Just how completely we humans have reversed the typical size and food pyramids is evident by considering our biomass – the weight of all humanity on Earth. The human biomass constitutes approx. 33% of terrestrial mammalian biomass; domestic animals, almost 66% and wild animals only about 4%.
As land mammals go, humans are quite large. We may seem small compared with elephants and moose, but we’re much bigger than most of the approximately 6,400 species of mammals. And we’re a top predator. The number of individuals in species of large body size is usually smaller than the number of individuals in small-bodied species, and the population of top predators is usually smaller than the populations of animals farther down the food chain. Therefore the fact that the human population is now 8 billion and counting is a biological anomaly. According to the United Nations, we officially hit that milestone on November 15, 2022, although some estimates have us reaching it in early 2023.
Just how completely we humans have reversed the typical size and food pyramids is evident by considering our biomass – the weight of all humanity on Earth. The human biomass constitutes approximately one-third of the terrestrial mammalian biomass, and our domestic animals, consisting mostly of livestock, constitute almost two-thirds. Wild animals make up only about 4%.
Not surprisingly, the rise of human numbers has been accompanied by a plummet in biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2022 says that there has been an average 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018. And we should understand that by 1970, the designated baseline year, biodiversity had already taken a substantial hit from human activities. The Living Planet Report notes that land-use changes remain the most important driver of biodiversity loss. Land-use changes are driven primarily by converting wildlands to agricultural uses, which is driven primarily by population growth. At a time when there is a tendency to attribute almost all problems to climate change, even when, for example, the role of population growth is far more significant, it is important to emphasize that, regardless of what the future may hold, today’s ecological and social problems have been driven far more by population growth than anything else, including climate change.
Kenya can serve as a case study of a growing human and livestock population driving biodiversity to the brink. A study published in 2016 found that between 1977 and 2016, there had been an average 68% decline in wildlife in that country. Warthogs, lesser kudus, Thomson’s gazelles, elands, oryxes, topis, hartebeest, and impalas were all severely threatened. Livestock biomass increased from being 3.5 to 8.1 times greater than wildlife biomass. The authors cite policy, institutional, and market failures as the fundamental cause, putting it above exponential human population growth, increasing livestock numbers, and declining rainfall and rising temperatures. Perhaps, but the more pressure exerted by the human population, the more good policies become critical. Had Kenya’s population remained at its 1977 level of 14.6 million and not risen to the 49.1 million of 2016, wildlife would undoubtedly be in better shape despite inadequate policies. Kenya’s population is still growing apace at an annual rate of well over 2% and is currently 57 million.
A poignant picture in an Ecowatch article shows a giraffe in Nairobi (Kenya) National park overlooking the Nairobi skyline that is inexorably advancing toward the park. In 1910, there were over 2.5 million giraffes in the world; in 2020 there were about 68,000. In 1910, Nairobi’s population was 14,000; in 2020, it was 4.7 million. It is not only giraffes that have suffered a precipitous decline as Africa’s population mushroomed. So have elephants, zebras, lions, and mountain gorillas, among others
Good news and bad news for a human population in overshoot
The good news is that the annual growth rate of the human population is slowing. It peaked in the early 1960s at 2.2% and is now barely over 1%. The bad news is that’s not enough: the population itself is still growing by about 78 million annually. Projections are for 9 billion by around 2037, 10 billion by circa 2060 and close to 11 billion by 2100. Most of that growth will be in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s current population of 1.46 billion is projected to increase to 2.5 billion by 2050 and nearly 4 billion by 2100. Of course, projections of the human population do not take into account the possibility of collapse, which not a few researchers conclude is where the human trajectory is heading.
Canada is not exempt from the impact of population growth
We don’t have to leave home to see the impact of human activities on biodiversity. Canada is often erroneously referred to as underpopulated, but that designation shows a lack of ecological understanding. Most of Canada is “underpopulated” for the same reason that Antarctica is – it is not suitable for human habitation and cannot support a dense population. The population of Canada before the arrival of Europeans was 200,000. Ninety percent of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of the US border and much of the southern part of Canada is already densely populated or has been converted to human uses such as agriculture.
Canada’s prairie grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. For the most part, undisturbed native grasslands survive as small islands in a sea of agriculture and, more recently, face encroachment by urban development. According to Nature Canada, less than 1% of the native prairie in Saskatchewan and Alberta enjoys any official protection.
In 1997, a University of British Columbia team of 23 scientists, led by Dr. Michael Healey, published a $2.4 million study commissioned by the federal government. The study was titled Fraser Basin Ecosystem Study Final Report – Prospects for Sustainability. It concluded that the rapidly growing urban environment would overwhelm the Fraser Basin’s natural resource base. The population at the time was considered to be three times the sustainable level. As indicators of serious environmental decline, the study cited high nitrogen pollution in groundwater and the presence of visible abnormalities in more than 90% of the fish samples taken from the Fraser River. As many as 50 streams in the greater Vancouver area that had once supported salmon runs had been turned into storm sewers. Many of the remaining streams were being degraded because of pollution form automobiles, agriculture and other sources.
Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, with close to 40% of Canada’s population. Ninety-three percent of its 15 million people live in the southern part of the province, which constitutes 16% of the province’s territory. Only 7% of the population lives on Ontario’s Canadian Shield, which makes up 61% of the province, and a mere 10,000 people live in the Hudson Bay lowlands that constitute 23% of its territory. The Hudson Bay lowlands are one of four sparsely populated areas that Trudeau designated for indigenous-led conservation initiatives at the biodiversity COP15, held in Montreal in December. While such conservation initiatives are laudable, Trudeau said nothing about protecting the biodiversity in southern Ontario or any other densely populated part of Canada where it is most acutely threatened.
The southwestern part of Ontario, along the northwest shore of Lake Ontario and home to the Greater Toronto Area or GTA, is the most densely populated part of Canada. This part of the province has lost more than 70% of its wetland habitats, 98% of its grasslands, and 80% of its forest. Over 200 plant and animal species in Ontario are now classified as endangered, threatened or of special concern; 16 species have been extirpated in the province. The Ontario government acknowledges that population growth and habitat loss are major threats to the province’s biodiversity.
There has also been a heavy toll on farmland. Only about 7% of Canada’s surface area is in any way suitable for agriculture (classes 1 to 6) and 52% of Canada’s best farmland (class 1) is located in Ontario, most in the heavily urbanized southwestern part. Over 18% of Ontario’s class 1 farmland had been converted to urban purposes by 2001. The Ontario Farmland Trust estimates that Ontario is currently losing 319 acres of farmland each day.
Population growth in Canada is driving habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, just as it is in the rest of the world.
Immigration policies, not birthrate, drive Canada’s population growth
Although Canada has had a total fertility rate (TFR) below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman since 1975 and its current TFR is only 1.4, it is the fastest growing of all G7 nations. That growth is driven by immigration, which has been maintained at very high levels since 1990. In order to attract newcomers to the Conservative party (most tended to vote Liberal), Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s immigration minister Barbara McDougall upped the annual intake to 250,000. This high level was maintained by all governments, regardless of party, since then. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s then immigration minister Ahmed Hussen announced further increases to annual targets for the next three years, culminating at 340,000 in 2020. These plans were derailed by Covid, but in 2022, immigration minister Sean Fraser announced even larger targets for the ensuing three years, with 500,000 immigrants slated for 2025.
Southwestern Ontario, in particular, has borne the brunt of misguided immigration policies of recent decades. But when Gord Miller, then Ontario environment commissioner, questioned the need for population growth in his 2004-05 Annual Report, Planning Our Landscape, released in November 2005, he was savaged by the media as anti-immigrant.
Premier Doug Ford: environmental villain or whipping boy for bad federal policies?
Despite construction booms and sprawling cities, the increase in Canada’s housing supply could not keep up with the rapid rise in demand. The CIBC estimates that in 2022 the number of new arrivals to Canada, including not just immigrants but foreign students, temporary workers, and Ukrainian refugees, among others, was about 955,000. CIBC considers that this trend could intensify in 2023. The year 2022 saw “an unprecedented swing in housing demand in a single year,” it says. This has led to what both the federal and Ontario governments call a housing crisis. That this self-inflicted crisis could be eased by a moderation of immigration levels does not appear to have dawned on federal leaders.
Almost half of all newcomers go to Ontario and over three-quarters of those settle in the GTA. This has not led Ontario Premier Doug Ford to challenge the federal immigration policy. Indeed he says he welcomes it, but because of the housing demand it will create, he has taken the axe to environmental protection legislation. In 2021, Ford shocked environmental groups with Bill 257, “Supporting Broadband and Infrastructure Expansion Act,” which proposed changes to the province’s Planning Act that allowed Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) to override key provisions of that Act and permit development in protected areas outside of the greenbelt. But more was to come.
Premier Ford also wants to expand Ontario’s highway system to accommodate growth. Particularly controversial is the proposed Highway 413, which would form an arc in the northwestern part of the GTA and fell a swath of nature in its path. Next in his line of fire was southwestern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt, with Ford’s Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022. And, in order to help deal with pesky city councils that sometimes ask awkward questions about proposed developments, Ford tabled Bill-39, Better Municipal Governance Act, 2022, and Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act Regulations, which, among other things, weaken protection of agricultural lands and allow the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa, the province’s two largest cities, to adopt or amend bylaws with only one-third of the vote on their councils.
Despite the flurry of environment-crushing legislation, Ford’s target of getting 1.5 million homes built in 10 years is unlikely to be met. To further assist breakneck development, Bill 23 freezes, reduces, or exempts the fees that developers pay to build affordable housing, non-profit housing, and inclusionary zoning units (affordable housing in new developments), and some rental units. Developers’ fees go to municipalities that use them to pay for services such as roads, sewers, and community centres. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario says that the changes could leave municipalities short $5 billion. The shortfall will likely come from an increase in property taxes. This should thrill current homeowners, especially those carrying a heavy mortgage at a time of high inflation.
Many might see Doug Ford as the obvious villain in the accelerating destruction of Ontario’s wildlife habitat and farmland. But it is not Ford who sets Canada’s immigration/growth targets. With the rampant growth imposed by the federal government, what is happening sooner with Ford would eventually happen later regardless of who was in charge. So-called smart growth can only slow, but cannot stop, the destruction of the environment. Portland, Oregon, which has been lauded as a paragon of smart growth, is a case in point that it cannot prevent sprawl.
There is no such thing as green growth anywhere
There is no such thing as green growth anywhere
With a human population of 8 billion, population growth is a disaster in all countries. Poor countries will not pull themselves out of poverty unless they bring their population growth under control. Instead of growing its population through immigration, Canada (and Australia, the UK, and the USA, among others) should lead by example in showing that human well-being can rise with a stable or declining population. By limiting immigration while making family planning a significant, integral part of foreign aid, Canada can help far more people than the number that benefit from immigration, and at the same time conserve its own biodiversity.
In time, the human population will stop growing and contract. Let’s try to make that happen with ethical, intelligent policies and not leave it up to environmental catastrophes.