What catastrophic event could end all lives on this small planet? Some say nuclear war; others, another pandemic worse than the current one that’s caused over 700,000 deaths just in North America. Still others, the failure to tackle the problem of climate change. But here’s a surprise. The ultimate disease is a population time bomb that keeps ticking every second of the day — and we all ignore it.

It took 123 years for the human population to grow from one to two billion people. Then, only 40 years to reach six billion, and now the population is 7.8 billion. This year, 82 million people will be added to an already packed planet. It’s like adding another city the size of Richmond, Virginia, or Buffalo, New York, to our planet every day!

Increased population is now causing huge health and migration problems. Recent years have seen enormous waves of refugees fleeing conflict in desperation using any means to get somewhere better. We’ve all seen the gut-wrenching images of flimsy boats in the Mediterranean, and now hundreds are attempting to cross the English Channel from France in the same manner. The U.S. southern border with Mexico offers more scenes of chaos. All need housing, food, and health care.

In nature, if there are too many deer, wolves kill them. But humans have a different problem. Too many of us, and the threat arises of our own makings: poor quality air, water, land and sea.

What is going on is frightening. Climate change is just the start. This year, the heat dome in western Canada caused 446 deaths in British Columbia. Floods in Europe and China ravaged entire villages. Massive fires destroy forests and choke the air with smoke. Polar bears can’t find the sea ice needed to keep alive.

A seminal experiment years ago provided an important lesson about animal behavior. Two rats were placed in a cage. They survived without hostility. But with the addition of another rat or two, the fighting began for space. Similarly, humans do not fare well in confined settings when resources are lacking. Conflict inevitably ensues, not peaceful rethinking and behavior change. We have always been a waring species. Like too many rats in a cage, we turn on each other.

So while you are reading about carbon taxes so complex they are impossible to understand, think about what’s causing the root problem.

There will be more people on this planet. Projections suggest the global population will level out at 11 billion around the year 2100. That’s about 3 billion more people we need to accommodate.

To do so, will we keep cutting down trees, demanding more energy, tossing more plastic in the sea? Very likely, yes. Some good people will do all they can to find solutions. But efforts to fix those problems will have little impact if we keep behaving like rats.

We can all do some finger-pointing. It’s easy to find somebody else who is making things worse. We can all disagree about solutions too. But we have got to get better, and quickly, at living together without conflict every time we don’t see eye to eye.

Yet, we couldn’t do it when there were only 1 billion on the planet. We aren’t doing it now with 9 billion. Squeezing in 3 billion more, what’s our plan for getting along?

We must take care of the planet. But we must also start taking better care of each other. Or are we going to be like rats in a cage?

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, aka Ken Walker, is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School. You can reach him online at his website, docgiff.com, or via email at info@ docgiff.com.

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