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Billions and Billions

Kris Schnee

It’s a small world, after all.

The world’s population officially passed six billion last December, having tripled from two billion in 1927 and doubled from about three billion in 1969. The good news is that the rate of growth is now decreasing, and is about 1.4 percent in the industrialized world and 1.7 percent in the Third World. Some countries, like the United Kingdom, have even reached essentially zero population growth. But unfortunately, passing the mathematical inflection point has not magically solved the problem of too many people.

The increasingly crowded human population is already putting serious strains on the environment. The possibility of global warming is only the most publicized environmental problem. Forests are being destroyed as farmers clear more and more land for crops, even though the best farmland has already been taken. Some of the world’s fisheries are thought to be producing at or beyond the sustainable level, so that their yields could actually decrease as demand increases -- and marine pollution certainly isn’t helping the situation. Fresh water supplies are running short as well, requiring more money and energy for desalination plants. (Fusion power would greatly help that problem, among others.) In short, it is questionable whether the world can support even its present population indefinitely, let alone another few billion.

One proposed solution, which seems to be having some success, is the empowerment of women around the world -- a cultural and economic change. Organizations like the Grameen “microcredit” banks are helping Third World women start small businesses; women can greatly expand the role they play in society. International charities are also stressing access to birth control, another useful measure. Unfortunately, providing these services to the Third World ties the population issue to that of abortion; Congress has been trying to block U.S. funding for abortions abroad, and it is unclear whether their benefit outweighs the cost.

While these programs are helping to reduce the human “footprint” on the world, they may not be enough. The U.N. hopes to keep the world population as low as 7.9 billion by 2050, but it’s possible that it could rise to 12 billion instead. Is government action needed?

The rulers of China think so. Since 1979 the Chinese government has limited most parents to one child per family. This draconian policy has helped to keep the nation’s numbers down, but has generated new problems, including a skewed male/female ratio (parents sometimes abort or abandon girls, dooming many men to datelessness in the future) and an unsustainable support system for the elderly (the same story as in the aging U.S.).

And what about India? This country, despite being less than half the size of the United States, has a present population of about one billion -- which could double within fifty years. The average Indian woman today has three or four children, and that’s down from six in 1950. The government announced this month a new policy of incentives for poor families to have no more than two children -- not by force (although that was considered during the 1970s), but by economic benefits for small families.

Given that the United States and other First World nations are within sight of a steady population (but for immigration, a major issue in its own right), why would Americans care about the global population issue? Part of the reason is sheer self-interest: an extra few billion people in the world will put even more strain on our air and water. And if those billions all try to achieve American living standards, using the same amounts of resources, the results could be disastrous. And constant rapid population growth can wipe out any economic gains a society achieves; wealth may curb growth, but it’s hard for families with six children to grow wealthy.

If we ever want the Third World to live in peace without need for constant American aid, people in the world’s poor countries must choose to limit their growth. It’s ultimately up to them how (and whether) they do it, but we would be wise to watch and encourage their efforts, for our own sake as well as theirs.