Friday, November 4, 2011

Seven Billion

The world population surpassed 7 billion on Halloween.  It is an incredible milestone.  People around the world are celebrating this historic threshold.  Both India and the Philippines had picked a child born that day and dubbed that baby the ceremonial 7 billionth person.  It is impossible to find precisely the birth that took us over the 7 billion threshold.  I have a friend, Bill Connelly, who told me his fourth grandchild was just born.  I told him that his granddaughter could easily be the 7 billionth person.  He and his family should simply declare that as they did in those two Asian countries.

It is an achievement for sure but it worries me more than it pleases me.  I worry about the world population growing so fast that we outstrip our food and natural resource supplies.  Growing beyond the food supply will be simply catastrophic.  I remember from biology class in high school what happens when a bacterial culture grows.  The growth is exponential while the food supply is ample.  As soon as the population is larger than the food supply, the drop in population is abrupt and significant.  There is a school of thought that basically believes the Earth is a petri dish and we are a bacteria growing in this dish at an exponential rate.  It is a scary school to be an alumnus of..

Here are some basic facts of human population growth:

  • Human population reached 1 billion in approximately 1804.  That is not all that long ago.
  • It took 123 years to reach 2 billion in 1927.
  • We achieved 3 billion just 33 years later in 1960
  • I remember I was in college in 1974 when the global population reached 4 billion.  The Chinese were 1 billion at the time - a quarter of the world’s population.  It was only 14 years to add this next billion.
  • In another 13 years we hit the 5 billion mark in 1987.
  • 12 years later, in 1999, the human population on Earth hit 6 billion.
  • Another 12 years later, bringing us to today, we crested 7 billion.
  • In 207 years, humans have grown 7 fold.   
There are any number of world population counters available on the internet.  The only one I looked at is  Their population counter as on 9:53:45 CST October 31st was 7,000,153,407... 408... 409...  Yes, apparently we have blown past the 7 billion by, oh my just a few minutes later, by 155,650!  It is an amazing counter to watch.  We have added the equivalent of Eugene, Oregon in less than 24 hours.  It is a little scary to think that we are adding the equivalent of Eugene, Oregon each and every day.  The numbers boggle my mind.  I had heard on NPR in the morning that 51 babies born just in India every minute.

It may be easy to dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement as a “bunch of kooks.”  But, there is something at the core of their movement that should ring true today.  We cannot keep growing and consuming without end.  The impact that has on the environment and our ability to sustain life in any modicum of quality is severely strained.  We have to bring some rationality to the way we live, work, and operate in this world.  It begins with the way capitalism, the profit motive, and the distribution of wealth works and extends to all areas of governance and planning.

I freaked out when we hit 4 billion in the early 1970s.   There were predictions of gloom and doom.  It was in my sophomore year of college when we read a book, Limits to Growth, in a Social Philosophy course.  I was young, impressionable, concerned, and really took the book to heart.  The book was an everyman synopsis of an MIT study conducted on population growth and the consuming of natural resources.  The population growth and the consumption of resources from water and food to metals and fuels all were growing exponentially.  The study and book predicted a grim future unless mankind began to act differently.  In our Social Philosophy course, we took that “acting differently” to mean acting more proactively for the welfare of the entire earth to ensure a sustainable place for generations upon generations of humans to live harmoniously with each other, with the natural world, and capping our population at that 4 billion number.   We surmised that capitalism and communism needed to find some common middle ground.  

We also realized despite our sophomoric naivete and sincere intentions... the vision we had laid out was far fetched and had little chance of coming to fruition.  I became resolved that we would be the generation that would see a catastrophic decline in population due to us outstripping our food supply which would probably result in the US and USSR unleashing the nuclear arsenals.  The world would emerge as depicted in the lyrics of the rock ballad “Wooden Ships” written by Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Paul Kantner and recorded by two of my favorite bands Crosby, Stills, and Nash and The Jefferson Airplane.

Something funny happened on the way to the scorched and barren earth.  Beyond the rise and fall of disco and the go-go 1980s and 1990s, the world population grew to 5 billion, 6 billion, and now 7 billion.  We are still here and thriving.

Literacy rates continue to climb.  38% of the world was illiterate in 1970.  Today, 15% or so are illiterate.  Some 5 billion of have cell phones.  While there some issues with food, there is not any kinds of shortages that keep us having hit the 5, 6, and now 7 billion thresholds.  There are more cars than ever and apparently enough oil being pumped, refined, distributed, and sold to keep things going.

We read about global warming, the sooner than we think end of oil, and, of course, the food and water catastrophe looming.  We hear about the demise of whales, big cats, and whatever is in the Amazon.  We hear about super bugs that will make the plagues from the middle ages look like a common cold.  We have seen the ebola virus, mad cow, and even AIDS come and go.  We hear about medicine resistant TB, staph bacteria, and who knows what else.  

We hear to predictions of what appear to be very smart scientists and concerned global citizens.  In 2004, a thirty year anniversary update of Limits to Growth was published.  The model was refined but the message was the same forecast of gloom with a glimmer of hope if we act soon.   We hear the naysayer politicos and talk show hosts naysaying what the aforementioned are saying.  Remember “drill baby drill?” I remember reading that there is enough shale oil in the US to sustain the world for centuries.  Who is right?  Is the die cast and the humans are dead men walking?  Or will capitalism, free trade, and human innovation figure out some way to thrive  at human populations of 10, 50, and even 100 billion?  Will God teach us a lesson or provide us an answer?

Does it matter if I am approaching 60 and I now kind of believe that none of these doomy and gloomy things will happen in my lifetime?  I could easily join the vast majority of the 7 billion earthlings who do not give any of this much thought.  They are more concerned with what they have to do today and tomorrow than worry about g obal issues.  They know they cannot do anything about the global issues.  I suppose they believe that our leaders will somehow guide us through this.

Humans can comprehend broad sweeping issues.  But, as a species, we act in the short term and somehow believe that will yield optimal results.  That however is simply not the case.  Short term optimization does not necessarily lead to optimization especially if long term strategies are the only thing that will work.  Systems analysts (not the IT type) and operations research professionals understand this very clearly.

I still am inclined to believe our population cannot keep growing at this rate.  There are limits to the resources of our planet.  The only question is when that will happen.  But, the when it will happen assumes nothing will change.  It assumes there will not be some miraculous scientific breakthrough that allows us to transform the mountain of refuge with which we have polluted the Earth into a material plasma that can then be easily transformed into fuels, food, metals, plastics, and fibers to satisfy our every need.  It is possible, I have seen it in the movies.  

1 comment:

  1. Transforming to make more fuel in general is great. Many movies usually get their ideas from scientific ideas that are already in the works. So I wonder about the scientific movies that eliminate humans who are no longer considered productive, or have no value to society. And in coming to such a point as the population still grows in the billionth, what is the purpose of human growth? Is is our purpose to reach to a point where we as humans destroy one another? Why should you live and not I? Do we each need to look at ourselves and ask, is it my time to go?
    You have raised alot of interesting questions for me.