Perhaps the question is, more appropriately, when will population exceed the capacity of our global infrastructure? I am amazed that enough food and other goods can be produced and delivered today to sustain cities like Karachi, Pakistan (12-18 million) and Mexico City (19-35 million), especially since the average family income in these cities is relatively low compared with that in the more developed countries. I wonder how long such cities can continue to grow, and why the infrastructure to sustain them doesn’t appear to be increasingly fragile and at risk from human and naturally-caused problems. What are the signs that tell us that we are pushing our infrastructure to the point where risk of problematic or disastrous collapses is significantly increased?
The past has lessons, but they are often unclear and difficult to obtain. Archaeological findings indicate that once-thriving civilizations like those of the Mayans in Central America and at Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan could have been challenging their regional environments before they collapsed declined. They apparently had well organized agricultural systems and transport infrastructures which sustained their populations in cities, achieving integrated and efficient regional systems similar in many ways to the global infrastructure we rely on today. It is noteworthy that their largest cities were still only a hundredth of the largest cities existing today. In any case, understanding what went wrong for them will be important as human population growth increases the load on our global infrastructure, as there most certainly are important parallels.
Our global infrastructure, like many things human, could be both a blessing and a curse. Is the advanced transportation infrastructure behind globalization mitigating regional disasters, first by making large supplies of goods available at low cost, and then by enabling us to move goods quickly to where they are urgently needed? That may be the case, though I’d like to read some scholarly discourse on the topic. Even if this is the case, I can still see good reason for population control and reduction. The risk is that the resilience and power in our infrastructure could lead us to a dependence on it that would put huge numbers in peril should it partially fail.
Either natural or human events could create critical challenges for our infrastructure. Could regional infrastructures in the most heavily populated and high growth areas be challenged beyond their limits by war, natural disaster, or other large scale problems, such that they would suffer collapses resulting in millions of deaths? In recent times we have seen larger and larger humanitarian disasters, such as the cyclone (Nargis) that hit Myanmar this past year, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 (link), and, though much less deadly, hurricane Katrina in the United States. Similar events will only be worse when populations in such relatively-higher risk areas are more dense, and infrastructures are nearer to their limits. In the grand scheme of overpopulation, however, no disasters have been seen which noticeably impact total population, and it continues to grow unabated, most rapidly in the poorest and most at risk parts of the world. Will we reach a population where our global infrastructure will be challenged, or will we limit our own birthrate as a species through educated choice?
Birthrate and population reduction are the only lasting ways to reduce our risks. I believe, to mitigate our growing problems with energy supplies, immigration, and susceptibility to natural disasters (to name a few), our governments should be taking steps to increase educational, economic, and family planning assistance to the fastest growing and poorest parts of the world. This will only happen if we actively communicate with our representatives on these matters, and vote accordingly whenever possible. For the sake of our descendants we must work towards a sustainable world situation, and it can only be done incrementally, in small and focused actions, by all of us.
As always, I welcome your comments.