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Special National Geographic Series: 7 Billion

Robert Kunzig, National Geographic
… Historians now estimate that in Leeuwenhoek’s day there were only half a billion or so humans on Earth. After rising very slowly for millennia, the number was just starting to take off. A century and a half later, when another scientist reported the discovery of human egg cells, the world’s population had doubled to more than a billion. A century after that, around 1930, it had doubled again to two billion. The acceleration since then has been astounding. Before the 20th century, no human had lived through a doubling of the human population, but there are people alive today who have seen it triple. Sometime in late 2011, according to the UN Population Division, there will be seven billion of us. (Pictures: Population 7 Billion.)

And the explosion, though it is slowing, is far from over. Not only are people living longer, but so many women across the world are now in their childbearing years—1.8 billion—that the global population will keep growing for another few decades at least, even though each woman is having fewer children than she would have had a generation ago. By 2050 the total number could reach 10.5 billion, or it could stop at eight billion—the difference is about one child per woman. UN demographers consider the middle road their best estimate: They now project that the population may reach nine billion before 2050—in 2045. The eventual tally will depend on the choices individual couples make when they engage in that most intimate of human acts, the one Leeuwenhoek interrupted so carelessly for the sake of science.

With the population still growing by about 80 million each year, it’s hard not to be alarmed. Right now on Earth, water tables are falling, soil is eroding, glaciers are melting, and fish stocks are vanishing. Close to a billion people go hungry each day. Decades from now, there will likely be two billion more mouths to feed, mostly in poor countries. There will be billions more people wanting and deserving to boost themselves out of poverty. If they follow the path blazed by wealthy countries—clearing forests, burning coal and oil, freely scattering fertilizers and pesticides—they too will be stepping hard on the planet’s natural resources. How exactly is this going to work? …
(February 2011)
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A world too full of people – let’s invest in family planning

Mary Fitzgerald, New Statesman
Politicians of western countries avoid talking about population control, but if we invest in family planning we might just save our planet.

… Women such as Leucadia are on the front line of the struggle against climate change, according to Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute. But her plight as a mother dramatises an issue that was largely ignored at the UN summit in Copenhagen last December and is also missing from the agenda of the UN summit in Mexico (COP16), scheduled for late this year. It is the problem of human numbers.

It is predicted that, if the global population continues to grow at the present rate, the world will need the resources of a second earth to sustain it by 2050. Today, there are 6.9 billion people on the planet; in 40 years, this figure will reach 9.2 billion. Most political leaders, however, are reluctant to examine the matter. The term “population control” has connotations too sinister for many, even though it can simply mean sensible family planning.

It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of all pregnancies around the world are unintended; addressing this could make a vital difference. Research from the Optimum Population Trust, whose patrons include the environmentalists David Attenborough, James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt, suggests that, for every $7 (£4.50) spent on basic family planning services over the next 40 years, global CO2 emissions could be reduced by more than a tonne. It would cost a minimum of $32 (£20.50) to achieve the same result with low-carbon technologies.

Between now and 2050, meeting the world’s family planning needs could save up to 34 gigatonnes of CO2 – nearly 60 times the UK’s annual total.
(30 August 2010)
I’m disturbed by how population advocates evade the “sinister connotations” of population control. Since the time of Malthus, there have been terrible abuses – for example British indifference to famines in Ireland and India. The suspicions are not imaginary and need to be addressed. If this aspect of the population issue is not brought out into the open, it will discredit the movement. -BA

Biology’s Bomb: Graphing ‘Explosive’ Population Growth in Cold War Textbooks

Ronald Ladouceur, Climate & Capitalism
… from the publication of George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology in 1914 on, students had been taught that America had a “population problem.” But for the first four decades of the twentieth century, that problem wasn’t runaway growth, it was “differential reproduction.” Pre-war biology textbooks in fact warned that total population would level off by 1970 (see graph below), and when it did, the “quality” of the population would begin to decline if present fertility trends continued. The threat wasn’t one of too many babies. The threat was that too many babies were being born to the ‘wrong’ people – the poor, the criminal, the so-called ‘feeble-minded,’ the swarthy and the black

… Brown, writing in 1954, was among the last science popularizers to speak positively of eugenics, or was at least one of the last to use the word ‘eugenics’ when speaking positively of reproductive management. Growing race, class and (later) gender consciousness, along with a surprisingly slow-to-develop association between the holocaust and eugenics, rendered the word generally unacceptable by the end of the decade (see “The Day Eugenics Died”).

Through the 1950s, no one worked harder than the great naturalist Marston Bates to separate reproductive management from its eugenic roots.

… In 1994, the Cold War conceptualization of population growth as a crisis that could be managed only by aggressive counterattack, itself came under attack. At that year’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the focus shifted from “bombs” and sterilization to women’s rights and female empowerment. Reintroduced to the debate was the “S-curve,” or the “logistic curve” first advanced by Raymond Pearl in the 1920s (see “A ‘Law of Growth’: The Logistic Curve and Population Control since World War II” by Sabine Hohler). Declining fertility rates suggested a leveling of population growth toward a new normal sometime in the following century. And it was proposed that the motor of that leveling would be increased control by women of their individual wealth and reproductive health.

Today, a few observers worry that the green movement is infected by a neo-eugenic ideology, particularly when it targets the populous poor as a dangerous source of future carbon. They suggest that debate over population control should be erased from the movement’s agenda.

… The consensus view is that human population will top out at slightly fewer than 10 billion people, a number that would have scared the pajamas off of Karl Sax, William Vogt, Fairfield Osborn, Marston Bates and Hugh Moore. But by focusing on growth rate rather than gross numbers, the graph suggests not an explosion, but a quieting, and oddly, an almost sad resignation.

Ronald Ladouceur is an independent scholar interested in the intersection of history, science and visual rhetoric. He is the author of “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks,” published in the Journal of the History of Biology (2008), as well as more than 3 dozen related articles on his blog, Textbook History.
(2 February 2011)