Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nine billion of my closest friends

That's the widely accepted mid-range forecast for the human population in 2050, with the number expected to stabilize at about 10 billion by century's end. The stabilization is expected to happen because of the long-term trend toward declining birth rates as societies become more prosperous, the status of women rises, and infant and child mortality declines.

As Robert Engelman discusses at Climate Progress, all this projecting assumes no increase in the death rate. In fact it assumes continuing increases in life expectancy and declines in early mortality. People are very reluctant to go there, it seems, but what if it doesn't happen that way?

Engelman points to climate change and rising sea levels. He doesn't have much to say about the possibility of emerging infectious diseases, which worries some people quite a lot. He also apparently wrote before news of an analysis, about to appear in the journal Nature, which finds it might be barely possible to feed 9 billion people, but only if humanity makes several major changes, none of which are happening now. The most important is for people to eat less meat. Most cropland is devoted to growing animal feed, which turns into about 1/8th as much human food. However, the current trend is the opposite: people are eating more and more meat, particularly as China becomes more affluent.

But we don't have to wait until 2050 to know that we have a problem. We have a problem right now. As John Schoen reported earlier this year, the global food supply is stretched to the limit. Rising food prices contributed to the social unrest that created the Arab Spring, and the UN now expects food prices to remain high forever, basically. Reserves are at the lowest level in 30 years and still falling. Weather anomalies as well as rising demand, and diversion of crops to biofuels, are behind the shortages. All of that is just going to get worse.

So no, there can't be 9 billion people. That can't happen. It can not happen the hard way, or it can not happen the easy way. Unfortunately, "Christians" who oppose contraceptive services want to make sure it happens the hard way, because you know, Jesus wants children to starve. Meanwhile, however, please eat less meat.

3 comments: said...

Do you agree with Frances Moore Lappé that the problem of world hunger is one of distribution, not supply, at present? If you do--then prognosticating--do you believe at population of nine billion that this would still be the case (assuming the warming world supports those 9 billion and we haven't destroyed ourselves)?

Cervantes said...

At present, yes, there is enough food in the world-- but just barely. However, recent analyses are saying that won't be true in another decade or so. Also, the rising price makes the distribution problem harder, obviously, since there are people who are just too poor to buy the food that does exist.

robin andrea said...

I've been wondering lately if our generation will not outlive our parents'-- that they will ultimately be the wealthiest and longest-lived generation. We will be the first generation of humans to have been bombarded since birth with every new chemical invention (I myself watched trucks drive down my suburban street spraying ddt to protect us from mosquitoes in the early 60s). Dirty air, treated water, non-nutritional food-- this has got to cut down the population at some point, doesn't it? Shouldn't more of us worldwide start dying from everything we've done?