Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Population Growth Primer
Alan AtKisson, 2 Dec 03

Here's a little context-setter for Worldchangers everywhere: three important numbers to stick in the back of your head.




The first number is the current population growth rate on planet Earth. What does 1.22% mean? It means population growth has slowed dramatically, down from its peak of 2.1% in the late 1960s.

First impressions are deceiving if you think there is little difference between those two numbers. A growth rate of 2.1% translates to a doubling of the population in less than 35 years. If we still had a 2.1% growth rate, and it held steady, we'd have over 12 billion global friends and neighbors by 2040.

The current rate of 1.22% means a doubling time of nearly sixty years (the trick: divide 72 by the percentage rate to get the doubling time -- works for your savings account as well, by the way). And the rate is falling. So it is increasingly unlikely that we will have 12 billion people in this century ... though it's still mathematically possible, of course. (In a future posting, we'll look at whether it's feasible to feed 12 billion and still have a working planet.)

But the really amazing number is 6 -- that's about how many times faster the poor world is growing (1.46%) compared to the rich world (0.25%).

So ... the "other world that's here"? We could say that there are two of them. One is the cool tech bloom world, powered by IT and caffeine-induced creativity. The other is the village world, many babies, increasing pressure to find good water, etc.

Rich World is starting to try to move away from "growth" and toward pure "development" -- dramatic change without added throughput. (Or even reduced throughput.)

Poor World? That world is still growing like crazy. That's why phrases like "sustainable development" in many parts of Poor World usually mean "economic growth that can keep up with population growth, hopefully while not destroying our environment totally."

But population growth in Poor World is, thankfully, also slowing down.

What will help it slow down further? More of what's worked to slow it down so far. Education and empowerment for women. Jobs for young people. Good health care. Reliable and plentiful food and water. Tangible proof to all concerned that they have a future where security is not measured in the number of children you've produced, and where you can be reasonably assured that the children you do produce will survive to happy adulthood.

Anybody up for a coffee-all-nighter to harness Tech Bloom ever tighter to the solving of global poverty issues? That's a kind of sub-text you'll running through many of the entries on this site ...

For an excellent summary of population trends, see the recent review article by leading demographer Joel Cohen in the journal Science.

Bookmark and Share


Feeding 12 billion. Well it seems to me that we only have a population problem if our consumption levels are at Western levels. We ought to explore what we can learn from other cultures, those we label 'poor' - in that it's pretty much Western energy consumption patterns that are causing us to talking about a 'population' problem anyways right? Am I being naive?

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 2 Dec 03

Quite so. Ecological Footprints of nations and so forth.
But I hasten to add the frightening decline of agricultural land *worldwide* as a factor that may affect consumption and population levels in both worlds. I'd love to know of other initiatives that, like the Land Institute, are working to match industrial ag yields with 'regenerative' polyculture. I might be being naive by ascribing this much weight to agriculture. What I mean to say is that things are unsustainable already at six billion: the human ecological impact is a factor of numbers as well as consumption.

Also - one interesting, unexpected point that E.O. Wilson made in The Future of Life:
"..decline in global population growth is attributable to three interlocking social forces: the globalization of an economy driven by science and technology, the consequent implosion of rural populations to cities, and, as a result of globalization and urban implosion, the empowerment of women. The freeing of women socially and economically results in fewer children... women, more prosperous and less shackled, could have chosen the satisfactions of a larger brood. They did the opposite. They opted for a smaller number of children, who can be raised with better health and education, over a large family... The tendency appears to be very widespread, if not universal."

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 2 Dec 03

Dawn, that's why I was dubious about the Jeffery Sachs claim that urbanisation is a good idea.

Kufunda Village in Zim is a really cool experiment as they're very serious about permaculture and are fast coming to the point of starting to sell veggies to the local markets. They have their own animals so are becoming self-sufficient which is interesting when the infrastructure around you is falling apart.

I also came across some really cool rooftop farming initiaves in India. Will try and dig out some refs.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 2 Dec 03

"we only have a population problem if our consumption levels are at Western levels..."

Well, man, I just don't think this is true.

The ecological footprints of different societies certainly differ: there's a huge difference between the global average (of something like 2.4 hectares/ person) and the North American lifestyle (weighing in at a bloated 10 or more). But there's also a sizable gap between the global average and global per capita sustainable footprint (which is like 1.7).

The richer world side of the equation needs to be balanced. Over-consumption of resources is a dire problem. I don't think we can solve that problem through behavior change, but that's another debate.

But the fact of the matter is that traditional lifestyles in many developing countries are unsustainable. They've never been sustainable (as far as I know environmental historians have yet to find an example of a society which didn't degrade its habitat, *ever*, *anywhere*), but now they have many more people using the same ecological base. Just because Afghanis use only .6 of an acre per person doesn't mean that traditional Afghani land use is sustainable. In fact, from what I read, the environment in Afghanistan is pretty comprehensively and perhaps permanently screwed: massive erosion, water pollution, soil degredation and nearly complete deforestation. (Not that two decades of war have helped that, but those problems were underway long before the Soviets showed up). Older doesn't mean better. Adding massive population growth (itself in part a by-product of modern medicine and sanitation) to traditional practices has generally produced not more sustainable societies but ecological meltdown. The fuse to that meltdown sometimes burns slowly, but it's still burning.

We ought to be really clear that we have a population problem *today*. If every person on the planet lived like a Brazilian (at 3.1), we'd still be in real trouble.

And the fact of the matter is, people want to live better than that. The 'disease' of modern affluence, as I once heard an activist call it, has a nearly 100% infection rate. Even places like Bhutan (which has in this regard the rare advantages of extreme remoteness and autarchy) are coming down with it. How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Baywatch and ridden on the back of their friend's scooter? You aren't.

We're living way, way past the limits here, my friends. In fact, the limits are rapidly disappearing in the rear-view mirror and we're speeding up.

As far as I can see, the only realistic choice is one that is only now becoming possible: relatively prosperous and massive urban areas designed sustainably and fueled by new technologies which are at least an order of magnitude better than those in common use (which I suspect will take better design, engineering breakthroughs, lots of biotech and nanotech and a whole jumpin' mess of collaboration and democratic innovation). Any sustainable future (at least any sustainable future that doesn't involve massive die-offs and ecological collapses happening first - lots of ways to garden peacefully in the ruins) is a densely-urban, post-industrialized, high-tech, neo-biological future.

And with 12 billion that project gets a whole lot more difficult, while traditional societies will complete the meltdown almost all of them are now in the process of having.

Long post. Sorry. But I really strongly disagree with the often-expressed ideas that "huge populations not the problem, consumption is" or that "everything would be okay if we just lived like the simple (insert your favorite pre-industrial society's name here) people." I think those are geo-suidical beliefs, in fact.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Dec 03

Alex, I think that you need to at least try and understand the notion of population from the perspective of a Third Worlder - regardless of right or wrong.

High consumption patterns are set by the West, or the forces of modernity if you prefer. Population growth is taking place in the Third World.

Western governments cannot solve the consumption problem at home because the electorate won't have it. Third World populations are largely defensless in the face of Western power. Solution to global problem? Make it a Third World problem. Force the Third World to change _its_ behaviour. Development is a dirty word ("a whore of a word") because it's seen in a very cynical light in the Third World. It's seen as an attempt to preserve Western privileges at the expense of the Third World.

This makes people angry.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 2 Dec 03

I do understand that - though I welcome the reminder - but I also think that there's an element of this which is ideology trumping self-interest.

Clearly, though, "development" as peddled has too often been something even worse than what you suggest: the active impoverishment of developing nations for the profit of developed-world multinational corporations and their shareholders. I think this is one of our planet's root problems.

But simply opting-out of modernity is no solution at all. That's why I find the upswelling of home-grown development models (for instance, what the Lula administration is doing in Brazil) so hopeful and intriguing.

That make sense?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Dec 03

No, opting out is not an option - well it is but it's not one either of us think is useful.

I think coming up with post-industrial solutions is though.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 2 Dec 03

Fascinating. Where should I go to find more information on some of these ideas?

Posted by: Peter on 3 Dec 03

Hey Peter. Thanks for reminding us to share what we know. Stay tuned: we'll post some recommendations to various ideas we've been kicking around...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Dec 03



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg