Friday, April 13, 2012

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: The Population Bomb

"That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, has every chance of being false"

The population of the earth continues to grow rapidly, filling up the habitable spaces at an amazing rate. Some are so upset about this they go crazy, such as James Jay Lee, who walked into the Discovery Channel headquarters wearing what looked like a bomb and threatened to blow the place up and kill people. He was terrified of an overpopulated earth, hated babies, and wanted people sterilized to save the planet.

Overpopulation would be a ghastly situation for mankind. Wars and petty squabbles over resources, space, and the small annoyances of being crammed in too close together would build up constantly. Governing a people becomes more difficult the more people you have to deal with, and eventually tyranny is the only way to keep order. Movies such as Soylent Green show the potential evils of such a fate for mankind. Starvation, rioting, and death await an overpopulated planet.

Professor David Marsland, Emeritus Scholar of Sociology and Health Sciences at Brunel University, London and Professorial Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Buckingham has written and spoken repeatedly for forced sterilization to prevent overpopulation and child abuse. President Obama's science czar Holdren thinks so, he helped Paul Ehrlich write about overpopulation in the 70s and even advised ways to kill people off to keep the population under control. And Paul Ehrlich himself became wealthy and famous by writing of the dangers of population growth.

But are we really getting that overpopulated? Are we headed to this nightmare at the rate of 4 babies a second?

To understand this, you have to do a bit of math. The planet earth has 5,490,383,247,360,000 square feet of land (around 57,000,000 square miles). The present population is just over 6.8 billion people. That translates to about 119 people per square mile of solid ground, or 38 people per square mile of total area on the planet. Some of those areas are hostile and difficult to survive on (antarctica, for example) so figure more, maybe 130 people per square mile.

That seems like a lot, right? Well, only if you are looking at raw numbers. Even at this state, that gives us 5.46 acres of land per man, woman, and child on the entire planet. Even assuming that as most geologists estimate only a quarter of that is arable land (useful for agriculture), that means we have more than an acre of garden each.

Or to put it another way, the population density of a city such as Los Angeles is 2,750 people per square mile. London's is 5,100. Cities such as Mumbai (formerly known as bombay) have over 26,000 people per square mile. Suddenly 119 people per square mile seems sort of roomy. The fact is, if you took every single human being on the earth and transported them into Texas, the numbers would look like this:
Area of Texas in square miles: 266874
Current population of the world, estimated: 6,840,500,000
Resulting population density of Texas: 25,631 per square mile
That's a lot of people to jam together in an area, but its still less than the population density of Mumbai. Yes, it would suck. We'd have no parks, no privacy, and Mumbai is hardly a pleasant place for most people to live. It is incredibly crowded and overpopulated for the area.

But consider: the entire rest of the whole planet would be utterly empty of humans. We could divide a third of the planet up for agriculture, a third for a park, and a third for leaving total wilderness.

Thinking about this in terms of size, density, and area changes your perspective. Its true that the population is growing very rapidly and almost alarmingly. Here's how the growth is accelerating:
  • The world population in year 1 A.D. was 250 million people.
  • The world population in year 1492 was 500 million people.
  • The world population in 1804 was 1.0 billion people.
  • The world population in 1922 was 2.0 billion people (doubled in 118 years; increasing on average by about 23,000 per day).
  • The world population in 1959 was 3.0 billion people (increased by 1.0 billion in only 37 years; increasing on average by about 74,000 per day).
  • The world population in 2006 was 6.68 billion people (more than doubled in 47 years; increasing now by 211,000 persons per day!).
Its estimated that by 2039, just 27 years from now, the world population could be as high as 13 billion people, or about double what the planet holds now. That growth is amazing, and its largely because democracy has reduced the frequency, size, and lethality of wars, and technology has prevented many of the horrors that reduce population such as famine, drought, and plague.

Yet we're still not even remotely close to approaching the beginning of overpopulating the planet yet. Its simply not happening, we'd have to increase population by more than ten times as much to get there.

Population growthThe problem isn't the size of the population, its the distribution and use of resources. The biggest problem with putting everyone in Texas wouldn't be the density of population, but how on earth to feed and resource that many people. Unless robots were out all over the world collecting goods and growing food, most would be dead in weeks.

And that's the problem with places like Mumbai and Mexico City: bad distribution. There are too many people in an area that cannot reasonably support them. America is pretty well distributed because the land is vast, rich, and lightly populated. From almost its inception as a nation, the United States has been more careful about using its resources than most other countries, and as a result its still a lush and wealthy land. Other countries do not have this luxury.

And worse, many nations do not take advantage of their resources very well because of poverty, war, corruption, and tyranny. Much of Africa could be a breadbasket, rich in resources and land with light population similar to the United States. Yet almost none of it is taken advantage of, and in places such as South Africa or Zimbabwe, what was once taken advantage of is being lost to crime, corruption, and dictatorships. They wouldn't have to live in misery and poverty, if they'd use what they had more wisely.

So where do these overpopulation scares come from? Ehrlich looked at how much food we were able to produce, how much land it took, and compared it to how many people there are and what land they require. He concluded that by the end of the 70s the world would be torn by war, starvation, disease, and famine because the world was rapidly running out of resources and populating too rapidly. His numbers seemed very reasonable and well-calculated, and people were genuinely worried.

He got it all wrong, but still has his followers, and before him were men who warned of this danger for decades. Tim Blair examined New York Times articles over the previous century and listed over a dozen reports on how the population growth was going to doom us all and got it so very wrong. Why?

If you look at the history of London, you get an interesting lesson in population management and cultural/technological advancement. For a variety of reasons, people began to move to London out of the rural areas of England and the city exploded in population in the past.

In 1500, London's population grew from 50,000 to around 100,000. By 1600 that population had doubled, and it more than doubled again to over 500,000 in 1700. London's population continued to rapidly rise, and the city was baffled with how to deal with this massive increase in size. Nobody had ever seen a city this big and packed before, they were totally unprepared. The water was still drawn from wells or the Thames. There were no fire or police services, there were no hospitals for centuries. There was no sewer system, no garbage collection, and the graveyards were overwhelmed.

Rural people leaving the farm to make their fortune in the city filled London to the brink and poured over. It was a place of great opportunity... but even greater misery and poverty. Some areas were so wretched and ground down in poverty live was meaningless and if you lived past 20 you were amazing. The Thames became an open sewer, the streets were deadly in many parts of the city.

How did they cope? Well inventions such as the police force, fire departments, hospitals, and more came about. London, for many years, was the place most of the innovations cities now enjoy were first tried. The traffic light, for example, was first used in London. Sewers, a Roman device, were reintroduced to the city to help deal with the filth. Water was brought into the city like the old aqueduct systems. Apartment housing began to replace the ghastly slums.

What happened was that human beings, when faced with a problem, came up with solutions. To feed these people, farms began bringing food in on canals and new roads, and eventually railroads (another English invention). The shipping industry of England became so huge it dominated the entire world's oceans. England became the world's most powerful nation despite its tiny size, controlling or owning a full third of the planet's lands. English is still the common language and English customs and etiquette are the standard for polite behavior around the world.

And that's what Malthus, Ehrlich, and Holdren missed, what they got wrong. When faced with a problem, humans adapt, use their God-given intellect and abilities, and find solutions. Instead of an all-powerful government imposing population control, humanity came up with better ways to farm, more efficient ways to produce food, take advantage of resources, and run cities. Ehrlich's critical error is that he presumed nothing would change except the size of population. And that was not just foolish, but inexcusably ignorant of history. We're seeing a lot of loud, popular scientists make the same mistake today with climate.

This is where China has its core problem. China is incredibly populated, but almost all of that population is packed into some small areas, creating vast cities. Their problem, again, is distribution of their population and poor use of resources. Instead of relying on technology, innovation, creativity, and cultural change to deal with this, they're relying on tyranny to kill babies and try to keep the population down.

There is no population bomb. We are not facing an overpopulation crisis. There are some distribution problems, but not a problem with too many humans. Earth can comfortably and productively sustain many times more people than are on it right now. And given the history of the world, we're long overdue for some horrendous catastrophe that reduces the population in any case. I hope it never happens, but to pretend it cannot is simply foolish.

This is part of the Common Knowledge series: stuff we know that ain't so.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Nice post which The population of the earth continues to grow rapidly, filling up the habitable spaces at an amazing rate. Some are so upset about this they go crazy, such as James Jay Lee, who walked into the Discovery Channel headquarters wearing what looked like a bomb and threatened to blow the place up and kill people. He was terrified of an overpopulated earth, hated babies, and wanted people sterilized to save the planet. Thanks a lot for posting this article.