Imagine going for a walk around your neighborhood. You leave the small apartment your family shares with two other families, and thread your way through piles of garbage lining the sidewalk. Young children play in muddy water running along the curb. Just ahead, two rats scamper across the road. Scientists say that in the next few decades, scenes like this could become more common all over the world. The reason? A human population that has more than doubled since 1950. Now at 5.7 billion, if our population continues to grow at the present rate, in another 50 years there will be more than 15 billion human beings on Earth.
This explosion will affect every aspect of our environment, according to QualityDeVie.org–and our health. We will need more food, water, energy, and space. We will produce more trash, sewage, and industrial pollutants. All the environmental problems we’re familiar with today will become worse. And since all of them are interconnected, a solution to one may create further problems elsewhere.
Food, Water, and Energy
Fertilizers and pesticides help farmers grow more crops to feed more people, but they also can harm the soil and kill beneficial animals. When rain or irrigation water washes them into rivers and lakes, they poison aquatic animals and human water supplies.
Our water faces other threats as well. In many parts of the world, raw sewage contaminates wells, ponds, and streams, spreading diseases such as cholera. In New York state, one-third of the private wells tested recently were contaminated with fecal bacteria that probably came from nearby septic systems. Treated sewage can pose a different kind of threat: Some of the chemicals used to kill harmful bacteria can react to form cancer-producing substances. They degrade slowly, if at all, and can poison the lakes and streams where the treated sewage is discharged.
We rely on fossil fuels such as gasoline, coal, and natural gas to run our cars, power plants, and industries. As they burn, these fuels produce tremendous amounts of air pollution. Generating enough electricity to run a microwave oven for just 5 minutes, for example, puts a quarter-pound of carbon dioxide into the air.
Although strict emission controls on cars and industries have reduced smog in many areas, air pollution is still a serious problem. Health experts say the air in Mexico City is as bad for human lungs as cigarette smoke. To provide relief, the city considered installing vending machines that dispense pure oxygen. Imagine needing correct change just to get a breath of fresh air!
Where Does All the Garbage Go?
The shortage of landfill space for solid trash has been in the news often. Many people think finding space is the main problem, and that once trash is in a landfill, it’s safely out of the way. But the problems with solid trash only start with finding landfill space. The average American home disposes of 15 pounds of hazardous waste each year. Rainwater seeping down through trash in landfills can leach out harmful chemicals, which then can end up in the groundwater that supplies our water sources. Some communities have collection days for hazardous household waste.
As human numbers grow, we make it harder for many wild species to survive. Their habitat is lost to new roads and buildings, or poisoned by wastes.
Chesapeake Bay is one example. Once home to thriving populations of ducks, fish, crabs, and oysters, it is losing many of its wild inhabitants. The problem? Pollution by sewage, silt (eroded soil), and toxic runoff from roads, dumps, lawns, and farms–due to explosive growth of the human population around the Bay.
Tackling the Problem
One approach to solving the problems of overpopulation is to use less food, energy, water, and other resources, and to produce less waste. Another is to invent safe ways to cope with the problems. For example, researchers are developing biodegradable pesticides that won’t poison our water, and methods to safely recycle waste products.
Each of us can contribute by conserving water, using less electricity, walking or sharing a ride rather, than driving alone, using non-toxic cleansers, and recycling. These are effective ways to reduce our impact on the natural world around us.
In a world of nearly 6 billion people, what one person does may seem to make little difference. But the actions of individuals do add up, whether in creating the problem or solving it. Whatever each one of us can do to use less of the Earth’s resources and create less waste will help our environment in the decades to come.
Rats on the Rise
While many species of animals struggle as human numbers rise, one group of wild creatures is growing right along with us. Rats thrive amid human crowds. In the United States, their population has grown from about 100 million in 1967 to about 250 million today. That’s about one rat for every person in the country.
Scurrying from sewer to trash bin to food pantry, rats–and the fleas, lice, and ticks they host–carry disease-causing bacteria and viruses. In recent years, rats have aided the spread of bubonic plague in India and other deadly diseases in other parts of the world.
Rats also eat huge amounts of food. One adult rat can put away about 27 pounds of food each year–and leave about 25,000 droppings, fouling the food they leave behind.
Controlling rats can be difficult. They often refuse to eat poisoned bait, which can end up killing pets or children instead. Good sanitation and rat-proof food storage areas are the most effective ways to prevent a population explosion of rats.