It’s about to get crowded

Do you think Winnipeg rush hour is bad, or you feel cramped in the university’s underground tunnels and in the stores of the mall? Well just imagine how the tight the squeeze commuters experience in India or the dreaded Highway 401 in Ontario and the I-95 in the U.S. is. Although the claustrophobic manifestation in the masses of people surrounding you is worse in some regions when compared to others, in the grand scheme of things it’s about to get a lot worse, as global population is still on the rise.

According to a recent National Geographic issue, sometime in the year 2011 there will be approximately 7 billion people on Earth. Though that may not seem like such an impressive number, consider that it could lead to a catastrophe. About two billion women have entered their childbearing years and medical science advancements coupled with the ever-increasing availability of better food keep pushing the life expectancy up. That and the average annual increase of 80 million new people on this planet have the UN demographers projecting a range of about 8.5 to 10 billion as early as 2045.

Over half of this future growth is attributed to the developing world. Even though many families are having fewer kids than they were, say 40 years ago (your parents on average will likely have more brothers and sisters than you do), and China’s implementation of their one-child policy on about one third of their population, all together this has a minor effect in offsetting the world’s growing population.

Many of the countries in the developing world — India, Brazil and many African nations — are in the middle of their demographic transition (a way of explaining a country’s population), which consists of four phases. The pre-industrial era, phase one, consisting of high birth and death rates kept a constant young population. Then advances in agricultural practices as well as medical science result in a drop in the death rate, while the birth rate remains steady. This caused a boom in population, mark phase two. As people’s lives, especially women, became more involved in education and family planning, birth rate starts to decline, indicating the start of phase three, until it reaches replacement level or dip below and population stabilizes where the birth and death rate come into balance, phase four. The baby boom accounted for phase two in Canada and the U.S., where Canada is still battling for its birth rate to stay atop of replacement (replacing deaths with births) level while the U.S. continues to increase its population, and many developing countries have had or are having their baby boom generation.

That’s great, but what does all this speculation mean?

This isn’t the first time in history people have pondered the effects of ever-increasing population. As early as the 17th century, Sir William Petty “prophesized” that the world population would reach a certain point — 20 billion — then succumb to great wars and slaughter as Judgment Day came. About 100 years later, as people developed secular opinions of this issue, Thomas Malthus came out with his law of population, which states that population will necessarily exceed the level that food can supply it with until war, disease and famine will reduce the levels.

Most interestingly, according to National Geographic, the massive plague known as the Black Death that took place in the 14th century was the only event that significantly reduced the Earth’s human population. However, the centuries after Malthus’s proposed law the population did all but reduce. Huge improvements in sanitation and crop practice raised the life expectancy that enabled Western Europe and North America to accommodate the population that made it what it is today.

Paul Ehrlich tried again to predict a mass starvation in the ’70s that would impede the growth of population, but he was proved wrong, as advancements in agriculture prevented such a disaster from occurring.

The Population Association of America has calmed some nerves, stating that by 2050 population growth would cease and level off into another era of history. Although history is no indication of the future, how do we know they’re right when history has repeatedly proved so many wrong?

Can we afford to keep hoping the population boom will self-correct, or do we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to help the developing world reach phase four as soon as possible?

2 Comments on "It’s about to get crowded"

  1. Human populations don’t level off “naturally” as the rest of the natural world. It takes a concerted effort, education, contraception, women empowerment and the will to limit family sizes. None of this is natural but all of it is humanly possible. We need to spread the word that a stable human population is both feasible and desirable.

  2. While I-95 is fairly awful living in a very dense urban area isn’t necessarily so. Rather, daily interaction with every stripe of individual can make one more accepting of peoples’ differences, I find. Come visit NYC and see!

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