Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 2006
How to slow
the population clock
Author: David R. Francis
For decades now, demographers and economists
have warned that the number of people
on earth is growing too fast to be "sustainable."
But for many, this story is somewhat old,
"We have sort of a cornucopia fantasy,"
says Russell Hopfenberg, a consulting
faculty member at Duke University in Durham,
N.C. "People say, 'Not to worry.
Technology will solve the problem.' "
Mr. Hopfenberg isn't so sure. "Don't
get lulled into complacency," he
Some relevant facts include:
The population of the United States
was estimated at 299,083,490 last Wednesday
by the US Census Bureau's population clock
website. That figure is projected to reach
300 million by October. Compared with
many countries, the US is lightly populated.
Nonetheless, its population growth rate
is comparable to that of China. Because
of immigration, the number of people in
the US could reach 400 million by 2050.
Another clock on the Census Bureau
website puts the world's population at
6,524,983,762. The United Nations projects
that number will reach 9.1 billion by
2050. About 76 million people are being
This year's world grain harvest is
projected to fall short of consumption
by 61 million tons. That's the sixth time
in the past seven years that production
has failed to satisfy demand, notes Lester
Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute
He expects the world carry-over stocks of
grain, a basic measure of food security,
to fall to 57 days of consumption by the
end of this crop year. That level stands
as the shortest buffer since a 56-day-low
in 1956 doubled grain prices.
So prices could rise again.
Despite continued growth in world food output
with advances in science, technology,
and the application of knowledge, the
developing world still had 815 million
hungry people in 2002, only 9 million
less than in 1990, according to the Food
and Agricultural Organization. The number
of hungry people actually rose between
1997 and 2002.
Such facts often touch on the news.
Population pressure in Mexico, Central America,
and elsewhere has encouraged the flood
of illegal immigrants in the US, and thus
the ensuing national debate on possible
Warren Buffett, one of the world's wealthiest
men, undoubtedly recognized population-related
problems in announcing last week plans
to donate $37.4 billion of Berkshire Hathaway
Inc. stock to several foundations. These
include some he's created that emphasize
family planning, abortion rights, environmental
and conservation issues, and education
for low-income children.
Duke's Hopfenberg says he is not a modern-day
Malthusian predicting widespread famine.
In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, an ordained
minister of the Church of England, published
an "Essay on Population" that
became renowned. It maintained that unchecked
population growth always exceeds the growth
of means of subsistence. This leads to
"positive checks" of starvation,
disease, and the like, as well as "preventive
checks," such as postponement of
marriage that decreases births.
Hopfenberg postulates that human beings
are similar to other animals. As food
availability increases, the population
of animals and people will grow. As examples,
he cites research on Seychelles warblers,
musk shrews, rabbits, monkeys, etc. And
it isn't always starvation that brings
their population growth to an end. Some
animals regulate their fertility if food
In the case of humans, there must be widespread
recognition that population growth is
a function of increases in food availability,
Hopfenberg says. That understanding is
needed to bring about shifts in social,
political, educational, and religious
mind-sets. Otherwise, he speculates, increased
disease and death rates may ultimately
control population growth.
Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch
Institute in Washington, figures other
factors will brake population growth.
They include environmental changes, resource
restraints, and a decline in the quality
of life. World oil output is predicted
to peak within 15 years. Fresh water in
some areas is already in short supply.
Farmland is being chewed up by swelling
suburbia. Global warming, with its rising
sea levels, will force hundreds of millions
of people out of coastal regions in the
next century or so. As a result, Miami,
New York, and many other cities around
the world "will not exist in their
current form," Mr. Flavin predicts.
One way to boost the world's food supply
would be a change in eating habits. If
people ate more grains and vegetables
and less meat, the world could feed another
billion people, Flavin says.
The average American consumes 20 times as
much in natural resources as the average
African, he notes. If all the people in
the world consumed at the average level
of high-income countries, the planet could
sustainably support only 1.8 billion people
- not the actual 6.5 billion.
Hopfenberg doubts that measures to encourage
widespread family planning will adequately
restrain the world's population. Leaders
must put on their thinking caps to come
up with intelligent, creative, inventive
measures to discourage births, he says.
As it is, every 11 seconds the Census Bureau
clock adds another person to the US population.
The clock will tick faster.
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