If you have a way of accessing the Los Angeles Times, whether in paper format (who does that anymore?), or on line, you might want to take the time to read the series they are currently running on out-of-control population growth. It started on Sunday, July 22, 2012, and runs in several installments until Sunday, July 29. What you will find there is extremely interesting, enlightening, and very frightening.
Right up front, statistics tell much of the story. Although demographic predictions are not an exact science, there are some things we know for sure. It is, of course, a fact that the world now has more than 7 billion people in it. We passed that dubious landmark in 2011. But what is even more startling is that by the year 2050, only some 38 years from now, the global population will rise to a minimum of 9.3 billion. It may rise even higher, to as many as 11 billion people, depending on whether the average birthrate declines to 2.2 children per woman, or if it remains at its current 2.5. According to the nonprofit Population Council in New York City, we are adding over 70 million people to the planet every year, and have been doing so since the early 1970’s. And even if we were somehow, miraculously, to lower the average birth rate to 2.1 children per woman, the population would still continue to grow (albeit at a slower rate), given the inexorable mathematics of the sheer numbers of people we are talking about.
Numbers, however, do not tell the whole story, and it is all too easy for us to dismiss them as abstractions that do not affect our lives. But if we put it into some kind of context, these numbers come more to life. Right now, for example, 1 person in 8 lives in a slum, in other words, some 12% of the population of the world, which is bad enough to be sure, but possibly not that shocking to many of us. By the year 2050, though, given current levels of poverty and patterns of migration to cities, that number rises to closer to 33%. Now there’s a number that ought to command our attention. By 2050, a third of the people in the world, 1 person in 3, will dwell in squalor, living at best in substandard housing if not actually on the streets, without anything near what most people in the west would consider normal sanitation, let alone adequate nutrition. And beyond that, we can pretty much altogether forget about education for any of them. Even today, the U.N. lists some 1 billion people as being chronically hungry. What will we do, then, when there are 2 – or as many as 4 – billion more mouths to feed?
And this does not even take into consideration the fact that some countries of the world, such as China, are becoming more affluent, and in the process people are expecting to eat better. No longer are wealthier Chinese content to eat only grains and vegetables; they want more and more meat, and even dairy products, just as people in the west do. However, the roundabout process we have of raising crops in order to feed animals in order to feed people demands much more of the land, a great deal more water, and a lot more energy than merely growing crops for human consumption. According to William Lesher, former chief economist of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, “we are going to have to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 10,000.” And this at a time when the majority of our best farmland is already under cultivation. In other words, we can’t just go out and find more land to farm. Add to this the fact that climate change will also almost certainly begin to take away our ability to access some of the arable land we currently use, and we can see that the globe is headed for a train-wreck of a future, if we do not do something soon. There are already too many people for the planet to support, and yet most of the world wants more and more children. Again, let me remind you, these things will be taking place not at some time in “a far distant future,” when none of us will be around anyway, but within the next 30 to 40 years. And if you are old enough now that you may not likely be alive to see it, remember at least that many of the people you love will be.
So, the question suggests itself, is there anything we can do about it? Well, of course, there is, but it won’t be easy. The problem essentially boils down to this: fertility rates remain too high because of tradition and religion, lack of education, the inferior status of women, and of course either lack of access to, or taboos against, the use of contraception. None of the items on this list is outside of humanity’s ability to fix it, but whether or not we have the will to do so is a very big question indeed.
Another issue of serious concern is that fertility rates remain highest in some of the poorest parts of the world. Take Nigeria, for example, where only 8% of reproductive-age women use contraceptives, compared to 72% in the United States. (And frankly, it amazes me that 28% of women in this country do NOT use contraceptives.) But note this: the number of women who use contraceptives climbs rapidly when these women are afforded an opportunity to get an education. What happens in the process of becoming educated is that women begin to take control over their lives, and specifically of their own reproductive lives. In other words, to be perfectly frank about it, educated women are better able to resist the twin forces both of traditional societies, which demand large families (and especially large numbers of sons), and the dictates of religions, which it seems are so often are at odds with what is best for the world.
Here is another related, and rather startling, statistic for your consideration: of the (minimum) 2 billion people who will be added to the planet by the year 2050, 97% of them will be born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In other words, the vast majority of the growth in population in the world will be in those parts of the globe which can least sustain that growth. This spells trouble for everyone, and if you think that it’s basically a problem only for the people who live on these continents, think again.
As long ago as 1974, again according to the Los Angeles Times, even the likes of Henry Kissinger is reported to have said in a then-classified memo that “growing numbers of young people in the developing world (are) likely to be more volatile, unstable, prone to extremes, alienation, and violence than older populations.” He went on to add that “it is urgent that measures to reduce fertility be started.” And the bi-partisan commission convened to study the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 concluded, speaking about extremism in the Islamic world, that “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable employment (is) a sure prescription for social turbulence.” Such turbulence, as we have seen, has a marked tendency not to remain only within the borders of one country.
Yet, in spite of evident and growing problems associated with run-away population growth, the topic remains an extremely sensitive one for many people, and the twin forces alluded to above of tradition and religion continue to exert enormous influence in many societies. This includes the United States, let it be noted. It is no secret, for example, that the U.S. government has over the years drastically changed its own policies in regard to educating people in less developed countries about contraception due almost entirely to ever-increasing pressure from the religious right. Among many evangelicals, and some Catholics as well (although not all, in spite of what the bishops continue to preach), not only is abortion considered to be a sin, but so is the use of contraception.
Finally, the explosion of the population bomb is tied inexorably to the topic of global warming, which my friend and co-blogger, Kevin, wrote powerfully about in a recent posting. One does not have to be a trained demographer to see that with smaller populations come fewer demands of all kinds on the ecosystem, and by contrast, the more people there are, the greater the strain on the system. In this case, the “system” turns out to be our home, Earth, the planet itself.
My fear is that the population bomb, and what will happen as a result of it, is similar to global warming in yet another important way, namely, that most of us are quite happy to ignore it. I wonder if people think that both will somehow magically disappear, if we pay them no heed. Unfortunately, such thinking is not only counterproductive, it has become downright dangerous. At very least, what we can do is vote to elect progressive thinkers who might actually pay attention to the bigger picture, representatives who will stand up to the dictates of unthinking tradition and moralizing religion. We can talk to our friends and our relatives, and urge them to find out about what is happening to our planet, the planet their children will inherit. Those who are in the child-bearing years can make active choices to have one child, or at most, two children. Or better still, why not adopt a child, who has otherwise come into this world unwanted and unloved?
One way or another, we need to take whatever action we can devise in our own lives, however large or small, to protect the planet against the ravages of the exploding population bomb.