Population Surge and Environmental Strain: The Great Acceleration

A Century of Change: Life Expectancy and Population Growth

At the turn of the 20th century, the average life expectancy of a newborn worldwide was 32 years. By 2021, this had risen to 71. This dramatic increase was made possible by the advent of modern medicine and significant advances in public health. Diseases that were once widespread and lethal have been largely controlled, and access to healthcare has dramatically improved.

As a result, people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. This demographic shift has led to a tripling of the global population from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to 8 billion in 2022. The ‘Great Acceleration’ in human population growth has significantly increased our impact on the planet, in what many consider the ‘Anthropocene‘—an epoch where human activity is the dominant influence on the environment.

Changing Demographics, Changing Planet

An evident consequence of this demographic change is the damage to the Earth’s climate. As energy consumption increases to support more people, so does the production of harmful greenhouse gases. Concurrent deforestation for development—such as homes, agriculture, and industry—further harms our planet by reducing its ability to absorb these emissions, leading to rising sea levels, deteriorating air quality, and devastated ecosystems.

Beyond this, increasing consumption also leads to resource scarcity. Deforestation and the over-exploitation of water resources contribute to desertification, a process where fertile land becomes arid and loses its utility. According to the UN, two-thirds of the Earth is undergoing desertification, with more than 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil lost annually. By 2050, it is estimated that 1.5 million km² of agricultural land—an area equivalent to the entire arable land of India—will be lost, significantly impacting humanity’s ability to sustain itself.

Environmental Consciousness Trend

One positive trend in recent years has been the increasing awareness of environmental impacts among consumers. A European Union poll revealed that 94% of Europeans consider environmental protection personally important, and 68% acknowledge that their consumption habits have a global environmental impact. In the U.S., 78% of consumers report that living sustainably is important to them.

In recent years, the global economic landscape has undergone significant transformations. The ‘Great Acceleration’ in the cost of living has not only tightened budgets but also shifted political priorities. Climate change, once at the forefront of global politics in 2019, has been overshadowed by pressing economic and security concerns in the post-Covid era. As countries stabilise from pandemic aftershocks, the focus has largely turned to immediate financial and safety issues, potentially sidelining long-term environmental strategies.

This year is pivotal, with over 2 billion people set to vote in 50 countries. It’s crucial to monitor whether these elections will bring environmental issues back into the spotlight or if economic imperatives will continue to dominate. The decisions made now will determine if environmental consciousness can withstand the pressures of economic hardship or if it will be compromised in the face of urgent financial crises.

The Need for Informed Action and Advocacy

As we navigate these challenging times, the interplay between economic stability and environmental sustainability becomes more apparent. Our collective future depends on finding a balance that addresses both immediate economic needs and long-term ecological goals.

To support this balance, we offer expert legal services to advise on ESG/sustainability compliance, helping organisations align economic activities with environmental responsibilities. We are dedicated to ensuring that your practices not only meet current legal requirements but also contribute to a sustainable future.

© Lawrence Power 2024

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