Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baby Baby: Thoughts on a Crowded Planet

Is it coming to this? Packed in tight, togetherness...

As I very slowly get caught up on some of the news I missed during The Van Winkle Project I still haven't looked at the newspaper I saved that heralds arguably the biggest news story of 2011: the death of Osama Bin Laden.

That's where I thought I'd be today. My nose and eyes and mind tipped toward Pakistan. But history surges ahead.

Rather than moving backwards in time, I'm reading about the inglorious, cell phoned to the world death of Colonel Gaddafi.

I suspect that though this event will lead to larger things--some kind of shaping of civil war riddled Libya into a country again--the news reporters will move on to the next dictator to fall and the next. The world is not yet in short supply of these bad guys to topple.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, there are other things that interest me, worry me, play upon my emotions more than that drainage ditch outside Surt or the mysteries of how the Navy SEALS got Bin Laden.

Pop! Goes the Population
The other day I read a news article that suggests that while I was "asleep" there was possibly the "mother of all" stories going on--and I don't mean the "Arab spring" or the Japan earthquake.

This story wasn't a one-time thing. It was happening every day. And it's still happening.

There are about to be 7 billion humans occupying this planet.

It's Not Getting Crowded In Here, Is It?
One way to think of the earth's new population landmark is that it's just a mildly interesting statistical moment, not something alarming. Ever since the rate of the overall  population growth began declining to where it is today ( a steady 1.8% annual increase) it's been easy to assume that everything is well. After all, in the days before contraception and awareness humans reproduced themselves at a higher rate.

What this overlooks is that we're reached the steep end of a long-time growth curve and even a 1.8% global population increase adds another 212,000  people to the planet every day.

That's like twice replicating the population of where I live (Abilene, Texas) every day of the year for the foreseeable future.

At this rate, every 13-15 years there we find ourselves with another one billion people on earth.

What really caught my attention in an article I read was this: when I was born back in the 1950s the earth's population was a paltry 3 billion. This means the world's population has more than doubled in my lifetime.

Is it noticeable? You bet it's noticeable.

Virtually every place in America I remember either visiting or living in during my youth has been radically altered whether it's Anchorage, Alaska or Houston, Texas. Where there used to be open land, one finds houses and strip malls. The cities bulge outward in all directions. Cars and parking lots and big box stores that I never imagined in my youth abound.

And that's just places in the relatively uncrowded U.S. of A.

There goes the rain forest...
Of course, crowding and a loss of aesthetics is not the real problem with an ever-increasing population. There's still enough land to put the people and when that becomes too scarce we can build upward and stack people in upthrusting skyscrapers as my former writing teacher John Hersey imagined in his cautionary short novel, My Petition for More Space (1974).

The real problem is that humans, in their pursuit of the kind of lives they believe will make them most happy, have become a hugely resource intensive species.

We need staggering amounts of fossil fuel, metals, timber, and water. We also need a disproportionate amount of the planet simply to place our waste products whether its in the air or on the land or in the seas.

And there's the bit that isn't discretionary. We can't help the fact that somehow, some way 7 billion people have to eat and get along with each other.

The Special "K" for Earth
I've learned that there are people who think of human population growth as the number one problem facing us. Not global terrorism or nuclear proliferation or global warming. They warn that the earth realistically can only support so many people. After that bad things are bound to happen.

One of the bad things is called the "Witches' Hats" theory. It's named after the orange marker cones used in driver's test. As you drive through a winding course, knock down too many cones and you fail the test and don't get your driver's license.

Likewise, governments who fail to provide enough basic services to their bulging populations are like bad driver's who topple witches' hats. The citizens will eventually revolt and overthrow them.

If you have too many people to feed, shelter, and keep healthy, you have a formula for political unrest. Some have said that bread prices that rose 70% and a population that went from 18 million to 80 million in only fifty years explains what happened in Egypt earlier this year.

If you wear the "witch's' hat," you worry that a crowded world is a world that is less likely to be a peaceful one.

Does this mean we're doomed? I won't automatically assume so. I also encountered this opinion:

"Overall, this [population increase] is not a cause for alarm — the world has absorbed big gains since 1950," said Bongaarts, a vice president of the Population Council. But he cautioned that strains are intensifying: rising energy and food prices, environmental stresses, more than 900 million people undernourished.

"For the rich, it's totally manageable," Bongaarts said. "It's the poor, everywhere, who will be hurt the most."

I also should take into account that the 1.8% world growth rate is an average. Some nations are not in danger of overcrowding, especially in Europe, where the population growth is actually nearing negative: more people are dying than are being born. This causes a different set of social issues. There are not enough young workers to keep the economy growing or to support the retirement of the old people.

It could be that eventually the great areas of population growth will eventually reach a point of mirroring the development of the "rich" countries and start to reach zero population growth. In other words, we're not doomed to a growth curve that keeps pointing to the sky, but in the best case could be headed toward one that plateaus and finally starts to drop as the orange and green lines in the U.N.'s 2004 projections show. It's an alternative to the dreaded RED LINE of population Armageddon...

But what if none of that really matters? What if  this is not really about how many people may or may not be too many in the future, but about already having too many people?

This is a debatable point...

The optimists say that the magic number of people the earth can sustain or "carrying capacity," which is symbolized by the letter "K," is 10-12 billion people. But it's just a guess. Much depends on technology and innovation and how they can leverage available resources as well as what kind of standards of living people are willing to find acceptable.

The pessimists, on the other hand, say, "Just look around. Is this the kind of world we want?" We passed "K" long ago. The magic number was 5 billion people.

Please Take a Number, Get In Line
Somewhere today there is a woman with baby number 7 billion inside of her. That child we be born in less than two weeks. What kind of life will it have? Will it be able to even imagine what it was like to move around on this planet when there were only 3 billion people on it?

Are you old enough to remember life before this?

For us middle-aged people who still recall our youths, we have a message to pass on. I don't want to tell others that it was even close to a perfect world then (I have only to think of our American apartheid and the Cold War), but as humanity's work and play space starts to get ever more crowed, we now have problems I for one never dreamed of.

Back in the days of yore no one talked about smog, and the rain forest was still standing and as a child I walked along a beach and didn't see crap washed up onto the sand and I never would have considered it normal for anyone to take 40 minutes or longer to drive 10-20 miles to get to work.

There's now 7 billion reasons (and another billion more coming up in 2025) for me to think these problems have the potential to get worse, much worse. - A.H.


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