One of the less political and more socially oriented stories making the rounds this week is the news that the Earth’s population is on track to break the 7 billion mark. Make no mistake… that’s a lot of people. And as the numbers mount, complications can certainly ensue. CBS goes to great lengths to point this out during an interview between Russ Mitchell and demographer Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University.
Mitchell: “How fast is the world growing?”
Cohen: We are adding 75 to 80 million people a year, every year. That’s the size of Germany or the United States in four years. It’s rapid on the long scale of thousands of years and a slowing to where we were 50 years ago.”
Mitchell: “Is that a good thing?”
Cohen: “It makes it easier to solve all the problems that we have. The thing about rapid population growth is that it makes almost every other problem more difficult to solve. And if we could slow our growth rate, we have an easier job in dealing with all the other things like education, health, employment, housing, food, the environment and so on.” …
Mitchell: “With this many people in the world, our natural resources — how endangered are we?”
Cohen: “There are a billion people already living with essentially no renewable water supplies. That’s not a problem for the other guys only. Atlanta, Georgia has had tremendous water shortages and the studies have shown it’s not because of climatic change there, but because of rapid population growth in the Georgia region. The American West — Phoenix — they’re headed into or already in water shortage situations. But what we’re facing is nothing compared to other countries.”
So does this mean we should be taking drastic steps to “humanely limit population” as some alarmed voices are demanding? The science seems to argue against it. Even the CBS interview gives a brief nod to the same data which Steven Hayward previously pointed out. The fuse on the population bomb is already fizzling out. In fact, we probably passed the peak growth rate decades ago.
World population will not come close to doubling again in 39 years. Indeed, it may never double again. Fertility has fallen rapidly, with many developing countries at or near the replacement fertility rate of 2.1. The world’s population growth rate has been falling since its peak in the 1960s, and we may never get much above the 10.1 billion people projected for 2100.
The other thing that the raw numbers don’t take into account is the astounding impact which human technological innovation has had on our population capacity. If we were still limited to the relatively primitive infrastructure we had in the 17th century we couldn’t feed anywhere near this many folks. A big chunk of that number of people live in cities today, and those metropolitan areas wouldn’t even be possible were not for our ability to quickly and cheaply ship food and other necessities to them. If that technology were ever suddenly removed for an extended period due to some future catastrophe, we would doubtless see a rapid and horrific plunge in population globally.
We also benefit from communications in the modern era which further aides us in maintaining these numbers and continuing to innovate. No longer are we limited to one guy in a New Jersey patent office suddenly coming up with The Next Big Thing. Brilliant minds collaborate across the planet to keep up the pace of development, extending our reach. All of this comes together to put us – hopefully – in good shape to maintain ourselves even through the peak, stabilized population we are projected to reach at the end of this century. The trick is to just keep it all going from there.
Of course, by that time the Borg will probably have arrived from the Delta Quadrant and the entire question will be moot.