“If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species.”
These are the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug. He died last year at the age of 95. His agricultural research saved hundreds of millions of people from starvation.
He received that Nobel Prize in 1970, the same year that Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated the first Earth Day. Back then, the world’s population was growing by about 75 million people per year. Today, some 40 years later, it is growing by even more.
Now, we’ve made progress since 1970—and since 1968 when Stanford University’s Dr. Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which led to the creation of our group, then called Zero Population Growth, now Population Connection. The rate of population growth has halved since 1970—from 2% to 1.1%.
Then and now, Dr. Ehrlich was a scientist, not a soothsayer. And he did what all good scientists do, which is to develop a theory or thesis based upon the available data.
Since then, the world has continued to change. And the attention that Dr. Ehrlich drew to population growth has helped to change that world—just as the attention Sen. Nelson drew to the environment helped to change our world—in both cases for the better.
But environmental challenges persist. And new ones have surfaced over the past 40 years.
When it comes to population growth, many claim that the problem is behind us. The facts at hand show this is not the case.
Every day we add more than 200,000 people to the world population just as we did back in 1970. That’s roughly equal to another Madison every single day, another Milwaukee every three days.
Virtually all of this population growth occurs in the poorest places on earth, places when one billion people struggle to survive on less than one dollar day.
They are poor. And they are hungry. For most of them hunger is not a passing sensation but a constant daily reality. Some stave off their hunger by eating dirt biscuits, a concoction made mostly from, yes, dirt, which at least provides the sensation of fullness without any much-needed nourishment.
Consider the words of a man from Bedsa, Egypt who said, “Lack of work worries me. My children were hungry and I told them the rice is cooking, until they fell asleep from hunger."
Throughout these forty years, we’ve seen an argument, if you will, played out over and over. On one side are those who seek to raise the alarm about the consequences of rapid population growth. On the other side are those who contend technology will surmount this problem.
Will that happen? Will technology alone save the day? Dr. Borlaug didn’t think so. In his Nobel acceptance speech he warned of the consequences of rapid population growth.
Maybe the day will arrive when advances in agricultural technology will solve the global hunger crisis. But that day is not today. Today is the day that hundreds of millions of people will go to bed hungry. And they will get up tomorrow morning hungry. Today is the day that thousands of children will die from hunger-related causes.
Some contend that there is plenty of food to go around, that it’s just a distribution problem. I guess the same can be said of wealth. Here in the U.S., the per capita income is about $47,000 per year. Worldwide it’s about $8,000. So, by that line of reasoning, all we need to do is share the wealth as it were. Slash our incomes by 80% to about $8,000, share the rest, and voila, problem solved. To quote the great comedic author P. G. Wodehouse, that contingency seems remote. In the real world, in today’s world, people in sub-Saharan Africa survive on less than $1,000 year, on average. In others words their annual income is about the same as the weekly income in the U.S. In many parts of Africa it is far worse than that. In the Congo it’s less than $300 year. Does anyone think that people can meet all their needs for food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and all the rest on a dollar day? Well that’s what one billion of us must do. Incidentally it’s not that money goes farther in poor places. The economists use something called Purchasing Power Parity to equalize the value of goods, so for one billion of us it’s just like trying to survive in Madison on less than one dollar a day. Not a dollar a day, less than dollar a day.
What does the future hold? According to UN population projections, not predictions, projections, by 2050 the world population, which now stands at more than 6.8 billion will increase to somewhere between 8 and 11 billion people. Let’s consider the spread in those numbers. The difference between the high and low projections is three billion. So, in a world which already has one billion or more hungry people, we must figure out how to feed them, plus feed somewhere between an additional one billion and four billion additional people.
The range in population projections by 2050, which is three billion, is the same as the total world population was in 1960. It’s equal to the population today of the entire world except Asia. That’s what’s in play, about three billion people.
So depending on what we do or do not do, on what happens over the next 40 years, we may have the additional challenge of feeding another North America, Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Or we may not.
So what can we do?
Population growth is the only global challenge I know of where the following three things are all true.
- We know the solution;
- It’s relatively inexpensive;
- Women everywhere want it.
Times have changed. President Obama rescinded the Global Gag Rule. He restored funding for UN family planning programs. Last year, thanks to President Obama and to a majority in Congress, we saw a 40% increase in funds for international family planning.
According to the Global Health Council, this increase of $180 million will result in:
- 1.6 million fewer unplanned births;
- 1.4 million fewer abortions;
- 110,000 fewer Infant deaths.
And that’s all in a single year. And all for about 60 cents per year for each person in the U.S.
So, money matters. And Congress holds the purse strings.
Some year ago, Dr. Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University researched and wrote a book with the title How Many People Can the Earth Support? In it he reviewed every study of the subject conducted over the past 400 years. After much work, he arrived at the reasoned conclusion that there is no answer to the question. Or rather the answer lies in two other questions. How do we wish to live? And how do we want others to live?
As Dr. Cohen put it:
“The real issue with population is not just numbers of people, although numbers matter and statistics give us quantitative insight and prevent us from making fools of ourselves. The real crux of the population question is the quality of people’s lives; the ability of people to participate in what it means to be really human; to work, play and die with dignity; to have some sense that one’s life has meaning and is connected with other people’s lives. That, to me, is the essence of the population problem.”We no longer have the luxury of focusing on “one big thing” whether it’s climate change or food production or biodiversity. If not expert, we must all become knowledgeable, about areas outside our own disciplines. We must get outside our own comfort zones. We must look beyond the borders of our gardens, our towns, our cities, our states, and our nation. As Sen. Nelson understood so well, we simply cannot afford to avoid challenges simply because they are too big, too controversial, too complex, too far away. To quote an old recycling maxim, there is no longer an “away” to throw things, nor is there an “away” to stow problems. Everything is right here. And everything is right now. Our actions can and will create a better, safer, less-crowded world. But only if we choose to learn, only if we choose to act.