This page uses JavaScripts. Please enable javascript or you may be missing functionality or navigation. Population Explosion

Bruce W. Jones
(References omitted)

      The connections between death, technology and the population explosion may not be obvious at first, but think about it for a moment. Our technology, especially our medical advances, have helped us to prolong life. The old diseases and plagues that helped to limit the size of the human race have been either overcome, or their severity has been reduced significantly.

      Infant mortality has dropped drastically. Many other countries have done a better job at this than the United States, but our infant mortality statistics are improving, too. What that means is that more and more of the people who are born live long enough to produce children of their own.

      Population is an issue of technology for at least three reasons.

      1. Technology has allowed us to live longer, so that our numbers have increased.

      2. Our technological lifestyles mean that each one of us has more impact on the environment than our ancestors did. We consume more resources, both renewable and non-renewable. We eat more and wear out our clothes faster, and we use up more of the world's supply of oil and iron. We also have greater impact on the environment in the sense that we leave behind more plastic bags, glass bottles and nonbiodegradable waste.

      3. Population is a technological issue in the way we think about it. We have come to expect technology to solve the problems for us.

The subject of population growth is firmly linked to death and technology.

      And US population is increasing dramatically. All of us are aware of these changes, but we have not really begun, yet, to think about all the implications.

      For most of the history of the world, having more children was a good thing. You needed more hands to help you do the work on the farm. You needed children who would take care of you in your old age. Today, that is no longer true, at least in the more developed parts of the world. Today, we have nearly 6 billion people in the world, and the number grows by almost 100 million each year.

      Population growth is perhaps the most pervasive and least recognized problem in the world. No one writes editorials about it. Political parties do not put it in their platforms. And yet, it affects every other problem we must deal with. Almost every problem I can think of is either worsened or made insolubable if our world population continues to grow at its present rate. And we are doing virtually nothing to reduce that rate.

      In my opinion, urban violence is partly a result of overcrowding in our cities. If that is true, then longer jail terms will not help. Building more prisons will not help. Continuing our futile war on drugs will not help. It is what I call the "baby chick" phenomenon. If you put too many baby chickens in an enclosed space, they will start pecking each other. Human beings react the same way. It is not that complicated to understand, but no one is talking about it.

There are only three variables that affect population size:

mortality (death rate) and
fertility (birth rate).

      For most of the history of the world, mortality kept the other two factors under control. All of that changed when we began to find new ways to extend the human lifespan.

      Actually, the most important factor was the reduction in infant mortality. Eighty-year-old women do not have babies, but any child who survives long enough to bear children of her own can add to the world population.

      During the baby boom era, from 1947 to 1964, American women averaged between 3 and 4 live births. World War II also brought a host of new wonder drugs and improvement in medical care, so that most of those children grew up to become adults to produce children of their own.

      It is hard to talk about the population problem, because almost everything that can be said is politically incorrect. People use code-words to disguise their prejudices, so that we do not even have a common vocabulary any more with which to discuss our differences. Words mean different things to different persons. Any discussion about birth rate is clouded by conflicts over abortion.

      People will suspect you of having a hidden agenda. One one side, many pro-life activists equate family planning with abortion, or at least they are opposed to both. Pro-life people may fear that family planning is just a cover for pushing abortion on demand. On the other side, some feminists say that a woman's choice to bear children is absolute, and no one should meddle with it.

      Discussion of immigration is made difficult because of the pervasive racism in America. Almost any statement in favor of limiting immigration can be interpreted as racist, and some of those statements may have been intended as racist. I am sure that some of the people who want to limit immigration into the United States have racist motives, but is that true for all of them? I don't think so.

      Those who talk about reducing birthrates within the US may also have racist motives, because the highest birthrates, currently, are among African-Americans and Hispanics. Do they really want to reduce all birthrates, or just reduce the non-white birthrates? And, at the same time, it would be a great tragedy to ignore the population problem because of those fears.

      Actually, birthrates are more a function of education than race. Among American women who are not high school graduates, there is a big gap between whites and non-whites. The gap narrows among high-school graduates, and by the time you get to those with one year of college, there is only a slight difference between whites and blacks and Hispanics.

      Third-world countries show a similar dynamic. Poor and uneducated women want very large families. As they have more education, they marry later, and they have fewer children throughout their lifetimes. Often the change is more dramatic in developing countries than in the US.

      I keep mentioning countries outside the US, because I don't think we can solve this problem by isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. We could not seal off our borders, even if we wanted to. The AIDS virus did not need a passport to enter the US.

      We depend so much on world trade to provide jobs for Americans that it would be impossible for us to isolate ourselves. If we reduce population growth here, while the rest of the world keeps growing, we are asking for trouble. If there is an explosion from starving people in Mexico or Asia, all of us will suffer.

      Demographers talk about the concept of CARRYING CAPACITY. By carrying capacity they mean the ability of a region to support a given population. How many persons can the land carry? What is the number of people that can live in a given region before the quality of life begins to decline? At the most basic level, can the region produce enough food to feed the people who live there?

      Carrying capacity also includes the impact on the environment. Can we dispose of the garbage from all our population? Can we build enough houses without destroying the farmland we need to grow crops?

      Egypt provides an example of problems with carrying capacity. Throughout its history, Egypt has been very fertile, but almost all the food is grown just a few miles from the Nile River. The country is doing a very good job of increasing the amount of agricultural land, mainly by bringing irrigation water to land that was formerly barren. However, they are finding that people are building houses on the existing farmland just as fast as new acreage is being irrigated. The net result is that the amount of land under cultivation is not changing.

      We have seen something like that in California. We have long been one of the major agricultural producers in the country, especially here in the San Joaquin Valley. Then, as people have migrated from the cities and built houses on farmland, farmers have felt squeezed. For us, competition for water has been one of the first signs of conflict. Water that is diverted to cities cannot be used to grow crops.

      The US is one of the foremost agricultural countries in the world. The food that we export to other countries is a major contributor to our national economy, and our standard of living would be much lower without it. Export of food currently brings in $155 per capita to the U.S. David Pimentel of Cornell predicts that we will no longer be exporting food after 2025. The amount of available water is declining, and each year more farmland is lost to urbanization and erosion.

      If our population continues to increase, we will need all of our available agricultural resources to feed our own people. That is fine; we won't starve. But notice: We will have lost a major source of national income, so that our trade deficit will be much worse than it is now. And what will those people eat who are buying food from us now?

      Again, the problem is international in scope.

      A report released in February 1995 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science predicted that the same process would have a strong impact on the American diet. We would not have as much meat or dairy products as we do now, because it takes more land and water to produce them. Instead, we will be eating beans and grains, more pasta, more potatoes, with fewer choices in the vegetables we eat. That may be a healthier diet, but we are not accustomed to having fewer choices available to us.

      The American Farmland Trust (AFT) projects that at present rates of growth, Central Valley population will grow from 4 million today to 12 million by 2040. Kern County's share would go from 550,000 to almost 2 million. Our local population would more than triple in less than 50 years. AFT is concerned that these new people will live in houses built on farmland, and that our major industry would lose $1 billion a year ($5.3 for whole valley).

      The three US counties with the largest agricultural production are Fresno, Kern and Tulare. The value of Kern County produce would drop from $2.5 billion (in 1994) to $1.5 within 45 years. We currently average three houses to an acre in new developments, and people are reluctant to reduce that, because a big house with a large yard is part of the American dream. Farmers, apparently, are not as worried about the loss of land as much as the loss of water.

      Government officials are worried about the impact on taxes and government expenses. Farmland produces a lot of tax revenue with relatively little demand for services. When the farmland is converted to residences, there would be some increase in property values, but even more increase in demand for schools, fire protection and police. The American Farmland Trust report estimates that taxpayers would need to come up with an additional $83 million per year to provide services to the new residents.

      Carrying capacity can also include more intangible issues. As the population grows, there will be more cars on the road. Freeways must be expanded. Traffic slows down as more and more cars use the freeways. Will people be able to visit the beaches and national parks whenever they want to?

      Some of our resources are finite, like the amount of oil under the ground. What will we do when it is gone?

      In 1994, for the first time in US history, we imported more than half of the oil we use. Our dependence on the Middle East may force us to continue fighting expensive wars there to guarantee our fuel supply.

      The US has petroleum underground equal to 16 times our annual rate of consumption. If we currently depend on imports for 50% of our petroleum, we should not run out for another 32 years. Also, there is probably more oil under the ground that we have not found yet, and we can reduce our consumption by improving our conservation practices, so it will probably take much more than 32 years for us to run out of oil. However, at some point we will. When we do, we will be totally dependent on other countries for a major part of our energy resources. All of those questions are relevant for the concept of carrying capacity.

      We have lived so long with the firm belief that a growing population was an advantage that it is almost a heresy to question that. Generals needed soldiers for their armies. A growing economy is a healty economy, and we continually need new workers and new consumers in order for the economy to keep expanding. I don't know of any major economist who wants the economy to shrink. The idea is unthinkable. Yet, we need to question it.

      It is possible for the earth to support its nearly 6 billion inhabitants right now, because most of them have a very low standard of living, compared to the US. All of them would like to have the wealth of food, automobiles, health care that we enjoy. But, of course, that would mean an even greater demand on the finite resources of the earth. And that is happening.

      The US has 5% of the world's population, and it uses 25% of the world's energy. By contrast, India has 16% of the population and uses 3% of the energy.

      Every country in the world wants to raise the standard of living of its citizens, and they should. However, if they are even moderately successful, they will vastly increase the pollution in the world and will hasten the depletion of non-renewable resources. The economies of much of Asia and Latin America are growing faster than our economies. They have not caught up with us yet, but they are gaining.

      During most of the history of the world, the pace of change was much slower than it is currently, the rate of change of all kinds. In this century, our worldwide use of energy, chemicals, fertilizer has increased sharply, much faster, even, than the increase in population. Prior to this century, the increases were pretty gradual. Even for the first half of this century, all the increases are relatively slow. The curves go up more sharply in the second half.

      Population itself did not increase as much as our use of energy and chemicals and fertilizers. Each one of us drives more cars and burns more energy than our grandparents did. We have 150% more cars on the road than we did in 1960. And that increases the rates of contamination much faster than the rate of population growth. However, the number of automobiles is increasing even more dramatically in developing countries. In just a few years, they have moved from a situation in which hardly anyone had a car. Now, a larger proportion of the population has that option. Smog and transportation bottlenecks are no longer a monopoly of the west.

      The disappearances of forests is not just a problem for spotted owls; it is a problem for loggers and carpenters and homeowners. We try to replant our forests, but we use up lumber and paper faster than we can grow new trees.

      Let me cite some figures, quickly, for the US: The harvest of oysters from Chesapeake Bay has been reduced by 99%. Salmon fishermen in the Northwest are going out of business, because salmon are becoming more scarce. Some of the fish from the Great Lakes contain cancers when they are caught. Others are inedible because of mercury poisoning. We draw 25% more water from the ground each year than nature can replace; wells must go deeper and deeper.

      We lose 3 billion tons of topsoil to erosion every year. Our cities generate twice as much solid waste as they did in 1960; it is more difficult to find landfill space to dispose of our garbage. Japan has a more serious disposal problem than we do, because they are so much more crowded. They have adopted a vigorous recycling program, but they can only recycle 50% of their waste.

      In the US, when you add in industrial waste, we average 50 tons per person, per year. I find that very hard to imagine, much less believe. Two percent of that is considered hazardous waste.

      The US is one of the richest agricultural lands in the world. For over 40 years, we have been able to increase our grain production by more than 2.5% per year. That should make us optimistic, but the increase in production has been possible because of an increased use of water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and machinery and fossil fuels, which add to the pollution problem. Insects develop resistance to our chemicals, and our ground water is becoming more poisoned.

      On a worldwide basis, the rate of increase in food production is dropping. It is still increasing, but not as fast as it was a few years ago.

      World grain production is increasing about 1 per cent each year, but population is increasing by 2 per cent. Those figures, alone, would lead to eventual catastrophe, even if there were no other changes.

      The 2000 census counted 281.5 million Americans. Our first census was taken in 1790, when there were about 4 million Americans. Now, the Census Bureau estimates that we will be half a billion by the middle of the 21st century.

      Remember, population depends both on birth rates, death rates and rates of immigration. We could reduce our total population growth if we restricted immigration OR if we reduced the birth rate. [No one is suggesting that we increase the death rate.]

      The current birthrate for American women is approximately 2.0, that is, an average of two children per woman. At that rate, the population would be pretty stable, provided we had zero immigration, but no one is suggesting zero immigration, so far as I know.

      Could we reduce the birthrate to less than 2.0? Some women choose to have no children or they are unable to have children, so a birthrate of 2.0 means that many women are having more than two children. If we could encourage all women to stop at two children, the average would be even lower. However, it is hard to do that in a free society. There are few choices more private, more personal, than the number of children to have. However, we could make some small changes.

      Both our past welfare policies and our current income tax policies have the unintended effect of subsidizing more babies. No one ever talks about the deduction for dependents in the income tax code. We were willing to talk about smaller families for the poor, by reforming welfare laws, but no one wants to suggest smaller families for the middle class or the rich. Under our present system, the more children you have, the less income tax you pay. The 2003 tax cuts increased that incentive with a $1,000 tax credit, per child.

      There is a certain prima facie fairness to such policies; it costs money to raise children. However, if we were serious about reducing family size, we would give tax breaks only for the first child or maybe the first two. No politician would dare suggest that, but we may need to do something like that if we are serious about slowing growth. I have three children, so I have to admit that I am part of the problem.

      The other part of the equation is immigration. There is tremendous pressure for the US to admit more immigrants. We take pride in the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and that we have been a haven for refugees. Two of my grandparents were immigrants, and the other two were children of immigrants.

      Is it fair for us to pull up the drawbridge behind ourselves? And how do we balance fairness with the mathematical realities?

      I have been suspicious of some of the current political attacks on immigrants, but the other side of the coin is that we do not have room for everyone who wants to come. In my opinion, any solution will have to consider population at the world level.

      I think it is short-sighted to focus on the problem of US immigration and ignore the rest of the world. We are not isolated or separate. Even if we wanted to build a wall around us to seal us off from the rest of the world, that would be impossible. There is too much travel going on, too much world trade, to make that realistic. As long as there have been human beings in the world, we have been a mobile species, going back to the Old Stone Age. If we sealed ourselves off, but the rest of the world continued to grow and expand, it would only be a matter of time before the pressures would implode in on us, and we would be overrun.

      In 1994, there was a population conference in Cairo, sponsored by the United Nations, the UN International Conference on Population and Development (Sept. 5-13). The Cairo conference produced a strange alliance between the pope and several Muslim countries, in conflict with other developing countries and feminists. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, birth control is a serious sin, and many Muslims oppose it, as well.

      The discussion almost derailed into a fight about abortion and women's rights, so that other issues received less attention. The feminist position was that women all over the world would have fewer children if women had more power. If women could have education and jobs, they would choose to have fewer children. There is truth to that, because we know that fertility drops as standards of living rise and as educational levels rise. However, the older non-governmental organizations that have been working on population control for a long time argued that there are many, many women -- rich and poor -- who do not have access to birth control. They want it, in many instances, but cannot afford it.

      There was a strange kind of irony at the conference. It was supposed to be a conference on population and development, but virtually nothing was said about population growth. It is well and good, the critics said, to raise the status of women, but in the meantime, they will continue having babies.

      There is a chicken and egg problem with fertility and the standard of living. Which is the cause and which is the effect? Probably some of both, but the reality is that it is much, much harder to raise the standard of living so long as population growth is out of control.

      To mention Egypt again, I was struck when I was there at how much the country had done to raise people's welfare. The Aswan Dam is an amazing project that produced both water for irrigation and electric power. The value of the electricity alone repaid the cost of the dam in just a few years. That made it possible not only for people to have electricity in their homes, but it allowed the construction of new factories and the creation of jobs. The irrigation water made it possible to transform desert into farmland.

      What was the result? The standard of living for the poorest people, perhaps for the majority, continued to decline. Why? Because population growth was in a race with the growth in the economy, and the population was winning.

      United Nations demographers have made a series of projections, based on different assumptions. One scenario asks what will happen if nothing changes, if we keep on growing at the present rates?

      They say that by the year 2150, at present rates, there will be 694 billion people in the world. Of course, that is absurd. That is more than 100 times present population. If we divide up all the ice-free land in the world, including deserts, mountains, cities, freeways, each person would have about 2,000 square feet, roughly an area 45 by 45 feet. We would have to grow all our food on that, and build houses and roads.

      We would never reach that point, because we would have starvation and famines and probably wars. But the question is, can we find a way to keep that from happening without starvation and war?

      Most of us would reject dictatorship and totalitarian solutions, and the right to have children seems one of the most basic, most fundamental human rights. However, in the third world, in developing countries, most parents want large families. Girls marry at an early age, and may have 3 to 6 children.

      It will take a tremendous amount of effort and education to encourage parents to stop at two children. Any number larger than that will keep the growth curve moving upward.

      Another part of the technological issue raises a further difficulty, namely, unemployment. If fewer people can produce the goods and services that we need to live, what happens to the other people?

      At the beginning of the 20th century, something like 85% of families either lived on farms or worked in some business related to agriculture. That is another way of saying that it took 85% of us to produce the food & fiber we needed to live.

      By the time I was in high school in the 1950's, the figure had reversed. Only 15% of the people were farmers, producing food for the other 85%. Now, the percentage is much less than that.

      When I lived in India in the 1960's, India was still in a stage in which 85% of the people were farmers or lived in rural areas, supported in some way by agriculture. However, already, the country was moving into manufacturing and heavy industry. People were moving from the villages into the cities at a rapid rate. I don't have the figures, but the proportion of people living in villages is smaller today.

      Population affects employment. We have chronic unemployment in this country, and we experience it in a variety of forms.

      In 2003, with our current economic decline, unemployment went above 6%. Previously, it was considered "normal" to have 5% unemployment, but the people who are employed are often underemployed. That is, they are working part-time, or they are working at low-paying service jobs that do not match their education. Worse, our unemployment statistics never include the so-called "discouraged workers," i.e., those who have given up and are no longer looking for work. If you are not collecting unemployment or showing up regularly at the unemployment office, you are not counted.

      Unemployment affects all social classes. We have the educated unemployed, people with BA's, even Ph.D's, who cannot get jobs. And we have the uneducated, who don't have any skills that anyone wants to pay for.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 18 million college graduates will join the labor force between 1992 and 2005, but only 14 million of those (78%) will find jobs that require college training.

      The first machines reduced the need for manual labor. Tractors could do the hardest work for us. Then, there was a decline in manufacturing jobs, as assembly lines and robots became more sophisticated. Now, we are at the point where white-collar workers are threatened by technology. When we can buy computer software that does our taxes, we don't need so many accountants. Future software can reduce the need for lawyers and engineers. Instructional television makes it possible to teach ever-larger classes, so that we will need fewer teachers. And so on.

      Unemployment, also, is an international issue. It cannot be understood by looking exclusively at the United States. The working-age population is increasing worldwide, leading to unemployment almost everywere. The International Labor Organization estimates that 30% of the world labor force earns less than subsistence wages. Within the Third World, there is constant migration from rural areas to the cities, but the cities cannot support the new arrivals. Those who can afford it, migrate to other countries, where they add to unemployment figures.

      Haiti has between 70 and 80% unemployment or underemployment. Even if the first freely elected president in Haiti's history [Jean-Bertrand Aristide] had not been overthrown by a military coup, and even if the country had not been ruled as a police state for decades before that, some of those unemployed persons would risk their lives on the chance that they could get a job that would allow them to feed their children. We could not build walls high enough to keep all of them out. They are desperate.

      It is not only the US that faces immigration problems. Asians and Africans flock to Europe. Asians find jobs in the Near East. Proportionately, Europe is taking in more immigrants than we are.

      However, labor is not nearly as mobile as capital and technology. Multinational corporations can move their operations to whatever location can offer the cheapest labor.

      Technology has been displacing labor ever since the invention of the wheel. In the past, that has been good for us. We have not had to work so hard, and technology has made it possible for us to enjoy a higher standard of living. The problem is that we are currently seeing the acceleration of two separate trends, both of which contribute to growing unemployment:

      One is the computer revolution that puts people out of work faster than steam engines or cotton gins did. The other is the rapid increase in population growth. People are being created faster than jobs.

      The new "Silicon" Valley in South India is an example of the way high-tech jobs can be exported abroad from the U.S. Silicon Valley is that part of the Bay Area between SF and San Jose, which benefited so much from computer companies and software development. I grew up there, in a pre-computer age, when the area was in a transition from agriculture to suburbs. With the introduction of the computer industry, wages and real estate prices sky-rocketed, and then crashed when the over-extended technology sector hit a wall.

      Meanwhile, India has joined the information industry. It has large numbers of Ph.D's involved in computer technology and development of software. Again, I feel personally involved in the story, because the center of the new, Indian Silicon Valley is the city of Bangalore, where I lived for two years. It costs less to live in India than in California, and now computer programmers can do their work by modem. Each one of them means one less job for someone in California.

      Immigration into the US pushes down wages among people who are already here, by the law of supply and demand. There is some increase in the demand for workers, but the supply of workers is going up faster. That helps to explain why your standard of living is lower than that of your parents. It often takes two incomes for a family to enjoy the status their parents or grandparents had with a single wage-earner; without the dual- income families, our wage drop would be more obvious.

      The people who suffer the most are those who are already poor. The groups which have been hurt the most by immigration are poor Blacks and Hispanics, especially those with only a HS education or less. There is disagreement among the experts, but I think the single group that has been hurt the most have been African- American males.

      It is easy for politicians to blame our problems on immigrants, but it seems to me that immigrant-bashing diverts our attention from the real problems:

      First, there are not enough jobs to go around. And that, in turn, is caused by population growth and technology.

      Population, technology, immigration and wages all affect each other. When technology reduces the need for labor, wages go down. If we raise US wages too much, jobs will go overseas; companies will move their factories to wherever wages are low.

      If we try to keep foreign products out by raising import taxes on them, many Americans would not be able to afford to buy not just television sets and cameras, but also the shoes and clothing that are manufactured abroad. I think most people agree that free trade is good for American business, but it is not yet clear that it is good for workers -- either in US or abroad.

      Overall, there was a drop in real American wages during the decade of the 1970's of more than 8 percent, for all workers. The impact was greater on unskilled workers, and the hardest hit were African-American males.

      It is also the case that young people suffer more from unemployment. The people who have jobs are not dying or retiring fast enough to make room for the people leaving school. In the past decade, 50% of the young African-Americans, out of school, in their early twenties, did not have full-time jobs. The percentage for non-Hispanic white youth was much better, but still a frightening 30%.

      However, unemployment has become a chronic problem in the US for all races and all age groups. When white males start blaming their unemployment on affirmative action, that only distracts us from the real problem.

      It seems to me that the proposals for welfare reform from both parties are also tragically unrealistic. We cannot rely on job training when there are no jobs. Putting time limits on welfare can only work when people have some kind of work opportunity at the end of the time limit.

      We have not yet come to terms with the possibility that both unemployment and welfare will be chronic, permanent problems that are not going away until we can find some way to create jobs that does not require a perpetually growing population.

      Good luck!

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