Population: 6.9 billion and counting


Last week New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin -- one of few U.S. journalists following the population issue -- wrote a short blog about China's recent about-face on population policy. After decades of mandating a one-child limit, China is now urging "eligible" couples (those who are only children themselves)  to have a second baby. The reason? At the current birth rate, China will have more than 438 million people over 60 by 2050 -- and only 1.6 working-age adults to support each one. (That's compared with 7.7 in 1975.) The easing of the one-child policy is beginning in Shanghai, China's financial hub, where the over-60 cohort already comprises more than 20 percent of the population. 

Revkin also noted that the Indian state of Kerala is using a "three Es policy -- education, employment, equality" to quell the rising population -- avoiding the "family planning camps" which in the past used forced sterilization to keep the fertility rate down.

Both China and India have used draconian measures to control population -- while in the U.S. we have employ no measures at all, and in fact, rarely discuss it.  Like China, the U.S. also has a looming problem supporting its older generation: social security benefits will begin to outstrip Social Security tax revenues in about eight years, and the trust fund will be depleted by 2041 unless the formula is changed. And as our most populous state -- California, with 12 percent of the total U.S. population -- founders under the burden of its budgetary responsibilities, maybe it's time for the U.S. to educate its citizens on the perils of overpopulation.

I recently read an essay published in 2007 by Peter Hall, chairman of an Australian investment company, titled Lumberjacks in Eden: reflections on a world out of balance. In the preface, he explains his motivation for writing the 35-page paper:

I am the steward of $3 billion of savings and investments. I am charged with the duty of protecting that capital and making it grow and I must try to understand not just short-term issues but the ‘over-the-horizon’ factors that affect its security.
I see a world with two faces – one imbued with the happy cheer of a good party; the other grim and frightening.
The economic world, the world of humanity, is undergoing a huge boom as the industrial capitalist system spreads from Europe, North America and North East Asia to the rest of the world. But the physical world, the environment in which we make our lives, is in crisis, most clearly seen in huge losses of biodiversity and in climate change. 

Two years later, the "good party" is at the very least taking a hiatus, and the environmental problems have worsened. The reason, as Hall puts it, is "the world's biggest problem -- us."

Citing humanity's "uncontrolled hunting, farming, fishing, forestry, polluting and habitat destruction over the last 60,000 years," Hall mourns the destruction of the "Tree of Life, the world's complex web of living matter," and catalogues the disasters that have already befallen the creatures of the planet, and those that await as humans increase their number.

If we continue to grow at the seemingly modest rate of 1 percent annually, by the year 3000 the world population will be 129 trillion, and each human being will have one square meter in which to live his life. "There will be an end point to human population growth, either through arrival at the ultimate ceiling of misery presented by the constraints of the physical dimensions of this planet or through rational choice," writes Hall.

Rational choice doesn't look too promising as a human response right now. The fights over abortion and family planning, the scapegoating of immigrants, China's promotion of more babies so as to take care of the too-populous older generation, even the way California is responding to its budget crisis (kill the health programs for the poor) -- all show a people concerned only with ourselves at this moment.

In the wide open spaces of the West, it's easy to think population isn't a problem. We still enjoy far more than that one square meter, and the sky still looks like the limit. But it isn't. And the sooner we educate ourselves and our children and grandchildren about koyaanisqatsi  (Hopi for "life out of balance"), the better chance we'll have to act on behalf of the generations that will come after us -- before it's too late.

I'm reminded of a passage from a Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969:

"The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world's total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000."
"I suppose they will all want dignity," I said.
"I suppose," said O'Hare.




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