Monday, October 31, 2005

The Population Explosion

Part of me wants to blog about Halloween today, but I feel the need to continue what I have somehow gotten myself into: a discussion of demographics. If only no one had commented on and/or asked questions about my "Good On Ya, Oprah" piece, this wouldn't have happened. You know?

This is the very same graph that appeared on the previous blog: The Classic Demographic Transition Model. If you haven't done so already, you should consider reading that post before you read this one.

The classic model (repeated above) is based on the actual experience of the DCs. It's a model based on reality, not hypothesis or conjecture although there has been some conjecture involved when we have applied it to the LDCs. It must necessarily be conjecture, for they have not travelled all of the way through the four phases to the end. Those countries, without many exceptions, are now in either phase two or phase three: the explosive phases of growth — the population explosion that we have all heard about.

A main problem was that the trigger that has more recently moved LDCs out of phase one into the transition was very different from the trigger that moved DCs into and through the process. You recall that there was development and change within DCs that caused the demographic shift to begin and continue. In the case of LDCs, however, the impetus was not brought about by internal development but by external factors: namely, colonialism.

When the colonists arrived in what we call the third world, they brought with them the knowledge that they had developed. Along with the mercenaries and exploiters, they also brought humanitarians: doctors, nurses, social workers. We continue do this now: many of us give to World Vision, the Red Cross, CARE, or Oxfam for example. We give to help those in need. We give food, water, medicine, and education. In effect, we of the DCs export these life-extending techonolgies to the LDCs, technologies that have caused the drastic reduction in infant mortality and the concomitant population explosion. And then we blame them for having too many children! Put simply: our interference caused more and more third-world children to live into adulthood and reproduce their own children who also survived to reproduce.

The population explosion was on! It had taken all of human history to put about a half billion people on the earth by 1750, but only about ninety years to double that to one billion by about 1840 (all numbers and times rounded very approximately). By about 1940 we had added our second billion people, our third by 1965, and our fourth billion by 1980. In not much more than two hundred years, the planet's population had skyrocketed from .5 billion to 4 billion. Twenty years or so later, we are well over the 6 billion mark, about 6.5 billion as a matter of fact.

What a monumental shift we have set in motion! Somewhere around the 1960s, with 3 billion bodies already on the planet, the possible repercussions began to dawn on demographers. Where would this end? How could we possibly feed billions upon billions of extra mouths when there was already rampant poverty, starvation, and misery? What tragedies were waiting to unfold?

Demographers postulated that the LDCs would be mired in phases two and three — the population explosion — for a terribly long time. It seemed a reasonable assumption, for the DCs had needed to develop from within in order to proceed through the transition to the new low-growth stage four of the model. The economy had needed to change; industrialization had had to occur. Seemingly, such development was occurring only at a snail's pace in LDCs. If so, how long would the population explosion last and how many people would it add?

To repeat: it was thought that the if the economy and society didn't develop first, then people would not see the need to have fewer children. You see, children are a poor man's wealth. It was true for our ancestors in Europe in 1750, and it was true for Asians in 1950 and later. Despite popular misconceptions, there never was a time when people in LDCs began to have more children. In fact, they began to produce fewer offspring than before, but the decline was neither rapid enough or significant enough to diminish the extraordiarily rapid growth that was occurring because more and more people were living into their reproductive years.

I hope you get that! I hope that you get that they weren't or aren't recklessly spawning hordes of little ones. In fact, it's all our fault in a sense! It was us who changed their world and caused the population explosion. I don't know how we could not have done it, how we could have stood idly by and not responded to the plight of millions upon millions of people. I can't stand by even now. I feel it incumbent on me to donate my few paltry pennies to earthquake relief in Pakistan; and, I feel shamed into doing something at Christmas — this year choosing to aid a girl in crisis . How can I do otherwise?

I realize that I am yet again becoming long-winded and tedious, so how can I wrap up this part two in short order? (Yes, there may be a part three, Virginia.) Let me say that the demographers were partly wrong. Many educational and social initiatives have helped to teach people to have fewer children. Even on their own, these dear people begin to see that their children are surviving and that they need not bear so many offspring. Demographers once thought that the LDCs would be locked in phases two and three for an eternity as it were. They envisaged a future of unchecked population growth: standing room only.

Well, it's not going to happen. Fertilty rates are declining almost everywhere. Because the world's population is now so young, billions more people will necessarily be added to our ranks in the next fifty years, even as couples start and continue to bear fewer and fewer children. Yes, we'll probably add another three or four billion even though the vast numbers of people in their reproductive years only bear two or three children each. Three of four billion is not a trifling number, but it does represent the end of the population explosion. The total population of the planet will level off at a staggering 9 to 11 billion (approximately), but at least it will not be the sixteen or twenty billion or more that we had once speculated.



Rainypete said...

I shudder to think about housing costs when we hit that peak!!

Dale said...

My hope is that the nations who now hold their borders closed to immigration will pry them open and share the wealth.

Bonita said...

Fascinating! I never realized that our humanitarian aids actually longevity, which then spawns higher reproductive outcomes. Ouch. Well, if the Avian Flu or other pandemic doesn't wipe out large populations, lets focus on creating the kind of conditions that foster education and well-being. As you say, a poor mans wealth is in his family, always will be. But education and family planning can have enormous impact. Look what China did...

Valerie - Still Riding Forward said...

I keep moving further and further into the country, leaving neighbors as far behind as I can and now you spoiled my day.

There are too many people! How will I ever escape them?


Lora said...

Excellent lesson and in my mind very well explained. It is a real catch-22 in many ways. Ever the optimist, I think that things will level out at an increasing rate. Unfortunately, as the quality of life of people improves and their reproduction rates decrease, their resource use and enviromental effect per capita is expected to continue to increase.

Paul said...

Thanks for this post. It's consistent with other things I have read but adds some new perspectives that I see as valid and valuable. Recently I read the book "Inevitable Surprises" by Peter Schwartz. His perspective is that with standard of living increases comes improvements to the environment. It was enouraging to consider that increased population with more affluence may not have as detrimental an effect on the environment as we once feared. Also, Schwartz makes a strong argument against closing borders. And . . I cast a vote for intallment 3!