After Human Population Peaks, Then What?


The population explosion can’t keep exploding forever.   Sooner or later we must hit the limits of space and resources, and our numbers will be forced to decline.  I see more and more signs in population-related news items (collected by the Population Connection folks) that global consciousness of the population problem is increasing noticeably.  It is still far from sufficient to influence governments and corporations to do much about it, however.  There has also been a change in UN projections of population growth such that they now give a high and low estimate for the year 2100, described in an article at foriegnpolicy.com, in which it is noted that the difference between high and low population projections for 2100 is about equal to the entire global population in 1950.  That will give you an idea how fast the population is actually exploding.  So how might population reduction occur?

Natural disasters haven’t hindered the population explosion so far.  As human populations grow people are forced to live in ever-more precarious locations, such as marginal coastline areas prone to frequent hurricanes or tsunamis.  Still, even the most enormous disasters in human history have never taken more than a million lives, and most that we think of as the worst disasters ever actually took lives only in the thousands or tens of thousands.  With 80 million new births per year the population growth rate is NOT reduced noticeably by  natural disasters of the scale we’ve seen in the past couple of centuries. 

Man-made disasters such as wars and widespread pollution haven’t made much difference.  In the largest recent war, the US assault on Iraq in 2003, it has been estimated that over one million deaths have resulted including those from sectarian and terrorist actions.  This does not count the longer term impacts of war-related pollution including the widespread scattering of depleted uranium munitions, which are reported to be elevating cancer rates significantly in parts of the country (though this is denied by US and Iraqi governments).

The events and initiatives that reduce population will be vast.  All of this suggests that, to have a meaningful effect on world population, a disaster would have to result in the deaths of millions of people, not just tens or hundreds of thousands.  Whether natural or man-made, the factors that curb and then reduce our numbers will have to be widespread and have fundamental impact.  While the probability of natural disasters is increased only slightly by climate change, and the damage in human terms is only somewhat increased by the ever-more risky places people live, the risk involved in the transportation of energy sources and food are increased both by consolidation of sources and the stretching of supply lines over long distances.   This is not done by necessity, but to increase the profit of corporations, and in many cases corporations take action to reduce regional and local production of competing items, thus further increasing the systemic risk.

Population decline is more likely to result from famine than from epidemics or wars.  Humans have become good at controlling infection, making recurrence of a widespread plague unlikely, though it is still a risk.   Wars have generally shown little potential to impact population growth, though the possibility of nuclear war, while remote, establishes the possibility of major population reduction by human act.  That leaves famine as perhaps the most probable cause of future major population reduction, a possibility made all the more relevant by the length and tenuous nature of food supplies, the percentage of agricultural output which is dependent on fossil fuels, and the destruction of local and regional agricultural capacity by corporations, among other factors. 

Population decline, like the population explosion, is unlikely to happen overnight.  This doesn’t mean the decline will be controlled and gradual, or that there won’t be disasters involved.  There will.  The conditions that will lead to population decline will be most closely related to the countries with the lowest per capita income, the largest populations, and the highest rates of growth.  In these countries the food supply is usually a major concern, and corruption in the government and private sectors compound the problems.  It is probable that more and more food riots will break out as people realize their hunger is related more to malfeasance and misfeasance by corporations and national governments than to simple shortages.  Small wars may result over water and other resources, but they will be only stepping stones to bigger issues such as longer term food shortages which, in many cases, they will help cause.

After global population peaks, there will be a rough, rocky decline that may last a century or more, depending on many factors.  Eventually, and especially if we learn as a species to control our numbers, the population will level off somewhere in the vicinity of a sustainable level.  Current estimates vary widely, but it is reasonable to think the earth could sustain a population of two billion indefinitely, though not in the energy-intensive style in which we live today.  New energy sources (fusion?) and other inventions could increase the earth’s capacity to feed us, but that might only permit a few hundred million extra people.

This topic is one of the most difficult to contemplate.  There are no two ways around it: the earth is finite and can only support a certain number of us, and were it not for fossil fuels it would be supporting far less than today.  Nobody wants to face the fact that humanity is out of control as far as reproduction and population, and nobody wants to face the fact that people – a lot of people – will potentially die before their time in the repeated disasters that can be expected in the future.  Still, if we don’t address it directly, and the sooner the better, we are unlikely to see anything but the worst case scenario of increasingly severe mass disasters, plagues, and wars.

Peaceful and palatable alternatives exist.  Many, many people have been thinking about these problems for decades, even though the media and legislative bodies refuse to discuss them, let alone take meaningful action.  In democratic countries the power of the popular vote could make a difference, helping to mitigate our problems and avoid the biggest future disaster scenarios.  In other countries the change is likely to come more slowly, though it may be aided by pressure from the countries that are more aware of the problems and leading the way in dealing with them.

You can help minimize future disasters!   It has long been known that a three-pronged approach to population management is needed: family planning, education, and  economic aid each reduce the incentive to have large families.  Indeed, any increase in the public’s sense of security correlates with reduced birth rates.  You can help by using your vote and your ability to communicate with your representatives to communicate to them the urgency of this  matter, and ask for their support of education, family planning, and economic aid where it can be productively employed and won’t be blocked by local government corruption.  Everything we do today to “move the needle” in the direction of adapting to a sustainable world is worth while, and our vote and voice may have the biggest influence of all.

As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim

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