Should we freak out about population growth?

While browsing YouTube, I came across this video by Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. He explains the concept of exponential growth and how it applies to the growth of world population.

OMG! Well, I had to explore this further. On to Wikipedia, the “World Population” entry, and an amazing collection of charts and graphs on population growth through time including projections for the future.

I chose the year 10,000 BC as a starting point. At that time only 1 million people inhabited the entire planet. Fast-forward 10,000 years to the year 1 AD, and the Earth’s population had “ballooned” to 2 million. As a point of comparison, the greater metro area of St. Louis, MO, the city where I live, has a population of 2.8 million.

Leaping ahead—way ahead—I chose my mother’s birth year, 1915, as the next milestone. No entry for 1915, but Wikipedia says in 1900, the world’s population was 1.65 billion. My mother died in 2009 at the age of 93. By 2010 the world’s population had reached 6.9 billion. On March 12, 2012, the United States Census Bureau estimated the world population had exceeded 7 billion.

Where do we go from here?

Environmentalists are warning we are doomed to a dangerous and ultimately suicidal population explosion beyond what the Earth can support. Can that be true? Let’s try another YouTube video.

This one is a BBC documentary on world population by Swedish professor of international health, Hans Rosling. The title, “Don’t Panic,” drew me in. Rosling made the film to specifically counteract the population doomsday predictions of Microsoft scientist Stephen Emmott. I won’t embed “Don’t Panic” here as it is about an hour long. But, click here if you want an amazing and informative presentation on the facts about the health, wealth and population of 200 countries over the last 200 years. Rosling has been dubbed the “Jedi master of data visualization,” because of the innovative animated graphics he uses to explain complex data.

Using projections from the UN Population Division, Rosling suggests that global population will indeed continue to grow dramatically, but will level off at about 11 billion by the end of the century. He admits we will have to face huge challenges, but that we have reason to hope—that the problems associated with such a huge increase are “surmountable.” “Don’t Panic” informs a mostly uninformed Western audience that many Third World countries have, for decades, been working to decrease birth rates while simultaneously providing better healthcare and reducing poverty.

From the  Telegraph’s review of Rosling’s documentary:

And we’d all better hope that [Rosling] is right. Because a near 50 per cent increase in global population by the end of the century is already a done deal. In the BBC programme, [he] explains that the mechanism that will power population growth on such a scale has already—and irreversibly—been put into motion, and to suggest that efforts should be made to limit its growth is to effectively propose a “holocaust” and prepare “the intellectual ground for killing people”. This is because of a phenomenon that Rosling describes as “Peak Child”.

Briefly put, the surge in the number of people on Earth isn’t any longer being caused by more people being born, but is because of those who are alive. There are now more children on the planet than ever (about two billion under the age of 15) but the global decline in birth rates means that the number has leveled off, and is not expected to increase. The reason the global population will continue to rise until around 2100 is because of a “demographic lag” and longer life expectancies.

As an example of the “Peak Child” phenomenon, Rosling uses modern-day Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. For decades, Bangladesh has made great efforts to educate its population about the benefits of smaller families and has provided free birth control. As a result, since 1972, the average number of children per woman has fallen dramatically from seven to a little over two. In fact, the world birth rate has dropped from an average of 6 per two adults in 1800 to 2 today. According to Rosling, it’s the worldwide drop in fertility rates that will save us.

The environmentalists have a very valid point—the Earth’s resources are limited. But, I agree with Rosling that the problems are surmountable. That is, if in the next century, the world moves away from capitalism to a more equitable and humane economic model, perhaps yet to be invented, that prioritizes the human needs of the many over profit making by a few. In such a new economic system, the belief, for example, that every human being deserves clean, safe, adequate housing would take precedence over the capitalist understanding of housing as a vehicle for investment and speculation. In other words, human use value has to trump exchange value. Democratically run, cooperative work places would supplant for-profit corporations, providing meaningful work and a living wage for everyone. If basic human needs are met first—and they can be—then our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will inhabit a livable world. If we fail to grow beyond capitalism—a system that depends on unsustainable economic growth punctuated with boom and bust crises, funnels money to the top 1%, and drives the real doomsday scenario of climate change—then all bets are off.