World population has grown significantly over the past several years due to the advent of industrialisation. With similar conditions now, it is likely to continue that trend.
The population of the globe is growing, and is expected to reach 11 billion by 2200. These people will increasingly live in urbanised cities, and be dependant on foods produced less populated areas. There is a critical need to protect and preserve fertile food production areas, because although it is likely that the planet can support this number of people, it is also likely that there will be areas of extreme hardship.
Currently most of the world's wealth is owned by a small percentage of the total population. It is projected that wealth will be increasingly concentrated in the elite of the dominant economies, while those excluded are increasingly marginalised and excluded from the benefit of economic activity. If this is correct, the world's poor may experience increased hardship, resulting in decreased life expectancy and higher infant mortality. Critical food shortages will accelerate this.
Human geographers predict that as the emerging economies shift to increasingly westernised, urban, lifestyles, the rate of population growth will slowly decline. Some nations, such as China, have actively innovated population reductions through restrictive birth control programs. However even slowed rates of growth will produce a rapidly increasing global population for most of this century , because of the current population size. Eventually populations should stabilise around 2200, and then begin to decline.
Although many economists would like to see a future of unlimited potential growth, this is problematic because many resources have restricted availability. Consequently resources used for energy production, such as fossil fuels, are highly sought and are nearing exhaustion.
Some people believe that technology will provide either new methods of resource production, or alternative ways to meet any resource problem encountered. This fails to recognise that many environmental effects have slow onset, and may be hard to recognise in the early stages. There may be cascading impacts where one small change can trigger a series of unexpected reactions. Some species are critical to an ecosystems survival. These 'keystone' species may not be easy to identify until the system is in crisis.
It also underestimates the significance that altering conditions may have on the biological services mankind receives from other species. Most living species, except anaerobic bacteria and viruses, depend on atmospheric oxygen. All atmospheric oxygen was produced as a by-product of photosynthesis. Disrupting the conditions for such natural services could have profound consequences.
An enormous investment in technologies would be required to develop a substitute for this natural service alone. There are countless other natural services provided by the biosphere, including resorbing of carbon dioxide, fixation of atmospheric nitrogen, decomposition of cellulose and animal wastes, and amino acid supplies through the food chain.
This view, that technology can fix all our problems, also fails to recognise the globe has not always been as it appears now. In fact climate change, sea level alterations and extinction events are the normal alterations seen in the fossil record since the Pre-Cambrian Period, over 500 million years ago. A prudent species would ensure its long-term survival, particularly by avoiding triggers for climatic change. In most species survival is achieved by maximising reproductive success. However, Homo sapiens are the only species to have deliberately reduced reproductive capacity and their population numbers, to improve individual quality and length of life. The next challenge facing human beings is to learn how to recognise and practise sustainable development.
Sustainable development has been described as providing for the needs of the present without compromising those needed for future generations. There are many challenges including defining wants versus needs, and debating whether maintaining economic growth and cultures promoting conspicuous consumption are appropriate as resources and biodiversity are compromised.
It has been argued that without a sufficient income, nations cannot adopt the infrastructure or technologies needed, or undertake the industrial reforms required. However there is little evidence that the wealthiest nations have seriously engaged with this concept. Although many governments have signed treaties, and developed protocols there is little evidence of considered reform. Most efforts are purely tokenistic.
The Johannesburg Summit achieved 300 voluntary partnerships to implement sustainable programs, however the scale of the current issues was unmet. The specific needs of small island nations and underdeveloped countries were not resolved.