The Green Column #12

Billions at Risk of Dying from Starvation, Disease

October 04, 2009— For most of history, population growth was seen as strengthening the tribe, village, city or country. Consequently, almost all cultures value fertility, long life and growth.

From ancient times to modern, numbers increased fighting power. The need for a large warrior class was still evident in 1945 when even the victors in World War II were running critically short of young men.

The doubling of world population tells the story: one billion total in 1804, two billion in 1927, four billion in 1974, eight billion forecast by 2025. But very few demographers expect humanity to reach 16 billion on this planet.

Why? Because the human instinct for growth is colliding with the finite limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity. Already, shortfalls are being reported in food, fiber, fuels and minerals.

The science of ecology is little more than a century old, but it has discovered some natural laws. One is that every living population grows to carrying capacity and shrinks when capacity falls.

A very large portion of the Earth’s present population of 6.8 billion is living on a petroleum bubble. The dramatic upsurge in population of the 20th Century owes something to sanitation and medicine, but more to agriculture artificially inflated by huge inputs of petroleum and natural gas. When the bubble bursts following Peak Oil, agricultural production will decline and billions may die prematurely of malnutrition and disease.

Everyone knows the biggest problem confronting humankind is population, but almost no one wants to talk about it because voluntary solutions are controversial and the consequences of doing nothing are unthinkable. In short, the world is in denial.

The United Nations best illustrates this by cheerfully forecasting that population will soon level off at manageable levels of nine billion to 10.5 billion.

Meanwhile, in the undeveloped world, out of the present population of almost 6.8 billion, about a third are children yet to enter their child-bearing years. It is unrealistic to expect them to voluntarily limit family size like more educated and more prosperous people do in the developed world.

Distribution of people in relation to regional natural resources and the availability of appropriate technologies is as large a geopolitical problem as is aggregate population.

Population pressure will eventually exhaust Earth’s resources. That much seems certain. The question is whether ‘eventually’ will be sooner or later. Pessimists say the future is now and optimists give us decades before the real crisis. No one knows for sure.

So what can Lincolnites expect in the future? Higher prices for all natural resources and energy, more refugees from the undeveloped world, political instability in many places and calls for intervention, a great export market for food, a tremendous opportunity for leading the world toward a greener future.

Our best hope is a revolution in thinking toward a more sustainable way of life. As the great physicist Albert Einstein said, ‘We will not solve the problems of the world from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.’

Civilization generally entered the 20th Century bent on exploiting nature for human benefit. The bill is now coming due on this bankrupt strategy. Exhausted soils, deforested land, polluted rivers, collapsed fisheries, depleted oil fields are some of the results.

Hopefully, we are collectively smarter now and willing to embrace the idea that we humans are also part of nature. Our 21st Century vision must be to create a mutually beneficial partnership with nature and to live within sustainable limits.

Part of that revolution in thinking will require humankind to reconsider its ideas about growth. More is not necessarily better. Quantity is not the same as quality. Economists are beginning to create better indexes than Gross Domestic Product to measure progress.

The question of how many people can the planet support depends on what standard of living one plugs into the equation. It has been calculated that if everyone now alive were to live like Americans, we would need five planets to accomplish this.

Contemplating the future of our country, for example, may require us to choose between alternative goals of 150 million or 750 million. Which size of United States would you prefer to live in?

Public policy shapes the future. President Abraham Lincoln’s vision of western development led him to push intercontinental railroads, land grant universities and the Homestead Act even while fighting the Civil War.

President Obama is unfairly criticized for pursuing health care reform at the same time as America fights two foreign wars and confronts the most severe banking crisis since the Great Depression. But that’s what the electorate heard him promise to do, and they elected him last November. The coming health crises from external influences makes today’s public policy debates even more urgent.

The news is not all grim. For example, progressive corporations everywhere are hiring ecologists and listening to their advice. Civilization may yet design and engineer a successful transition to a green economy, including population controls.

I urge local readers to support all good planning for a better future, including family and immigration planning initiatives.

© Lincoln Green by Design