The global human population is piling up. In the project management game (my current profession) we often observe a phenomenon that we call “snow plowing”. Essentially this is the putting off of work, or putting off of dealing with problems, until the uncompleted work and unresolved problems pile higher and higher and drive risk and costs needlessly high, to the point that the project could be canceled or simply fail to meet its objectives. It is easy to see, when you look at published population curves or see the sprawl of our suburbs and the decay in our infrastructure that we are rapidly plowing up a huge “drift” of problems and doing too little to mitigate them. Perhaps it’s time for a little truth, even though it may come across as shock therapy. My intent is not to shock, but to give a pause for thought that may affect future choices and actions.
First a few assumptions. Given that human population was less than one billion until 1804, and then didn’t pass two billion until 1927 (chart), it is safe to assume that, without the technological development that enabled our runaway population growth, a sustainable human population might actually be in the neighborhood of two to three billion. But humans are nothing if not adaptable and creative. It is possible we’ll be able to sustain ourselves with three or four billion if we invent a new source of energy to replace fossil fuels. Sadly, we are already near 7 billion and predicted to exceed 9 billion by 2040, leaving us a long way down to find a sustainable situation again. Keep in mind that these reductions must also counter the birth rate at that time.
Population: 9 billion
Sustainable population: 3 billion
Difference: 6 billion
Years to sustainability (by 2095): 50 (this might be less)
Reduction in population per year (average): 120,000,000 = 6 billion ⁄ 50 years
Reduction in population per day (average): 328,767 = 120 million⁄ 365 days/yr
Natural disasters haven’t come close to these numbers of deaths in the past. Of the natural events causing loss of human life in the past (list), only a few exceeded 100,000 in a single day. This suggests the reduction will involve human factors such as infrastructure failures, with resulting famine. Supply lines for most of us are already global, and both food and resources often travel through convoluted routes with a variety of risks. If populations in parts of the world are under pressure, they might block or otherwise hinder the supply routes, cutting off critical resources to the other parts of the world. In the past famine has often been accompanied by plague, and while our microbiological risks have increased due to overuse of antibiotics and our amazing transportation infrastructure, they could increase much more in the future.
Simple economics: fossil fuels will become unaffordable to most people within the 21st century. As population rises and we consume our energy resources at a faster and faster rate, there will be a point where further expansion is uneconomical and refineries will change over to produce products with higher value than regular gasoline, where they can still achieve a decent profit margin. This will further shorten supply and accelerate price increases. Oil is being exhausted most quickly, with somewhat longer futures for natural gas and coal, even though the former has environmental problems with its extraction process, only now being recognized, and the latter is a dirty fuel that is less affordable when the sulfur and other undesirable pollutants are removed. The problem with losing use of these fuels is not just transportation, but agriculture and manufacturing. Fertilizers and plastics (and most products involving chemicals) depend on large quantities of petroleum. Can you imagine the things you buy daily being packaged in, and often made solely from, wood, paper, or other renewable materials? When I see plastic I immediately wonder how much oil it took to make it, and what I would be using if there were no plastics.
A lot of people will have to die early before we’ll have a sustainable world again. While natural and human-caused disasters happen all the time, few (list) have ever killed enough humans to make a noticeable dent in the global population. The extreme steepness and height of the population curve suggests that, in the absence of determined actions to lower birthrates worldwide, those disasters will be much more prevalent and much worse in the next few decades. I hate to think about the size of disaster, and the number of dead it would take to make a significant reduction in world population but, given the number by which the population will need to be reduced, disasters will be far worse than we have seen in the past. Unpleasant as it is, we need to face the facts, change our direction, and begin working furiously in an all-out effort to curb population growth and invent ways to avoid the inevitable disasters.
This information needs to be faced directly by our political, economic, and social leaders. It’s obvious that we are still in a runaway condition as far as population is concerned, and it is creating ever larger problems involving supplies of energy and food, immigration, political conflicts, and economic instability. I have explored in other entries (here, here, here, here) reasons why people can’t bring themselves to speak of this topic, why news media, government, corporate, and political organizations refuse to accept, let alone address, the inevitable problems of the coming century. If we are to reduce and control the severity of these massive population reductions, and possibly save the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, we need to act today. For starters, this huge problem needs to be discussed publicly. Facts need to be brought to light and calm, clear-headed efforts to mitigate the coming disasters need to start today. Governments that balk at funding family planning efforts, for example, need to give such endeavors top priority.
What can you and I do? Mobilization against overpopulation and its effects is needed on a global scale. Effort needs to be expended in a manner similar to that experienced by some countries during World War II, with businesses forgoing profits, government-regulated rationing, and huge investments being made in science and technology, except that this needs to be global in scale. Since corporations are not sensitive to such long-term and seemingly remote problems, governments will need to focus the effort and force the corporate world to behave appropriately. This will only happen if we demand it at every turn. It is up to us to change the perspective of politicians and business leaders, to take no quarter in our pursuit of the measures needed to address the huge problem we have made for ourselves and all life on the planet. Painful as it is, the trouble inherent in publicizing the truth and demanding it be addressed is nothing compared with the trouble we will have in three or five decades when hundreds of thousands of people are dying every day, somewhere in the world, and we are all suffering extreme hardship.
On a personal level, I expect that every bit of conservation I pursue might buy my grandchildren an extra second to devise creative solutions to mitigate the problems of overpopulation. If I and everyone does enough in this regard, the time gained could be a big factor in reducing the inevitable suffering.
Write or speak with your representatives and explain the truths, over and over. The simple numbers are compelling and frightening, and maybe some properly placed fear will get people and institutions to face and address the realities. The contrast between today and where we will likely be in a half century is compelling. Tell this simple story to your representatives and demand action. Make it clear you will vote for the candidate who shows the best understanding and most vigorous actions against overpopulation and the resulting problems which are already upon us. Do everything you can to get the message across: we need action against overpopulation and we need it yesterday.
As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim