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Earth's resources — such as farmable land and clean water — are currently inequitably distributed in regions across the world.

April 12, 2021

Inequitable Resource Distribution Poses Greater Threat to Planet Health Than Population Growth

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With the world’s population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, the question remains of whether the earth will have enough resources to support its inhabitants.

Currently, inequities surrounding access to resources are mainly the result of unequal distribution rather than global scarcity. While that may change as the population grows, these issues of distribution are already contributing to a climate refugee crisis, environmental degradation and food scarcity in some regions of the world. 

Although the global population is still growing, it’s not growing as quickly as it once did. Prof. Emeritus David L. Brown, global development, said that even though the global population is increasing, it’s growing at a diminishing rate. 

According to Brown, this diminishing rate can be attributed to a lower fertility rate, which is the average number of children a woman has. A few contributors to this shift have been women obtaining higher levels of education, more career opportunities and wider availability of contraceptives. 

Even as the global population continues to rise, the primary issue lies in the inequitable distribution — rather than volume — of earth’s resources, according to Brown. Since higher-income countries use disproportionate amounts of food, clean water and other natural resources, this leaves developing countries with food scarcities.

“The size of the population and its composition does not automatically have impacts on well-being,” Brown said. “It’s the way in which society mediates that [and how federal governments] accommodate changes in population size.” 

This unequal distribution of dwindling environmental resources needed for survival — such as farmable land, clean air and drinking water — has the potential to exacerbate the overuse of environmental resources, further compounding competition for limited resources in areas bearing the brunt of inequitable distribution. 

According to Prof. Amanda Rodewald, natural resources, environmental degradation will make poverty, disease and environmental disasters more prevalent, thus reducing access to crucial environmental resources. 

“As growing human populations use more resources, the quality and quantity of environmental resources usually decline,” Rodewald said. “At the same time, competition for those resources increases, which can promote conflict, unrest, and displacement – all of which can further erode environmental resources.”

This cyclical depletion of environmental resources has contributed to a climate refugee crisis — in 2018, the World Bank predicted that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will generate 143 million more climate refugees by 2050. 

“When the environment can no longer provide sufficient goods and services, entire populations are forced to move. Each year there are 25 million environmental refugees, with numbers certain to rise due to climate change,” Rodewald said.

Prof. Amelia Greiner Safi, public health, added that the overuse of resources such as land, wildlife, water and forests contributes to deforestation, less water for crops and livestock and pollution, all of which pose a threat to a healthy environment.

“This happens everywhere, but the intensity and consequence may be worse in overpopulated areas, especially those without developed water and sanitation,” Greiner Safi, said. 

Rodewald said the complex connections between climate change, natural resource distribution and reproductive rates also play a role in population growth. Since insufficient resources can cause poor health and living conditions, these factors could actually decrease reproductive rates by causing stress within families.

“There are huge physical, social and psychological impacts on mothers, [and] child health is threatened if there aren’t enough resources,” Greiner Safi said.

On the other hand, since poor health and living conditions limit women’s access to education, Rodewald said that this factor would promote reproductive rates, further complicating the delicate interplay between climate change and population growth. How climate change will ultimately impact the population growth is still uncertain. 

Brown said that in order to mitigate the rippling effects of inequitably distributed natural resources, governments must implement policies to accommodate — instead of control — population growth.

Increasing access to reproductive health resources, such as birth control, is one way in which governments can support a growing population to indirectly decrease fertility rates. 

Greiner Safi explained that family planning campaigns can also mitigate a growing population size.

“There are active campaigns in many locations from sex education to maternal and child health, though I don’t imagine “overpopulation” would be an explicit part of their work. These are delicate topics because they focus on reproduction and families,” Greiner Safi said. Awareness campaigns, education and contraceptive prevalence have contributed to falling fertility rates in African nations over the past two decades. 

Although policies to accommodate population size and more equitably distribute resources can help mitigate the overuse of natural resources, Rodewald said the health of the planet can even come down to socioeconomic status at the individual level. 

“Impact tracks use, the latter of which often tracks socioeconomic status,” Rodewald said. “This means that an affluent family of four likely uses far more resources – and thus has a greater environmental impact – than a family of eight or more living in poverty.”