Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Population

by Richard Crews
The world's population has been growing rapidly in recent years. During the first million-or-so years of human evolution, the total world population probably never exceeded a few million individuals. But with the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the human population began to grow rapidly. By 2,000 years ago it had reached some 200 million.
Over the next 1,000 years it doubled (reaching 400 million in AD 1000).
Over the next 750 years it doubled again (reaching 800 million in 1770).
Over the next 130 years it doubled again (reaching 1,600 million in 1900).
Over the next 65 years it doubled again (reaching 3,200 million in 1965).
Over the next 45 years it doubled again (reaching 6,400 million in 2010).

The world's population currently stands at just under seven billion. But it is not expected to continue to grow rapidly much longer. The U.N. estimates that the world's population will level off at about nine billion in the next few decades.

Granted that is a lot of people. The Earth might be better able to maintain a balanced, healthy ecology if there were 1/10th that number--or less. But in fact with efficient food production and distribution practices, we can feed all those people well. And with suitable recycling, the Earth's limited commodities--silver, rare earth metals, phosphates, etc.--need never run out.

However, that leveling off of population growth depends on one surprising factor, the equitable distribution of wealth. Over the past few years, by studying a variety of populations under a variety of conditions, sociologists have discovered that as people's standard of living rises--that is, as they become more healthy and secure and have lower infant mortality rates--they tend to have smaller families. It seems that among a deeply impoverished population in which poor health, poor sanitation, and generally poor living conditions mean that many children die before they reach adulthood, parents will tend to have large families of 8 or 10 or 12 children--so many children, it turns out, that they more than compensate numerically for the loss. On the other hand, relatively wealthy--and therefore healthy--families in a post-industrial society will tend to have fewer children on the average, down to 3 or even 2 children per family.

So the U.N.'s prediction that the rise in population will level off presupposes that effective measures will be taken to raise the standard of living for the vast majority of the human race.

Is the total wealth produced by human activity on the planet sufficient to accomplish that? Yes, numerically it is. At present some 90% of the world's population are impoverished--they live on less than $10 a day. If the total wealth produced on the planet each year were evenly distributed, each person's share would be nearly $30 per day. Looked at another way, if the wealth controlled by the 1,000 wealthiest people on the planet were distributed among the 1,000,000,000 (one billion) poorest, each would get about $2,500.

The difficulty is, of course, that such a redistribution of wealth is impossible politically. But if the Earth is to be saved from devastating overpopulation (and the resulting ethnic, land, and water wars), something must be done to fix the gross inequity in income and wealth distribution between the rich and the poor. In the U.S., for example, for a start, rich people and corporations should pay their fair share of taxes to run the government: income tax rates for the wealthy should be raised, tax rates on large inheritances should be raised, and the maximum income level for contributing to Social Security should be raised; exorbitant pay packages for executives of financial institutions should be curbed (and perhaps the exorbitant rewards reaped by top entertainers and athletes as well); farm and industrial subsidies for wealthy corporations should be discontinued; etc.

The solution to the world's population woes is, interestingly, largely economic. But as surely as money begets power and power begets money, any significant economic changes will be very difficult to implement.