Our species is nothing if not prolific. The world’s human population is expected to reach 8 billion this month and increase to 10 billion over the next 60 years, according to demographers at the United Nations, among others.
That’s 10,000,000,000 of us.
In the past 100 years alone our numbers have quadrupled, from two billion to eight billion.
Three millennia ago, when Athens and Babylon were in ascendance, a mere 110 million people roamed Mother Earth. That is barely one percent of today’s total —or the equivalent of the current combined population of France and Spain.
While we proliferate, many other creatures are dwindling. The World Wildlife Fund reports that monitored species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have seen their numbers decline by 69 percent since 1970.
Consider the African elephant. There were an estimated 25 million of them six centuries ago: today there are fewer than half a million. Tens of thousands are poached annually, and the species has lost more than 50 percent of its habitat in the past 40 years, according to the nonprofit conservation organization Over & Above Africa.
Or take tigers in India. In 1900, an estimated 100,000 roamed the subcontinent; today barely 3,000 exist on just seven percent of their former range.
The largest animal to ever inhabit the planet, the blue whale, is still with us but also endangered. The size of 40 elephants and considerably heavier than a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the species has a current population that is at most 10 percent of what it was 150 years ago. Between 1904 and 1967 an estimated 350,000 of these behemoths were killed by commercial whalers.
And it is not just large and iconic animals that are in trouble. For example, many species of pollinating bees are endangered. No farm, no food, as the bumper sticker goes. How about: no bees, no farm?
A 2019 report from the National Audubon Society maintains that two-thirds of North American bird species risk extinction if nothing is done to address climate change. The aggregate population of avian species on our continent has declined by 29 percent since 1970 —with the aggregate loss of nearly three billion birds, according to research conducted by Audubon.
There are bright spots to report as well. Half a century ago our national bird, the bald eagle, was on the brink of extinction, and America took action —banning the pesticide DDT for starters— that has enabled the species, and many other birds of prey, like osprey, to regain lost ground. In the lower 48 states in 1963 there were just 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles, while today there are 71,400, according to an estimate by the American Eagle Foundation.
In India, conservation efforts have resulted in the doubling of the tiger population there since 2010 —to 3,167 individuals, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
So apparently, we can share the planet when we put our minds to it. But the next 60 years will be critical to the world we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. The aforementioned United Nation’s demographers (among others) also are predicting that our human population will peak circa 2085 —at 10 billion people— and begin a precipitous decline, down toward numbers not seen in centuries. Check it out.
You probably have noticed a dramatic demographic change anecdotally. I have. I was the last born of five boys in my family, in 1949; our two neighbors had nine and seven children respectively. My wife and I have one son, and one grandson, who is rising two. The times certainly are a changing.
But long before they do in any meaningful way, our species will have to address the stresses that our still growing numbers are placing on the planet —and all creatures great and small, including our grandchildren.
David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.