Around the 1800’s, a British scholar named Robert Malthus brought attention to the dangers of famine and disease due to overpopulation. In 1968, Professor Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb” warning again about impending disasters. Up to now, the world has not seen the dire consequences as predicted. Why? Two critical factors had not been foreseen by the scholars: the incredible advance in technology and the dramatic increase in mass consumption. These two dynamic forces are closely related. In a complex fashion, they work together and against each other at the same time. Their net effects will trigger the population bomb.
Although famines and diseases have occurred throughout history, they are isolated and largely contained. World population continues to increase, to more than 7 billion souls today. Famines and diseases tend to occur in less developed countries beset with civil wars, political instability and government corruption. Notably, they do not occur in modern-day China and India where one third of the world population live.
The problem is therefore not as simple as just the number of people. The point is: How many people can the earth sustain if rising standard of living is not jeopardized? Imagine a world where people live at subsistence level, grow their own food, spread out in the countryside, and go without cars just like the old times. The earth could probably sustain a lot more people in that imagined scenario. The real problems seem to be: industrial pollution, mass consumption, huge material wastes, and increasing urbanization. All of them combined represent a higher standard of living, but will choke us to death someday somehow. The question is when. Although we don’t know the exact timing, all signs point to the fact that the day of reckoning is coming.
Let’s take a look at the critical factor of technology. Medical technology has greatly reduced the human tolls of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and many others, thus enabling people to live longer. The Green Revolution in the 1970s has helped many countries multiply their crop production, thus reducing the occurrences of famine. Nevertheless, a price has to be paid for the higher standard of living that technology has brought us.
According to the Economist magazine (1-7 June 2013), the world poverty level has come down from 50% in 1949 to the present 20%. That is equivalent to one billion people being lifted out of poverty, mostly happening in China and India, which are going through rapid industrialization. A huge wave of middle-class consumers has been created hitherto unseen in history. That is a good thing but with a price attached because most of them want to live the same style as Americans, especially in car ownership. If they achieve the American standard of 2 persons per car, there will be half a billion more cars added to the road. The car manufacturers are ecstatic about this but we should ask: Will we have enough oil to burn? Will we be able to breathe? Never mind all the other problems, car ownership alone touches upon two critical issues of energy use and environmental pollution, which will be the two greatest challenges for the future of the world.
It seems that we are moving toward a future where a degenerating environment will be required to support the higher living standard of an increasing world population. Chances are we will experience an environmental breakdown first that will lead to insufficient food production across the world. Then the dire predictions of the population bomb will come true. The driving force is the double-edge sword of technology. Strangely speaking, the advancement of technology that has led us to this predicament may be able to lead us out of it, if we have the correct vision to direct its development. What is that vision? I think it finally boils down to electrification of transport and heating using renewable energy sources.