Our Population Problem
* Warning: This post will have a few mild spoilers about Inferno by Dan Brown. If you don’t want to know anything about the plot, stop here.
So I just finished Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno. I’ll leave the review to someone else, but what intrigued me the most was the central plot of the book. The premise is that a genetic engineer has created some sort of virus aimed at controlling the world’s growing population and our hero, art historian and symbologist Robert Langdon, has to figure out all sorts of clues in an attempt to avert disaster. The MacGuffin in this story is a mysterious bag of goo floating in an undisclosed location, ready to wreak havoc on humanity.
In support of his plot Brown references some ideas that I found fascinating. The first is a prediction based on the work of 18th century scholar Thomas Malthus that says the world will eventually return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth has outpaced agricultural development. This is referred to as the ‘Malthusian catastrophe’. Malthus himself believed that variables would self-limit population growth but thus far those variables have not made any noticeable impact. A popular chart in some academic circles (and one also referenced in the book) can be seen below. This is a visual representation of world population growth over the last 1000 years (with a projection to 2050).
As noted, the world population rose above 1 billion for the first time around 1825. Less than 200 years later the number is expected to be closing in on 10 billion. This is an astounding increase that is the result of many factors. Population explosions coincided closely with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the gradual urbanization of societies. What is most important to keep in mind though is that ‘family planning’ has never been very successful, although in theory it should be more effective today with more options and better education. It’s hard to ascertain any kind of statistics about the number of unplanned pregnancies prior to the mid-20th century, however the last 30 years of data reveal an actual upswing in unplanned pregnancies.According to the CDC, about 50% of all U.S. pregnancies were unintended. By comparison this number was about 30% in 1982.
What is unsurprising is that unplanned pregnancies are higher among the poor, minorities and the less educated, however unplanned pregnancies among educated whites are still around 22%. That means that nearly 1 in 4 kids you see on the average suburban playground were probably unplanned. Looking beyond our own shores the numbers grow rapidly. India’s population is staggering and there are similar rates in much of the Third World. All of this combines to make some believe that Malthus may have been on the right track.
My opinion is that population growth will be a problem in some places but agricultural production will continue to keep pace. Large western countries like the U.S. will keep producing far more food than they need and as population growth rates are more stable, they can continue to feed much of the world for some time. Variables to consider are the influx of Hispanics and the continued growth of the African American population in the United States. Those two groups represent increased potential for population growth based on historical data.
One possibility, explored in Brown’s book, is the power of biological engineering to come up with potential solutions to population growth. Those solutions make come with serious moral questions, especially in countries where democracy is more of an ideal than a practice. In the meantime the conversation about global population numbers has any number of ancillary components. Outbreaks of disease like we are seeing in Africa right now with the Ebola epidemic may be nature’s way of controlling population numbers, or it may be a symptom of the problem itself.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.