On October 31, the United Nations Population Fund announced that world population had reached a watermark 7 billion. This couldn’t come at a worse time, given global warming. Combined with diminishing economic and natural resources, it possibly heralds a doomsday scenario of accelerating species extinction, famine, and mass starvation. Some would argue our demise has already begun, given the continuing rise in sea levels, devastating drought, and declining resources as more humans compete for their place at the table. In the 19th Century, it was clergyman Robert Malthus who provided the first numerical analysis of exponential population growth, and he lived in a world not facing the spectre of climate change as the great complicator.
For the most part, science has been able to keep Malthus at bay with its progress in developing new crops less impervious to insect and drought. Such gains, however, have now slowed, given their inability to stay even, or ahead, of population growth. Adding to this developing tragedy is its impacting the world’s neediest, those living in Africa or developing nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I indicated in one of my first posts back in January, the unrest in North Africa has been essentially over rising food prices, now consuming up to a third of a family’s budget. To the South, or African Horn, starvation threatens several million Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans.
While Northern Hemisphere nations scramble for oil, the major crisis in resources, namely water availability, dwarfs all other resource challenges. By 2025, the International Water Management Institute projects that nearly 2 billion people will live in areas lacking sufficient water to sustain agriculture. But this crisis will affect the wealthier nations as well. In the U. S., the rich underground water table that feeds the generous corn and wheat bounties of the Midwest is dropping precipitously.. In Australia, huge areas, particularly near Perth in the west, once known for their wheat and vineyard harvests, haven’t seen rain in several years. Less wheat and corn translates to less surplus available for third world nations. While the wealthy nations will work out coping strategies, it’s the already poor who will suffer yet greater degradation. Uncurbed population growth exacerbates their suffering.
Not everyone agrees with the dismal portrayal I’ve given here. In a lead Time Magazine article (Oct. 26, 2011), writer Bryan Walsh argues we have the resources to not only take care of 7 billion, but many more. Moreover, there’s good news on the birth control front. In 1950, the average woman had 5 children, now down to 2.5. Present world population growth is just 1.1 a year. True, population continues its rapid rise in sub-Saharan Africa, but this is offset by their low impact on resources. "[The] real problem for the world is that each of the 300 million people in the U. S. consumes as much as 32 Kenyans do,” Walsh argues.
Personally, I think people like Walsh are living on another planet. More people means more environmental degradation in the form of carbon emissions, declining wildlife habitat and loss of fauna and flora, more competition for oil, gas, and, yes, food. We may be able to feed ourselves now to the point of waste and obscene obesity, but this doesn’t help distressed populations in Africa and Asia. Soon we will not even have sufficient grains to export and alleviate our guilt, or is it our complacency? Have we forgotten the spectre of global warming that is fast changing the equation?
I have to laugh at those who argue like Walsh that we could fit the entire world population into Texas and wouldn’t exceed the density of New York City, a place he finds tolerable. Personally, I shudder at the prospect of every place looking like Jersey or NYC. Has this guy ever been to India, a nation with just a third of China’s land size, yet destined to surpass China’s population in the next decade?
United Nations population projections (2010):
2010 2050 2100
United States: 310m 400m 478m
Russia: 142m 130m 110m
Nigeria: 150m 425m 740m
China 1b,300m 1b,200m 941m
India 1b,225m 1b,692m 1b,551m
Afghanistan 31m 76m 111m
Uganda 33m 94m 171m
Pakistan 174m 275m 261m
More people--more pollution, hunger, poverty, resource depletion, habitat loss, flora/fauna extinction, accelerated climate change.
Hot off today’s environmental news: Africa’s western Black rhino now officially declared extinct.
More: 25% of mammals now headed for extinction.
No problem: We could fit the entire population of the world, both now and later, into Texas. Hmm, wonder how Texans might feel about that.