuries since the essay was written is directly linked to rising economic wealth. At 78.8 years, life expectancy in Britain is now thirty years higher than it was in 1900- and more than thirty two years higher than in sub-Saharan Africa today. By far the biggest recent increases in population have been in Asia. China and India between them contain nearly half of the world’s overall population of 7 billion- a number projected to rise to more than nine billion by 2050.

The fact that so many more people are now crowded on to the same sized planet has dramatically changed life on earth in the last sixty years. Natural habitats have been devastated by rapid industrialisation and the growth of towns and cities. Deforestation, mining, deep-sea trawling and intensive agriculture are some of the main causes of the massive decline in the number of species on earth.

Confronting The Elephant In The Room

The dodo is undoubtedly the most famous animal to have become extinct at the hands of human beings.
The dodo is undoubtedly the most famous animal to have become extinct at the hands of human beings. | Source

Deforestation In The Amazon

The Cost Of China's Growth

The Sixth Mass Extinction

A sixth extinction event may turn out to be no less profound than the five previous mass extinctions that are known to have occurred in prehistory. Human activities over the last few hundred years are now thought to responsible for increasing natural rates of extinction by as much as 1000 per cent, with some experts estimating that two million different species of plants and animals may already have fallen victim to habitat loss, increased farming, pollution and infrastructure projects such as the building of dams. The rate of extinctions today is reckoned to be between one hundred and one thousand times greater than the historic norm known as the background rate. According to the World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species, as many as 52 per cent of all major living species are in jeopardy; plant extinctions head the list, with 70 per cent of species reported to be at risk.

Deforestation accelerated dramatically during the twentieth century, especially in the tropics, as demand for hardwood products rose to new heights. Between 1920 and 1995 nearly 800 million hectares of tropical forests were cleared, an area approaching that of the United States of America. Between 1980 and 1990 roughly 15.4 million hectares of forest- an area almost double the size of the United Kingdom- were felled each year.

Such destruction has been driven by economics, usually regardless of the human or natural cost. Poor people in post-colonial countries desperately need a crop they can easily and cheaply trade for cash. Gang violence has become synonymous with illegal logging. There have been more than 800 land related murders in the Amazon region over the past thirty years. Sometimes things got personal. Sister Dorothy Stang was an American nun who devoted her life to educating people living in the Amazon rain-forest as to how they could extract natural forest products without resorting to cutting down trees. After reporting illegal loggers to the Brazilian authorities she began to receive death threats. On the 12th February 2005, as she walked to a meeting in her village, she was shot by two gunmen at point-blank range. They then emptied another five bullets into her dead body.

Chopping down trees destroys more than just animals, insects and humans. It also sterilizes the earth itself. Soil quality is severely compromised in areas with no trees because the ground is exposed to erosion by the weather. Deforestation is also thought to have a significant effect on rainfall patterns, since it is through the natural process of transpiration that much of the world’s water, locked up in the ground, ends up seeded in clouds.

Hunting by humans is another major cause of extinctions. One extraordinary example, which occurred in the late nineteenth century, is the case of the North American passenger pigeon. These birds were once so numerous that their flocks regularly stretched more than a mile across the skies during springtime migrations from the south to their breeding areas in New England. Human hunting began in earnest in the 1860s and 1870s to provide a source of cheap meat for growing cities on the east coast of the United States. In 1869 Van Buren County in Michigan sent more than seven million of the birds to markets in the east. Such extreme levels of hunting meant that by 1914 the passenger pigeon, a species which once numbered more than five billion individuals, was added to the list of the extinct.

The same story may soon be repeated for thousands of other species, some as common as the cod. A study released in 2006 concluded that one third of all fishing stocks worldwide have now collapsed to less than 10 per cent of their previous levels and that if current fishing trends continue the seas will be virtually empty of edible fish by the year 2050.Bottom trawling, the practice of dragging long trawl nets along the sea floor, churns up sea beds so severely that the damage to deep sea ecosystems is far greater than any amount of man-made pollution that leaches into the oceans.

Pollution caused by the huge rise in human population is another reason for the rapid decline in the diversity of living things. Air pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, causing rainwater to become acidic. Metal foundries and petrochemical plants are sources of poisonous contaminants that destroy delicate ecosystems. Landfill sites release methane and harmful chemicals like cadmium, found in discarded electronic products, which poison the surrounding soil. In 2007 Britain had the worst record for landfill use in Europe, discarding some twenty-seven million tonnes of waste into dumps that now extend across 227 square kilometres.

Today the number of households in China is increasing at twice the rate of its population growth due to increasing divorce rates and more families living apart as young people seek employment in cities. If everyone in China led a lifestyle similar to that of people in Europe and America, it would require roughly double the amount of raw materials currently used by the world’s entire population. Just to keep up with China’s huge demand for power its government is currently commissioning two new coal fired power stations every week.

Sir David Attenborough Explains Climate Change

Climate Related Conflict

These people were displaced from their homes by the ongoing conflict in Darfur, which arose partly down to recent climate change.
These people were displaced from their homes by the ongoing conflict in Darfur, which arose partly down to recent climate change. | Source

The Perils Of Climate Change

The need for resources to power the economic growth driven by the capitalist system led to an increase in global oil production to almost eighty three million barrels a day in 2005.

The consequences of burning fossil fuels are now well understood. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased dramatically since the 1800s, when fossil fuel deposits ignited man’s first wholly independent source of power, in the form of high pressure steam. Between 1832 and 2007 levels of CO2 have risen from 284 parts per million to 383. Carbon dioxide, like methane, is a gas which has a major impact on the earth’s temperatures by absorbing infrared radiation. Its increasing levels in the atmosphere are reckoned to be the most likely cause of a recent rise in global temperatures that has already led to the shrinking of many of the world’s major glaciers, melting of ice caps, changes in sea levels and shifting patterns of rainfalls.

The geopolitical effects of climate change are already starting to unfold. A war in Darfur, a region of western Sudan the size of France began in February 2003. It was triggered by decades of drought and soil erosion, probably caused by changing rainfall patterns as a result of climate change. In an echo of what provoked Mongolian tribes to unite under Genghis Khan, camel-herding Arab Baggara tribes moved from their traditional grazing grounds to farming districts further south in search of pasture and water. As a result of their attacks on the non-Arab population more than 2.5 million people are thought to have been displaced by October 2006, of whom approximately 400,000 have died of disease, malnutrition or starvation.

Further south in Africa, the HIV Virus is destroying the human immune system, causing the death of millions of people left defenceless against common infections. First diagnosed in 1981, the virus somehow jumped the species barrier from monkeys to humans. Since then it has killed more than twenty five million people, mostly Africans, and infected as many as forty six million more. There are currently more than a million orphaned South African children; most of them infected themselves, since their parents died from the disease, which is easily passed through body fluids such as breast milk.

Is this what Malthus predicted when he said that one day the human population would be levelled by nature’s intervention through ‘sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague,’ and ‘gigantic inevitable famine?’

What Do You Think?

Can Humans Continue To Survive On Planet Earth?

See results

© 2013 James Kenny


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    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you.

    • profile image

      Jeanette Harris 

      7 years ago from 11996 Valley Falls Loop Spring Hill Florida, 34609

      I like the pictures.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well, yes our genus has been around for two million years Sam, but our own species has been around for only 200,000 years, and yet in that short space of time we've brought about a mass extinction event. Amazing to think that in terms of longevity we're not even the most successful human species, that honour belongs to Homo erectus.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Richard.

    • Richawriter profile image

      Richard J ONeill 

      7 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

      If there was a button for 'saddening' I'd have pressed that too, instead I settled for interesting.

      Your article taught me a lot that I didn't know. However, I already knew that humanity was tearing this planet apart for short term gains so that the few can live in luxury while the rest of us scramble for scraps.

      The way it's going, the only way we can save this beautiful planet - because I can't see anyone stepping in before it's too late - is for humans to suffer a catastrophic event that wipes most of us out. Then and only then can we possibly learn and start to treat other life equally, something akin to the wonderful world shown in Avatar.

      Money, money, money, it's so funny, in a rich man's world.

      Well, his world is soon to be taken from him!

      Cheers mate, and don't worry. I'm not as miserable as I sound hahaha.

      Well written and interesting as always!


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      My father and I have always believed that humanity will somehow bring its own extinction I mean we have only been on Earth for a couple million years (which may be long to us but as geological time goes that's not even one minute) and already we have messed up so much. As far as a mass extinction event goes well I do believe that we are definitely on the brink of a mass extinction and if we don't do something soon a lot of animals will go the way of the dinosaurs but the good news is that even if many animal species do go extinct eventually new ones will evolve we may not be around to see it but it will eventually happen its happened after all of the previous mass extinctions passed and I have no doubt that it will happen after the next mass extinction passes.

    • Alphapx profile image


      7 years ago from Philippines

      Know the purpose of life. Who made us? Are we here just to die someday? The Creator must have the purpose of creating us. God loves us. Try opening our hearts to the will of the Creator.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Deb.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      7 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Eye opening data--for some. Others will not care and live out their lives as such. Until we take responsibility for what we have done now and in the past, there may not be much hope for us. Well thought, well written, and I hope, well received.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks for the article Nathan, I'll have a read of it when I get a chance. Yes it is depressing, but only for us. Life in one way or another will go on. Our days unfortunately are rather numbered, unless we sort ourselves out. But in order to do that, we'd have to try to free ourselves from our instincts- which is impossible.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Cynthia, well, the one thing I am confident about is that planet earth will survive us. If it can survive the Permian extinction, then it can survive virtually anything. Granted in our measure of time, it'll take a while to recover, but recover it will.

      And yes you're right. I'd say we'd be lucky to last another 1000 years, let alone 15,000. Also, bear in mind that dinosaurs aren't all extinct. There's still 10,000 species of them around today. :)

    • Nathan Orf profile image

      Nathan Orf 

      7 years ago

      Great hub JKenny, as always. You really know your stuff, even though the information here is pretty depressing to think about. I would like to point out to annart that climate scientists think that the oceans have had a role in the recent slowing down of temperature increases, because they have absorbed much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Here is an article on the subject that I found interesting.

    • CMHypno profile image


      7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Interesting hub. Maybe this should be called can planet Earth survive humans? For a species that likes to congratulate itself on a regular basis on how intelligent and wonderful it is, we seem to not realise how incredibly destructive we are.

      We talk about the dinosaurs in pitying terms because they became extinct, but they were around for millions of years - at this rate modern humans since the development of farming and the first towns will be lucky to last about 15,000 years

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Ann. I couldn't agree with you more.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      7 years ago from SW England

      I worry extensively for my grandchildren's future. I've noticed, just in my area and my regular travels, that traffic has increased a great deal in the last 5 years, housing build and population has gone up visibly and birds I used to see in abundance are no longer often seen. If that's only in my locality I dread to think what the general picture is in Britain let alone anywhere else. We continue to be selfish but then so do governments. None of them insists we do away with the petrol engines and replace all with electric cars - what would they do without all the revenue? Many politicians would be all the poorer without their investments in industries which contribute much to global warming. Their hypocrisy is outstanding. However, what about natural phenomena which produce much climate change in themselves? What about volcanoes, earthquakes, sea-bed gas emissions? I don't know the extent of that type of pollution but it must contribute a great deal. Lately, the news also tells us that the warming is slowing down - for ever or just a blip? Who knows? That's the problem. Depressing stuff but a problem we need to deal with.

      This is such a well-researched hub (as always) with well-presented, clear information. Ann

    • panpan1972 profile image

      Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 

      7 years ago from Greece

      Hi there! Interesting article but I guess you know that there are also other views on the subject. Human population, nowadays, is increasing but at a lower rate. According to UN statistics in 1970 the children per woman ratio was 4.5 children (globally). In 2000 this number dropped to 2.7, it is expected that by 2050 it will drop further to 2.05. This is barely less than 2.1 which is needed to keep human population stable. In the 46 most developed countries this number is 1.6 meaning that their populations are already decreasing, in the countries in the middle grade it is 2.9 and falling, but more interestingly in the less developed countries the children per mother ratio dropped from 6.6 to 5.0 and is expected to drop further to 3.0 by 2050. Generally it is expected that by the end of the 21st century human population will start decreasing for the first time in history.

      As for climate change I believe that despite all the recent hysteria on the subject our industrial activity is still an insignificant factor on the subject; sun and the earth’s rotation are the real players. In the link below you can read an interesting article about how the ice cap on the Arctic is increasing instead of decreasing and how the climate change scientists kept quite when actual numbers didn’t fit their models.

      Of course I’m not an expert; far from that, I’m just trying to have a wider view (as much as I can!).

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well, if isn't in your lifetime, I have a feeling the collapse will happen within mine, and that's especially terrifying for all of the children alive today- what have they got to look forward too? Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Indeed it does Barbara, that's the biggest worry of all. Thank you.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 

      7 years ago from USA

      This is an excellent article. It raises many concerns that a lot of people refuse to listen to.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Excellent article on overpopulation. At some point this earth will not be able to sustain world population. I don 't know if it will happen in my lifetime but I am concerned about this also. I am concerned about the environment and rainforests all over the world. You have taken on a lot here. The population explosions seem to be in Asia, parts of South America, and Africa. I don't know what all the solutions are to this problems but you raise some trvant concerns.


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