The Urbanization of Planet Earth


Some things are inevitable. Death and taxes comes to mind. But so is the ever-increasing population of humanity despite the unavailability of ever-decreasing resources worldwide. I worry that earth will one day be like Coruscant, the fictional ecumenopolis in Star Wars Episode I-The Phantom Menace—a city-covered planet with a population of over a trillion inhabitants. Although visionary, it may represent the future of Earth.

Urbanization 2Since around the end of WWII (1945) the population of humanity has exploded (see map: data from the United Nations). Your parents or grandparents lived at a time when the world’s population was significantly less than half of what it is today. My eight year old daughter may live long enough to see the worst case “high growth scenario” as depicted in the graph. In such a world, what room will be left for the millions of other species that have lived on earth for millions of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens? The questions I’m asking is two-fold: Where is our compassion for the planet and what will happen to our compassion for one another in such a crowded world? Doctors are increasingly prescribing Nature as an antidote to stress. What escape from stress and over-crowdedness will there be in a world without Nature?


A recent article in National Geographic stated that some nine billion tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year (June 2019). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of plastic debris in the Pacific, is already 1.6 million kilometers in size. How large will it be in a world of ten or twenty billion people?

Land Use:

In the summer of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report that finds humanity’s current rate of consumption unsustainable. As an example, the report points to the unsustainable increase in cattle-raising for beef production. The WHO recommends that we have to change our land use practices and production patterns now to avoid environmental catastrophe in the future. The report goes so far as to recommend that we need to move away from a meat diet to vegetarianism. Slash and burn practices in the underdeveloped world are destroying forests and ecosystems to grow monocrops or to raise cattle.

Urbanization 3Depletion of the Seas: 

85% of humanity depends on fish for protein. Yet, according to a recent BBC report, Global fish stocks are exploited or depleted (overharvested) to such an extent that without urgent measures we may be the last generation to catch food from the oceans. (Photo of overharvesting in Chile)

Urbanization 4Automobile Pollution:

With a population of over 9 million, Dhaka, Bangladesh is the most densely populated city in the world (photo of Dhaka City). What will traffic be like in a world of megacities exceeding 30 million people? What will be the negative effects of another billion gas-powered motor vehicles spewing exhaust into the atmosphere?

Urbanization 5

In one of his last public lectures, held in Anchorage, Alaska, Carl Sagan lectured on the problems of the future. During his hour-long talk, he showed a single photo of Earth at night. There was no PowerPoint slide show . . . just the one image. During the long drive the next day to visit my village and see Alaska’s vast and mostly unspoiled natural beauty, Carl told me he wanted that one image to be seared into the audience’s minds. He worried about the future of our planet. He worried that history is replete with wars fought over resources and invisible borders on a map. In a future world where necessary resources are scarce and therefore valuable, he worried that millions (maybe billions) of people will perish in wars fought to secure those dwindling resources. Though the resources may be thousands of miles away on other continents, he worried that powerful nations may declare those resources are theirs to be taken: “We need them for our national security and to maintain our way of life!” Carl Sagan worried about the future genocide of entire peoples who “are in the way” of pilfering those resources.

John Smelcer is the inaugural writer-in-residence for The Charter for Compassion. He is the author of over 50 books, including his recent poetry book, Raven.

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