Is There Really a Population Crisis?
“WE’RE at a point in history that’s never even been dreamed of before,’’ says noted authority William F. Draper concerning the oft-predicted population crisis. “It’s just going to engulf the world.”—Science, March 1, 1974.
What is behind such dire predictions of a world population calamity, which are now echoed by growing numbers of experts? Are they merely the clamorings of alarmists? Their gloomy forecasts have been widely questioned on the ground that they have ignored offsetting forces. Furthermore, it is argued, man’s ingenuity has always prevailed before, has it not?
But population authorities claim that this problem is different from anything mankind has faced before. It is deceptive, they say, because of the way population grows. Rather than a steady, even expansion, it feeds on itself, mushrooming dramatically until, suddenly, the limits of the environment are said to be reached.
How Population Grows
What happens can be illustrated by the anecdote about a man who agreed to work for one cent the first week if his employer would double his income every week thereafter: 2c, 4c, 8c, and so on. At the end of three months he would have only about $80. But, due to the “doubling” effect, from this deceptively slow start the man would have made over $45,000,000,000,000 by the end of a year, if the world’s money supply were not exhausted!
Population grows in a similar fashion, though many other factors enter as well. It took thousands of years for earth to gain its first billion humans, in about the middle of the last century. Yet it took less than a hundred years to double that population! Just thirty more years brought another billion into the world, and fifteen years will have produced the fourth billion, in 1975! The fifth billion? Experts estimate little more than a decade—barring a “miracle”—or a disaster.
Currently, the “doubling time” of earth’s population is under thirty-five years, but that time has been shrinking! The 1974 edition of The Encyclopædia Britannica points out that certain parts of the world are now experiencing a young population “endowed with both a high birthrate and a low deathrate. Such a condition if it lasted very long would result in earth’s population being multiplied 32,000 times in only 500 years.”—Vol. 14, p. 816.
Imagine! Over 200 persons have been added to the world since you started reading this article, about 150 a minute. A city of some 200,000 since this time yesterday, a metropolis of over six million every month, or a nation the size of West Germany every year could be populated! Just think what it takes to feed, shelter, clothe, educate and provide jobs for 78 million people in one year!
Can the World Absorb Them?
The world’s ability to meet these demands grows, but not as rapidly as the population. Shortages now jolting the world are said to prove that mankind is falling behind in the race. Snowballing demands on agriculture, education, housing and other needs have brought the world from abundance to scarcity in just a few short years. Unprecedented inflation even in the wealthy “developed nations” testifies to these shortages.
Further aggravating the situation is the fact that population is now growing more than twice as rapidly in the poor “less developed nations” as it does in the rich industrial ones. Since there are already nearly three times as many people in the poor countries, they must absorb most of the overall population increase. And the half of the world’s population under twenty years of age are living primarily in those countries. Think what a baby boom could lie ahead for them!
More and more persons must share virtually the same limited resources. Growing inequalities result. This process is called “polarization,” a widening gap between opposites. In simpler terms, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Consider:
● Last year’s total value of all goods and services, or gross national product, in the 128 poorer countries was far less than the increase alone in 21 wealthy nations.
● World grain production would have to grow eightfold if the rest of the world were to eat as well as North Americans.
● There are now 100 million more illiterate persons in the world than there were in 1950.
● Less than a third of earth’s people consume over nine tenths of the world’s energy, while more than two thirds must get along on the remaining 8 percent.
How successful are efforts to narrow the gap? A report to the 1974 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted that usually, when underdeveloped countries try to increase the educational level of their citizens and redistribute the wealth through land reform, productivity drops and they fall farther behind the developed nations.
As a result, says president of the World Bank Robert S. McNamara, this planet is like a ship with a quarter of its people in “luxury first-class conditions” and the other three quarters in “steerage,” the lowest-class accommodations. He said that it cannot be a “happy ship” with such inequities. Instead, it has become a breeding ground for hunger, misery, economic chaos and political ferment. Will world leaders find a solution? Some authorities believe it is already too late.
Growing numbers of experts believe that the crisis is rapidly coming to a head. Some even adopt a fatalistic attitude, foreseeing only a “death-rate” solution to the birthrate problem. One forecast, based on the assessment of “most experts on energy, agriculture, population and the global economy,” is that “a billion people, or fully a quarter of the earth’s population, face bankruptcy, social breakdown and mass famine within the next twelve months.”—The Denver Post, March 3, 1974.
Whether such predictions prove true or not, growing unrest over food shortages and high prices in India and the still-raging famine in Africa provide a melancholy background for their assessment. An official in Bangladesh, whose seventy-five million population is three times as dense as India’s, says that “unless we can control population here quickly, we can’t control anything. It is interwoven with our very existence, our survival as a nation.”
Social conduct is reported to be badly deteriorating in south Asia and parts of Latin America. News reports tell of “unexpected hoarding among farmers,” as well as widespread black marketing. “There is unprecedented adulteration of foods by merchants” to make them stretch farther, “sometimes with [poisonous] adulterants.” Another report says: “Bands of youths, armed with guns left over from the 1971 war, are roaming the towns and countryside in Bangladesh, committing antisocial activities unprecedented for the sensitive Bengali people.” Similarly, “bands of roving children, called ‘abandonados,’ now roam the streets of some Latin American cities like . . . packs of abandoned dogs.”
Some authorities believe that the population problem will probably make a “test case” of south Asia. One says: “The quality of life in this region has already begun to decline, with the fabric of society unraveling. And no man has been wise enough to think of a solution.”
This is certainly not because of lack of effort. Solutions have been and are being tried. What is happening to them?
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POPULATION GROWTH SINCE 1600 C.E.
[Picture on page 3]
7 Births Every Minute: Bangladesh’s Biggest Long-Range Problem
THE NEW YORK TIMES, February 1, 1974
Population Growth a Threat
THE DAILY OKLAHOMAN, November 6, 1973
DEPOPULATE OR PERISH
SUNDAY INDEPENDENT, October 21, 1973
Globe Is Overabundant in One Item: Population
LOS ANGELES TIMES, December 9, 1973
The Next Crises: Population and Resources
THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 22, 1973