Population Explosion?

It’s natural to be concerned about population explosion when we think about billions of people living around the globe. In 1968, “The Population Bomb” written by Professor Ehrlich became a best seller, in which he predicted mass starvation and society upheaval in the ensuing decades. Almost 50 years have passed and the world’s population has doubled to over 7 billion, but no such predictions have occurred. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should ignore the population problem for two reasons: First, the world’s resources are not unlimited. Second, more people mean more likelihood for mass starvation when something goes wrong.

The most important questions should be — How many people can the earth sustain? Are we fast approaching that threshold? Everybody likes to see a number, but that number doesn’t make much sense unless we consider other factors such as technology, urbanization, food distribution, religion, politics, social policy, wars, and the consequences of climate change. Fortunately, it turns out that the population problem may be able to contain itself as the following evidence shows:

People do not reproduce just for pleasure. A combination of factors are at work, some positive and most negative on population growth. In agrarian societies, the farmers want more kids because they will add more hands to assist in the field. Besides, the burden of raising a child is less heavy in the countryside since the family grows its own food and expands its own cottage. In an urbanized environment, the situation is totally different because of the affordability factor regarding housing, food, education, child care and so on. Thus city dwellers tend to have fewer children than country folks. No wonder in today’s industrialized societies with a high degree of urbanization, the birth rates have been declining for years. The problem turns into an aging and smaller population as the country further develops.

For a population to remain stable in size, the average birth rate per woman should be above 2 in order to replace the aging parents. If the birth rate falls below 2 for many years, a slower economy will set in due to a smaller productive work force, reduced market size, and fewer workers paying taxes to finance the government. Some extreme cases are found in Asia: Singapore (0.8), Taiwan (1.2), South Korea (1.3), Japan (1.4), Vietnam (1.7), Indonesia (2.2), Bangladesh (2.2), Philippines (3.0) and Pakistan (3.2). In Europe, the birth rates mostly register lower: Italy (1.4), Germany (1.4), Russia (1.5), Spain (1.5), UK (1.9) and France (1.9). In the rest of the world, high birth rates are recorded for the following populous countries: Brazil (2.1), Mexico (2.2), South Africa (2.4), Egypt (2.8), Democratic Republic of the Congo (4.7), Ethiopia (5.2) and Nigeria (5.2). Note that in Africa, many countries have both large populations and high birth rates, making the continent a big risk for mass hunger.

Three countries with the largest populations stand out: The declining rate in China (1.6) is a result of fast economic growth and urbanization besides the one-child policy enforced for decades until recently. India (2.5) is trending from high to lower mostly due to fast economic growth. The relatively stable US birth rate (1.9) is due to the large influx of immigrants from all over the world. These three countries already account for nearly 40% of the world’s total population. If we add the European Union, Russia, Japan and some developing countries with large populations, we find that well over 60% of the world’s population is on a declining path due to lower birth rates.

All the above data indicates that industrial development and urbanization serve as an effective brake on population growth simply because raising a child becomes more burdensome in an urban environment. People living in industrialized societies tend to get married later and have fewer kids, besides the fact that contraceptives are widely used. This shows the negative impact of technological development on population growth through changing people’s lifestyles. This negative effect more than offsets the positive ones such as the Green Revolution, biotech advances, and improved medical technology that have reduced hunger and death from diseases. Therefore, we should not worry that population growth per se will bring disasters. Rather, as population gradually increases, this enlarges world markets, speeds up technology transfers, and fosters industrial development in populous agrarian countries. This will then act as a brake on population growth.

What about mass starvation that is not uncommon around the world? Mass starvation usually occurs in extreme cases where there is havoc in society. We have seen it in North Korea due to mismanagement of the communist dictatorship. We have seen it in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. In Africa, mass starvation is mainly a result of civil wars, hampered food distribution, and farmlands turning into deserts due to climate or mismanagement. In peacetime, the world can produce enough for people to eat. Look at the surplus food produced by mechanized farming in USA, Canada, Brazil and Australia. Also look at the food going to waste or to be burned as biofuels in the industrialized countries especially the US. Those surplus foods have sadly failed to be shipped to the places of mass hunger. Should we blame this tragedy on politics and ineffective food distribution rather than on population explosion?

How many people can the world sustain as technology advances? We still don’t have an answer. We only know that the larger the population, the less margin we have to avoid a catastrophe. Unfortunately, this margin is being reduced further due to climate change which causes more extreme droughts, floods and other weather conditions that will cut down agricultural production. So far, the industrialized countries have barely felt the pain. It will come in the form of higher food prices. For the agrarian countries, it will take the form of real food shortages and starvation besides price inflation.

In conclusion, we are facing a long-term food problem which is only partially due to population growth. Climate change is the big thing that will likely cause the next food crisis worldwide. We will fail to find a real solution if we continue to blame the agrarian countries for producing too many offspring. We should focus on the other more important factors mentioned earlier rather than dwelling on the simplistic notion of too many people. The reason is that population growth has a built-in damper, which is industrial development, urbanization and lifestyle changes as a result. We have already seen a declining trend for many years in the developed world led by Europe and Japan. We have also seen the same trend in China, India and many other developing countries. This leaves a number of countries in Africa with large populations and notably high birth rates, but they only account for the minority of the world’s total population. Since these countries are predominantly agrarian, their birth rates will trend lower as they industrialize.

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