Sunday, October 30, 2011

7 Billion and Counting

According to the United Nations Population Fund, on October 31, tomorrow, the population of the world will become seven billion persons. That is remarkable!
When I was born in 1938, the global human population was under 2.3 billion. So in my lifetime the population of the world has tripled, and then some!
Population Action International has an app on their website that calculates the world population on any given day in the past. You can put in your birth date and quickly get the estimate of “your number,” the population of the world on your birthday. The link for “What’s Your Number?” is here. (I am 2,267,750,937.)
It is estimated that the world's population didn’t reach the one billion mark until 1804, just a little over 200 years ago. By 1927, 123 years later, the population of the world became two billion. Then in just 33 years, in 1960, the number of people on earth climbed to three billion.
Since February 1967, world population has doubled to reach the seven billion mark. (Actually, the U.S. Census Bureau says that seven billion won’t be reached until February, 2012.) What will it be like, though, if the population doubles again in the same length of time? That is unlikely to happen; estimates now indicate that even the nine billion mark will probably not be reached until 2045 or later. Still, that is a number fraught with problems.
How many people can the earth sustain? It can be argued that the earth is not adequately sustaining its seven billion people now. But the problem is largely a matter of distribution, not resources. There is enough food for everyone, but some (particularly many Americans) eat far too much, and hundreds of millions, mostly in south Asia and Africa, have far too little to eat.
With the growth of the population, there is a strain on other resources, too. And, again, the U.S. with only 5% of the world population uses an extraordinarily large share of the world’s natural resources. 
As the population continues to rise above seven billion, there will doubtlessly be more and more struggle for limited resources: fresh water, food, oil, and the like. As resources become scarcer, prices rise and more people face financial problems. More troubling, in a world of shortages violence also becomes more prevalent as nations, or smaller groups, seek to provide for their own.
Population pressures and need for additional food and natural resources have been part of the cause of wars, large and small, through the centuries, and the likelihood of warfare increases as the population continues to increase. In addition, the gap between the wealthy countries and the poor countries, or between the wealthy and the poor within countries, leads to various acts of revolutionary violence.
So the fact that the world population is now 7,000,000,000 and counting is not good news. But that is the situation we are in. And it is a matter about which we all need to be concerned, supporting ideas and programs for dealing with the problem in constructive ways.


  1. Thanks for your column on population growth. We've known for some time that the most effective brake on population growth is affluence. For some time now, some European countries have been worried about population decline (although there is a fairly ethnocentric cast to this worry). I wonder whether the earth can survive the wait for global affluence.

    I confess to feeling alarm at the population growth while recognizing the need for greater equality. As you reveal, distribution and exorbitant consumption by the richest peoples are huge aspects of this problem.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Anton.

    Many in Japan also have been quite worried about the decline of the domestic population.

    I think it is most unlikely that the majority of the people in the world will be able to reach anywhere close to the level of affluence seen in Japan, most of Europe, and the United States (except for the growing numbers of the lower class).

    Thus, I don't know which is the bigger problem: the growth of the population or the growth of the disparity between the wealthy and the poor across the globe.

  3. One of my "Connections," a USAmerican living in Japan, posted the following comments on LinkedIn:

    "Leroy, you may not be aware that the whole 7 billion population scare talk is a red herring. People who are closely following demographics are convinced that the world is more likely heading for 'demographic winter' rather than increased overpopulation. The replacement birthrate for any culture is 2.1 children per couple. All Western and developed nations' birthrates are below that, so the danger is on the other end. It's now estimated that we'll be back at the 7 billion figure in less than 75 years. This is unfortunate because the U.N. and many other population control groups are using this number to support policies like China's brutal one-child policy and other coercive measures."

  4. As mentioned above, many people in Japan, Western Europe, and even the U.S. are concerned about the decline in population (and the lack of younger people to take care of, financially, the aging population).

    But globally the idea of a "demographic winter" seems to be unfounded, at least in this century.

    The Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in its "World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision" (published in May 2011) foresees a global population of 9.3 billion people at 2050, an increase over earlier estimates, and more than 10 billion by the end of this century—and that scenario assumes lower fertility rates over time.

    I am inclined to think the scholars and specialists working for the U.N. are much more likely to be correct in their predictions about population growth than those of the Religious Right who are warning about a "demographic winter."

  5. Two different stresses are typically tied together in population discussions. One is the stress caused by population change, whether up or down. The other stress is the overall population level as compared to the carrying capacity. Countries with rapid changes, up or down, are severely stressed by the change. Those of us who have lived the baby boom in America have had a front row seat on the change stress, as we have burst every system and institution we have filtered through. Behind us, other generations are dealing with excess capacities and subsequent overhead costs. These would be real problems, even if the overall world population were not itself problematic.

    We look at a long list of environmental and economic stresses from a large world population, everything from widespread species extinctions to lack of food and water, even for humans. The most dramatic population growth is in underdeveloped countries who face the double stress of both high change and the growing world population crisis. For instance, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be a critical point in the growth. These countries are already in crisis. This area is experiencing growing deserts, water shortages, food shortages, wars, and lack of infrastructure. Now what happens when this is the fastest growing area in the world? Disaster is the most likely scenario. It is sometimes argued that there is enough food in the world, if it was just properly distributed. Well, that is begging the main question. Who is going to pay for the food? Who is going to pay for the transportation and distribution? What happens to the rest of the world that is already experiencing serious food inflation? Would this just fuel even faster population growth in an area that cannot handle what is already happening?

    Actually, some of the best population news is that all around the world, where women have been educated and empowered, population growth has been sharply curtailed, or even reversed. It is truly unfortunate that some of the most vocal opposition to this trend have been from the religious right in the United States, which has gone on from opposing abortion to widespread opposition to even basic voluntary birth control. Quiverful Theology should be enough to make anyone quiver.

    I stopped for dinner while working on this post, and learned that the United States has immediately and totally cut off all funding to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The immediate trigger was the decision of UNESCO to allow the Palestinian state to join UNESCO. This is a good example of why I think disaster is the most likely outcome of the population bomb. The world is crowded and dealing with shortages, which results in very little room for mistakes and disagreements. The dispute between Palestine and Israel is now directly impacting many aspects of science, education and culture all over the world. We have to solve so many problems simultaneously that solving any of them is very problematic.

    So let us consider the alternative. What would a population disaster look like? Well, suppose hundreds of millions were dying of lack of food and water. Desperate countries start fighting over scarce resources. More millions die in those wars. Diseases kill millions more in the chaos. Shock waves from collapsing third world countries cause serious social and economic crises in the developed world. We could have all that without either global warming or running out of oil. Of course, if those happen, too, we might see billions dying, instead of millions. Probably a few would survive, and start rebuilding the world. I doubt they would remember us kindly, or want to emulate too much of what they remembered. Which is too bad, because they might not have the resources to wait to reinvent the wheel. We took care of that.

  6. Ted Marr, whom I first knew when he was a boy (his father was my high school coach and his mother was my English teacher) but just met as an adult two or three years ago, is a recent addition to my Thinking Friends mailing list. I am happy to post his first comments to this blog (with his permission):

    "Resources, economics and government policy (in the case of China) will determine a lot. Religion will play a part in some areas. The sad part is that population will be curbed by starvation, disease and conflict. The chemicals that help to increase our food productions is probably going to poison our water if fracking for natural gas doesn't do it first."