Monday, January 21, 2013

Time to Stop Worrying About Population?

Ok, so we should still worry about population, but perhaps its time to start worrying about it in a much different way. For so long we have seen exponential population growth, and at times I have found myself mired in the depressing thought that the earth will one day be literally consumed by a zillion-billion human parasites sucking the last vestige of life from the planet (dose of sensationalism intended). Yet there is most likely an end in sight - a number upon which we can focus and begin to worry instead about how to manage the environment considering the relatively precise number of people that will be on the planet.

An article in Discover magazine recently highlighted that "population growth . . . has drawn the lion’s share of public attention," with the world expected to reach about 9-10 billion by 2050, but that "although billions of people are still in the pipeline, global population growth is slowing so rapidly that a decline in the population later this century seems unavoidable." Indeed, fertility rate is dropping rapidly almost everywhere around the world, but for sub-Saharan Africa (where it will eventually drop). As a result, "fertility collapse and accelerated aging have supplanted overpopulation as the most salient demographic trend." A country needs a fertility rate of 2.1 to replace its population (the .1 accounting for infant mortality). The article highlights that currently two-thirds of the 222 countries and territories in the world have fertility rates below 3, and 1/3 of those countries maintain rates under 2 (thus losing population). Though China is known for its high population, its fertility rate is now 1.5.

These numbers indicate that as developing countries continue to develop, their populations will continue to drop. The drop in population's beneficial effect on the environment, however, is offset (if not made worse) by the increase in a population's consumption. Nonetheless, the first step in knowing the exact parameters of consumption within which we must work is homing in on a more precise number of people on the globe with a specific level of environmental impact. At least there is comfort that a number is out there as a reference for managing the world's resources - comfort that we are likely to avoid the population bomb put forth by Paul Ehrlich. Granted, we may face a climate change bomb with the same environmental effects described by Ehrlich, or worse, but at least we are able to better understand where the world's demographic trends will lead us.

So, what to do with 9-10 billion people? Our resources are currently stretched to the max, and we are consuming 1.3 earth's worth of resources with the current population. Obviously, something must change in order to manage population/consumption dynamics over the next century. Population decline, of course, raises a whole host of other potential social and economic ills. Yet, if we can just make it over the hump, learn how to consume less per individual with less of an environmental footprint, align global market incentives and economic systems with environmental protection, and see populations fall across the board, then our ancestors 1,000 years hence may just wonder why we were so worried about population after all.

- Blake Hudson

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