When our world’s population topped 5 billion people in 1989, the United Nations established July 11 as World Population Awareness Day. The UN’s efforts to make people aware of the consequences of continued population growth have, unfortunately, had little impact on population increase. The world’s population grows at an alarming rate. During my lifetime, the number of people on planet Earth has tripled to 7½ billion people. Currently, it increases daily by 220,000 and yearly by 80 million. By mid-century, the projected population will be 10 billion, double the 1989 population size.

As a graduate student at the University of Delaware in 1962, my professor had our ecology class read a paper by Vladimir Vernadsky, a Ukrainian scientist who had popularized the term biosphere. The biosphere is the zone of the Earth where life thrives. Vernadsky’s 1945 paper, “On the coming of the Noosphere,” described a drastically changed biosphere that humans are unwittingly developing on planet Earth. The Noosphere is a biosphere where humans dominate all aspects of life. Our domesticated plants and animals will displace all native species, and all native life either becomes extinct or exists only in zoos.

Vernadsky’s futuristic view of planet Earth has haunted me ever since I read his paper, 56 years ago. It troubles me that our planet is moving toward a Noosphere, as he predicted. Earth’s biodiversity is diminished each day as we usurp more and more land for food production, our habitations, and other human wants and needs.

Changes occurring in Africa demonstrate these negative trends as we move toward a Noosphere. Africa’s human population is now increasing 2.5 percent per year, and will double in 28 years, resulting in African wildlife being decimated. The African elephant population has declined 62 percent during the past 10 years. The African lion population has fallen 42 percent during the past 21 years, while giraffe populations are down 40 percent from 30 years ago. These wildlife losses are due to a combination of habitat destruction, legal hunting, and illegal poaching.

Humans are not only destroying wildlife, but also changing the very climate of the planet as well. Forests, fisheries, the land, soils, and the oceans are being degraded. The Earth’s carrying capacity for all life is diminished daily. We use 10 calories of mostly fossil energy to put one calorie of food on our tables. The energetics of our food system is clearly not sustainable when fossil energy is eventually depleted. Our grandchildren facing and enduring a famine is scary.

Yet, we have failed to fully recognize and fix the problem. We treat the environmental symptoms but not the root cause, which is a growing, over-consuming population and declining resources. The solution is to humanely stabilize our population size by voluntary family planning and then ultimately reduce it to sustainable levels by having small families.

As we drift toward a Noosphere, we see human refugee problems increase to record numbers. In ecologically and socially degraded areas of our Earth, they are fleeing to “greener pastures.” These mostly unwelcome intrusions ignite xenophobic tribalism. The threat of social chaos and violence increases and the threat of nuclear weapons is ever lurking over us. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem, excessive human population size, governments tend to focus on securing resources with armaments and alliances. This focus is detrimental to our survival.

Population and environmental awareness is sorely needed to motivate us to curb population growth. We need to advocate for reproductive rights and gender equality and provide contraception information and contraception to eliminate unintended pregnancies, which comprise 41 percent of worldwide pregnancies. Currently, 214 million couples have no access to modern contraception. This could be mostly accomplished by diverting a small fraction of our bloated defense budget, if we have the will to do so. To make the U.S. and the world’s population sustainable requires appropriate actions based on enlightened awareness and thinking; requirements that currently are lacking.

Our government, for the most part, has been in denial of the seriousness of the population problem, and our present regime is no exception. They have defunded teen pregnancy research, placed a gag rule on both domestic and international family planning programs and attempted the defunding of Planned Parenthood. We should oppose attempts to defund these programs and urge an increase in such spending. Our survival as a species and that of many others depends on each of us being aware, involved and voting.


Lee W. Miller is retired senior biologist supervisor, formerly with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He is a member of the Mother Lode Sierra Club Chapter’s Committee for a Sustainable World Population. He also a master gardener who contributes to the What’s Growing On column in The Record.