What we have learned here is that scientists cannot tell us exactly how many people Earth can support, partly because humans make choices that are not predictable and partly because humans have an incredible capacity to innovate and adjust seemingly fixed biological limits. Ultimately, the question of how many people Earth should support—and at what quality—is not solely a question of science but also of values and ethics. For instance, the most effective way to reduce human population growth rates quickly is to provide for the education and improved social status of women—including increasing access to birth control, a strategy that many people oppose on religious grounds.

While we do not know the maximum number of humans Earth can support, we do know that a significant proportion of the current human population receives inadequate food. We also know that our methods of food production rely on the use of nonrenewable resources, a practice that cannot continue for very many more generations. In the next section we investigate what science can tell us about how to feed large human populations now and in the future.

Media Activity 15.3 Sustainable Agriculture in the 21st Century

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