Our ideas of progress are built on growth. We link prosperity with increases in jobs, income, housing and investment.
But population growth poses a series of questions that are too easily deferred while we attend to the demands of the moment.
World population is estimated at 7.24 billion this year. We reached the 3 billion mark in 1960, 5 billion in 1987. At its peak in the mid-1960s, population grew by almost 2.2 percent per year, then fell to its current level of 1.2 percent. This means that, while population will continue to grow well into next century, it will do so at a slower pace. Current computer simulations place world population at 9.5 billion in 2050 and 10.8 to 11.2 billion in 2100.
The question posed by these dizzying numbers is how well our planet can accommodate this predicted growth.
In 1798, the Rev. Thomas R. Malthus published "Essay on the Principle of Population" in which he predicted that growth in human population would steadily outstrip the resources to support that growth. Wars and famine might restrain population growth for a time, he wrote, but ultimately mankind faced a miserable, catastrophic future.
"Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth" by Alan Weisman is a comprehensive, very readable account of the implications of population growth. The author traveled extensively to inquire how population growth was interpreted by different cultures and religious traditions. Politics, economics, fragile ecosystems and war further complicated the varied circumstances that he found.
In Pakistan, explosive population growth threatens to outrun both food and water supplies. Advances in agriculture forestalled starvation for a time until supplies of fresh water began to dwindle. Currently, an estimated one-third of the nation's children are malnourished. The desire of many women to limit their family size through use of contraceptives clashes with edicts from religious leaders that prohibit the practice.
Iran adopted a nationwide strategy to curtail population growth. Prior to 1989, fertility rates approached nine per female, a rate that could not be sustained if education and sound nutrition were to be maintained. Birth control was made available to every Iranian at no cost. Each family determined its own size. By 2000, the total fertility rate had dropped to 2.1 children per woman.
The Philippines face a rapidly increasing population, militant separatists and climate change that has increased coastal flooding and damaged the delicate ecological balance of the islands.
Japan faces the dilemma of a slowly declining population. The central question becomes sustaining prosperity while the economy shrinks. An aging population will depend for its support on a shrinking workforce.
Each country that the author highlights has its unique challenges.
The author poses four questions:
• How many people can a country -- or our planet -- support?
• Is there an acceptable, nonviolent way that all cultures could adopt to slow population growth?
• What sort of natural environment is essential for human survival?
• Can an economy flourish independent of constant population growth?
From his investigations, Weisman sees programs of voluntary birth control as the most hopeful strategy for a planet that is running low on food and potable water against a backdrop of ecological destruction. We should take heed of his findings.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.