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Monday, January 31, 2005

Population, Resources, and Exponential Growth

It is a natural part of human nature to ignore the impact of events whose consequences fall far into the future. The here and now dominates the way most people naturally think. For the next half-century there will be just enough energy resources left to enable either a horrific and futile contest for the remaining spoils, or a heroic cooperative effort toward radical conservation and transition to a post-fossil-fuel energy regime. If our descendants are fortunate, the ultimate outcome will be a world of modest, bio-regionally organized communities living on received solar energy. Local rivalries will continue, as they have throughout human history, but hopefully, the hubris of geopolitical strategists threatening billions with extinction will be no more. In the future, perhaps we will measure prosperity by how few raw materials and energy has been used to create an end-use product or service, and productivity by the number of people who are working to make it happen.

We can hope to soften the shock, but unless there is a general awakening and decisions at the planetary scale to bring radical change in the domain of energy, civilization will confront the most acute and no doubt most violent upheaval in recent history. Possibly the single greatest obstacle to achieving this is exponential population growth.

Exponential growth is a sneaky phenomenon. The current world population is currently 6.5 billion and counting. At the current rate of world population growth, (1.3%) the world’s population will double in just over 53 years. However, recent United Nations projections are that the growth rate will decline steadily and stabilize the population at about 9 billion, still, a huge increase. What accounts for the worldwide plunge in fertility now underway? The honest and entirely unsatisfying answer is that nobody really knows—at least, with any degree of certitude and precision. The decline in the exponential growth rate of the human population in past years is most often credited to an increase in family planning services in the less developed countries, leading to a lower fertility rate. However, one might be hard pressed to find the shared, underlying determinants of fertility decline in such disparate countries as the United States, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Iran. Certainly, it would seem that the worldwide drop in childbearing reflects, and is driven by, dramatic changes in desired family size. But this only raises the question of why personal attitudes about these major life decisions should be changing so commonly in so many disparate and diverse locales around the world today.

The increase in infertility we're seeing today is largely attributed to people waiting longer to begin their families, but this only holds true for the developed countries. Furthermore, evidence is now accumulating that, among vertebrates, male fertility is declining. Several epidemiological studies have also shown that more people today are experiencing difficulty in becoming pregnant or inducing pregnancy, because of exposure to hormonally active substances as a result of environmental pollutants. Perhaps Mother Nature is also kicking in her feedback mechanisms to once again bring balance and sustainability to the world’s population.

China, with its growth rate (.59%) at currently about half that of the rest of the world, is a prime example of the exponential growth problem. This giant population pool is struggling to remove the shackles of poverty suffered throughout the 20th Century. Their economy is growing at over 9% a year, everyone striving to get their first car, TV, and refrigerator. If such a transformation were to take place, are the world's resources sufficient to support this new affluence?

In about 50 years, China will approach 2 billion people and represent 25% of the world’s population, all trying to live and consume like Americans who are less than 5% of the worlds’ population and consume 25% of the world’s oil. And this is just China, not to mention India or any of the other developing nations. This unavoidable prophecy is being universally ignored, denied, or underestimated—all in the face of declining energy and raw resources. Rare are those who realize exactly how close and how great is its advent.


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