Monday, January 30, 2006

Beer, Clothing, and Pet Food

In 1967 the population of the United States reached 200 million. Life magazine, among others, featured the arrival of the baby that supposedly was number 200 million. This coming October it's expected that an infant will be born bringing us to 300 million, ranking the U.S. third in population after China and India. Will there be the same interest in 2006 as there was in 1967?

The Director for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in the United States, wrote an article in which he expressed his fervent belief that pesticides and biotechnology will allow food production to keep pace with growing world population. The writer accepts the generally held belief that by 2050 we will have added another 3 billion people to the planet. The author warns, however, that "eco-extremists" and the "con of the 'organic utopia' " must not be allowed to confuse consumers; otherwise we will not be able to meet world food demand.

Others, possibly less politically conservative, speak of the next generation of computers and the potential of nanotechnology that could lead us to creative new design structures and innovative energy efficiencies, thus allowing us to adapt to all sorts of things, possibly even to extreme climate change, which we humans have likely contributed to.

But something about all of this seems shopworn, so familiar, and fraying around the edges. Feudalism and the "divine" right of kings were considered sacrosanct and clearly representing the best of all worlds once upon a time. Is a poverty of imagination our real problem?

The Hudson Institute article assumes that the world can sustain the same traditional market economy. Individual income growth will expand with rising population, according to the article, and we are going to have to meet the expanding worldwide desire for products like "beer, clothing and pet food." Apparently nothing is really going to change.

Will advertisers convince teenagers in Mali that they can't be truly happy without cell phones? The mining companies in the Congo certainly stand ready to step up their digging of coltan, the metallic ore with the unique properties for storing electrical charges necessary for cell phones to function. Yes there are numerous adverse environmental consequences ... but maybe technology will somehow save the day once again. Can the developing world use more of our discarded computers? Perhaps we could give free psychotropic drugs to the 9 billion people in 2050, so that for one day a week all of us on planet Earth might believe this is the best of all possible worlds.

I'm waiting for the next generation of thinkers. Now that idea is exciting.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Not To Worry

Whatever happened to that population "bomb"? More than thirty years ago a biologist by the name of Paul Ehrlich wrote a best selling book entitled The Population Bomb. He predicted that famine and mass starvation would be the lot of the human race because of overpopulation on planet Earth, and likely beginning in the late 1970s. Thomas Malthus, an Englishman, some 200 years before Ehrlich, also predicted dire consequences due to increasing population. Well, it didn't come to pass. There's hardly a whisper about growing world population today. Not to worry?

The word sustainability is on everyone's lips; technological breakthroughs appear on websites and various blogs almost daily. It is de rigueur among corporations to now speak forcefully about "greening." Even the remarkable disaster currently dwelling in the White House mentions environmental responsibility from time to time. But only a soft murmur is heard about all these people easing their way out of the birth canal every day. No big deal?

At the time of Caesar Augustus in the first century there were slightly less than one billion people living on the planet. Some 1,800 years later we had just about one billion people wandering around. One hundred-twenty three years later we had 2 billion people using the planet's resources. In 1960, thirty years later, we had 3 billion people spreading out across the third planet from the sun. Today there are 6.5 billion Homo sapiens on Earth. Where's the footprint? Is there one?

The United Nations believes it's possible that nine billion people will inhabit this world by 2050, an extra 200,000 people each day. Others estimate that we could have 12 billion inhabitants on the globe before population finally levels off. Some conservation groups believe we're utilizing around 20% more renewable resources than we'll be able to restore each year. Will we all eat cake?

China has clearly demonstrated that a police state--at least in the short run--can create a vibrant form of capitalism. I-Pods and designer jeans will always trump free speech and environmental accountability ... at least in the short run. Of course we can sustain several billion more people on our one and only planet as long as we are far more energy efficient, reorder world priorities, quickly reduce superstition and ignorance, and accept an overall lower standard of living within perhaps the next 50 to 100 years. Not to worry. But what if we had only 5 billion people taking up space in 2050? And, what if we seriously started talking about population control--oh, I mean family planning.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Yellow Brick Road

Time to "think" about throwing the witches and the wizards out of the castle windows in 2006, and not only in America. While individual and local change need to be encouraged even more, carbon dioxide, melting ice, and polluted rivers don't much care about an individual or the exemplary village. Voluntary efforts ought to be praised, but stateless global institutions usually need to be kicked into action. Don't be afraid of taking the smile off the politician's face if he or she never delivers. Stop making excuses for religious fascism anywhere in the world. And of course China and India--with more than a quarter of the world's population--are not entitled to any free ride, in order to "catch up." May the year be interesting.