Monday, April 28, 2008

Sensing the Census, Circa 2050

6.7 to 9.2. Billion. The difference between these two numbers is the projected global population increase between now and 2050. I’ve seen these same figures (or close approximations) mindlessly repeated on a plethora of popular blogs and Web sites, but no one seems to be questioning the validity of this false premise.

Sure, in theory the global population could increase by roughly 45-50% over 40 years, providing that all the conditions that support the theory are at optimum levels. The only problem with the “everything’s perfect” scenario is that everything’s not. When all of the negatives are factored into the equation the theory doesn’t hold up.

Take the current population, for instance. As it approaches 7 billion people, it’s already exceeded sustainable numbers by 4‒5 billion. If the world cannot sustain the people that are already here, how can it possibly accommodate 2‒3 billion more?

The short answer is that it can’t, for reasons that are—or will soon become—obvious.

As a growing global population increases the demand for energy, timber, food, water and other resources, it sets into motion a series of causes and effects that produce some interesting but altogether predictable results.

For example, increased energy use fuels the rise of energy prices and contributes to global climate changes and higher costs for food production, processing, packaging, transportation, and storage; global climate changes affect the abundance and availability of potable water, alter growing seasons, and redefine the boundaries between arable and non-arable land.

When timber is removed from forest lands to clear the way for agriculture or to supply the housing market with building materials or with buildable land, the loss of potential for carbon sequestration introduces positive feedback loops that exacerbate global climate change. Vicious circles, ‘round and ‘round they go.

Growing demand for energy, food, and other vital resources increases the likelihood of wars between nations to obtain these resources. The potential loss of human life due to war, disease, famine, and a laundry list of pending environmental and climate disasters means that the global population in the year 2050 is far more likely to be under 3 billion people than it is to be over 7 billion people. No way will it ever exceed 9 billion people.

Face it! We’ve been cursed. We do, indeed, live in interesting times, and the times are about to get even more interesting. We’ve taunted the piper into playing, now pay the piper we must.