Population Matters

7 Billion and Counting

July 11th, 2011

Today, on July 11, World Population Day, the United Nations made it official:  world population will cross the 7 billion mark on October 31, 2011, just twelve years after the 6 billion mark was attained. But there was no ribbon cutting or popping of champagne corks to commemorate the occasion.  In a world suffering from climate change, water scarcity, and the rising price of food and energy, population growth is a challenge, not a cause for triumphal celebration.

Population quadrupled in the 20th century, and despite the escalating demands that humanity was placing on the planet, the human enterprise prospered. Food production quadrupled, mortality rates dropped dramatically, human longevity doubled, and living standards soared.  Best of all, as the century came to a close, the costs of oil, minerals, and basic food commodities fell to near historical lows.  Malthusian fears were virtually extinguished.

Today, as the world approaches the 7 billion mark, confidence in the human enterprise is not so high.  After decades of progress in reducing hunger and severe poverty, a global recession and two global food crises have slowed and, in some cases, reversed recent gains.  Even more worrisome is an almost decade long trend of higher and higher commodity prices for energy, minerals and basic food stuffs.

At a minimum, the eras of cheap energy and cheap food appear over.  If so, the fight against hunger and severe poverty will get a lot harder.  It already has.  While significant progress continues to be made in India, China, and other parts of East Asia, gains in the rest of the developing world are grudging at best.  A report released earlier this month on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals indicated laudable progress in areas like education, access to safe drinking water, and infant and child mortality. But the U.N. warned that “we still have a long way to go in empowering women and girls, promoting sustainable development, and protecting the most vulnerable from the devastating effects of multiple crises, be they conflicts, natural disasters, or volatility in prices for food and energy.”

Thus far, the 21st century has not been kind to the world’s least developed countries.  When the 2007-8 food crisis hit, the price of rice tripled, the World Bank warned that 33 countries were at risk of political upheaval, and over 100 million people slipped back into poverty.   During the latest food crisis, corn and wheat prices doubled, food importing countries in North Africa and the Middle East were hit hard, governments began toppling in the ensuing unrest, and an estimated 44 million were pushed into poverty.

The critical question, the one that really matters, is whether the food situation is becoming a chronic food crisis.  Oxfam International, a leading hunger relief organization, issued a report last month suggesting that due to climate change and other factors, food prices—which are already high by historical standards–could double or more by 2030. 

In order to feed a hungry world, the FAO estimates that food and grain production will have to increase by 70 percent in the next forty years to keep pace with rising population and a global shift to more meat-intensive diets.  In a world afflicted by rising temperatures, increasing droughts and floods, shortages of arable land, water scarcity, loss of topsoil, and the escalating costs of fertilizer and fuel, that’s a tall, if not impossible, order.  In its recent report, Oxfam international warned that “a new age of crisis” could force “the collapse of our global food system.”

Every day another 200,000 people are added to the world’s dinner table, and unless fertility rates drop faster than expected, that trend will continue for some time to come.  And many of those additional mouths to feed are being born in countries that are already heavily dependent on external food aid for survival.  Some countries, like Niger and Burkina Faso, could triple their populations by mid-century unless fertility rates drop faster than now projected. 

When the number of hungry in the world increases, so does the challenge of providing emergency relief. Even today, the World Food Programme, the UN’s emergency relief agency, is not able to raise the money it needs to feed an estimated 10 million people now affected by the near record drought in the Horn of Africa.

And it’s not just poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are struggling with bad harvests and high food prices.  A leading Pakistan authority, Dr. Abid Suleri, recently told reporters that food insecurity in his country is leading to political instability.  With the percentage of “food insecure” people in Pakistan rising from 37 percent in 2003 to 49 percent before last year’s devastating floods, he warned that the Pakistani people “can be easy prey for terrorism, including suicide attacks. If we are going to fight terrorism we need to provide food security.”

Unless we successfully address the 21st century challenges posed by population growth, food insecurity and water scarcity, many of the 20th century gains that we made in improving the human condition could be reversed.  In addition to assisting developing nations with food production and water conservation, we urgently need to keep girls in school, empower women, and make sure that family planning services and information are more widely available.  Then we can celebrate, not just observe, World Population Day.

 Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

5 Responses to “7 Billion and Counting”

  1. Steven Earl Salmony Says:

    Who cries out their outrageous and unsustainable demands that the status quo be maintained at any cost, come what may for the children?

    Who keeps watch over the garish, fun-filled destruction of the world we borrow from the children without so much as whispering (much less speaking out loudly and clearly) about necessary changes toward sustainability?

    The children’s future is our red-headed stepchild, I suppose.

  2. Steven Earl Salmony Says:

    Three cheers for scientific integrity! In the name of scientific integrity will someone with appropriate expertise, please, pray tell us, what scientists and experts with appropriate expertise have known, based upon the best availabile scientific evidence, about the population dynamics of the human species? During my lifetime, what did so-called experts know and when did you know it? Why the worldwide conspiracy of silence concerning human overpopulation issues in the past 66 years?

    The family of humanity as well as much of life as we know it are now here inhabitants of a finite planet with a frangible environment that is failing fast. What really matters is being inadvertently ruined on our watch by the human population, but is not being openly discussed. My ‘blood boils’ in the truth that we have possessed knowledge of so much about ourselves as human beings with feet of clay and acknowledged so little about what has been known for so long about our distinctly human creatureliness, based upon extensive empirical research and unchallenged scientific evidence. Elective mutism and silent consent in the face of the reckless degradation, relentless dissipation and willful sell-off of what everyone knows to be sacred looks to me like the worst of all precipitants of the colossal ecological wreckage that appears in the offing.

    Inside and outside the community of top rank scientists, as well as among first class professionals in demography and economics who claim appropriate expertise in issues concerning human overpopulation, one issue is not being discussed by anyone. A worldwide conspiracy of silence continues to prevail about the population dynamics of the human species. The last of the last taboos is the open discussion of extant scientific research of human population dynamics. The implications of this astounding denial of what could somehow be real are potentially profound for the future of life on Earth, I suppose.

    Within the human community a tiny minority of self-proclaimed masters of the universe hold the ‘destiny’ of all in their hands. This elite group is operating behind the scenes these days and “growing” the global economy to such a colossal scale that it could soon become patently unsustainable on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth because our planetary home is not, definitely not “too big to fail.”

    Hurry up, please, it is time for speaking out loudly, clearly and often before it is too late for human action to matter. Like it or not, ready or not, intellectually honest and morally courageous scientists have unassumed responsibilities to science…. and unfulfilled duties to humanity that must be performed.

  3. Tim Norris Says:

    Hello

    As David Rockerfeller once presented in a lecture, advances in science seem to result in increasing population. Oil production pusuant to M. King Hubard follows a characteristic “bell curve”. The leading edge of the bell curve appears superficially like an exponential curve. Human population grows exponentially, unless limited by various physical limitations. The unprecedneted growth in human population since the 1930′s has been possible on account of cheap oil. However, as predicted by Olduvai Theory (Dr Richard Duncan), we have now reached “peak oil” and energy-per-capita falls very rapidly after the year 2010 on account of oil depletion and continued rise in World population. Although, energy efficiency measures can increase the “effective” energy-pe-capita, there are limtis to what can be achieved by efficiency as World population continues to rise. Eventually, a breaking point is reached when the whole World system collapses with disasterous loss of life. This is a very serious matter. When discussing with colleagues and aquaintances, it seems that most people are uninterested and/or totally ignorant to the real existential issues: “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic as the Titanic sinks” !

    The alleged anthropogenic climate change issue (CO2) and “peak oil” can be addressed by Thorium LFTR technology as our primary future energy source; in Telemark in Norway, there is about 1 million tonnes of easily accessible Thorium, enough to power the World for 100000 years at present energy utilization rates from oil and gas. A Thorium LFTR can burn up existing dangerous nuclear waste as well on account of its high thermal neutron flux density made possible by avoiding the use of Zirconia-clad solid fuel rods which was a common contributory factor in the severe accidents of Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Fukushima and Sellafield (Windscale). Moreover, Thorium LFTR is inherently safer than conventional nukes because of a possibility of building in multiple passive safety features (e.g. melt plugs in case of oevrheating, and allowing expansion of the salt melt to reduce raction rate so that the Throium LFTR is intrinsically self-limiting; molten salt fuel avoids the negative-void-coefficient issue which was so problematic at Chernobyl). Thorium LFTR was demonstrated successfully at ORNL in the 1950′s and is inherently simple technology; this should be juxtaposed to the high cost and complexity of research fusion systems which are at least 50 to 100 years before a commercial fusion system can be contemplated. A noted leading expert on fusion power at the end of his research life commented: “Thorium LFTR is all that fusion wanted to be ! …”.

    However, it then raises the issue: if the World were to switch to Thorium LFTR as its primary energy source, would we simply see an explosion in population growth? I fear the answer is “yes”. There then follows an issue: should we develop a commercial Thorium LFTR design for an investment of about 1 to 2 billion USD if it merely results in yet more population growth when built in large numbers in a modular basis. Without Thorium LFTR, World population will eventually fall along the profile of the back end of the M. King Hubard “bell curve” towards an eventual target of around 1 billion people or less. Maybe we should welcome such a development? My personal fear is that there will be great personal suffering (starvation, wars, conflicts) as we ride down the back end of the Olduvai Curve.

    If only people would understand that prudent family planning to reduce World population in a humane manner that does not cause gross suffering in combination with introduction of Thorium LFTR could provide humanity with a fantastic future. However, without a commitment to population control, it seems irresponsible to allow Thorium LFTR to be developed to a large extent, perhaps allowing only a few Thorium LFTR to be built to dispose of contemporary stockpiles of dangerous nuclear waste.

    The application of science, for example advanced power generation technolgoies, does not lie solely in a scientific vacuum, but must be related to the socio-eceonimic realities of human existence. Many people in the USA “sold on science” seem blinded to the bigger holistic picture. We need to be enlightened and see the bigger picture of life.

  4. Steven Earl Salmony Says:

    Please consider that during my lifetime, when human numbers exploded from less than 3 billion to more than 7 billion worldwide, many experts may not have known enough about what they were talking about when they spoke of human population dynamics and all causes of the human overpopulation of Earth. Their research appears not to be scientific. What I have been trying to communicate regarding the human population does not issue from ideological or totalitarian thinking, or from group-think consensus for that matter. It is not derived from what is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed. I have wanted to openly discuss the best available science. That is all. It appears the generally accepted thinking of a surprisingly large number of so-called experts in the field of population dynamics appears to have an unscientific foundation. Their preternatural thought and theorizing about the population dynamics of the human species appears to be both incomplete and mistaken. Most disquieting of all, a widely shared and consensually validated theory about a demographic transition four decades from now is directly contradicted by unchallenged scientific research. As a consequence, and it is a pernicious consequence, woefully inadequate thinking and fundamentally flawed theorizing has been broadcast during my life cycle and continues to be broadcast everywhere by the mainstream media as if it is not only science but the best available scientific evidence. The implications of this unfortunate behavior, inasmuch as it appears to be based upon a colossal misperception of what could somehow be real regarding the human population, appear profound. This failure of nerve has served to slow momentum needed for a confrontation with a formidable global predicament that appears to become more difficult to overcome year by year.

    In their elective mutism regarding an astonishing error, are first class professional researchers with expertise in population dynamics behaving badly by allowing the “ninety-nine percenters” to be misguided and led down a primrose path by the “one percenters”? The power of silence on the part of knowledgeable human beings with feet of clay is dangerous because research is being denied that appears to shed light upon a dark, non-recursive biological problem, the understanding of which appears vital to future human well being and environmental health. Too many experts appear to be ignoring science regarding the human population and instead consciously through their silence consenting to the leviathan scale and unbridled expansion of global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities that are being adamantly advocated and relentlessly pursued by greedmongering masters of the universe, the tiny minority among us who are primarily responsible for ravaging the Earth, ruining its environs and reducing its fitness for habitation by the children. If this assessment of human behavior is indeed a fair representation of what is happening on our watch, then the desire to preserve the status quo, mainly the selfish interests of ‘the powers that be’, could be at least one basis for so much intellectually dishonest and morally bereft behavior. Could it be that the outrageous per capita overconsumption, large-scale corporate overproduction and unrestricted overpopulation activities of the human species worldwide cannot continue much longer on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of a finite and frangible planet like Earth?

  5. Steven Earl Salmony Says:

    We face a colossal, human-induced global predicament. Emerging and converging ecological challenges we have chosen to ignore rather than
    acknowledge during my lifetime is in large part the result of the way silence is employed by ‘the powers that be’ and their minions to prevail over science. Hysterical blindness, willful deafness and elective mutism of knowledgeable human beings with feet of clay rule the world every bit as much as malignant narcissism, pathological arrogance and extreme foolishness of greedmongering masters of the universe rule the world. This pernicious situation is as intolerable as it is dangerous to future human
    well being and environmental health.

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