Sometime tomorrow, the United Nations estimates, the world's 6 billionth
person will be born. The event will probably occur on the Indian
subcontinent, and the baby's parents will likely be of humble means.
Perhaps they'll be subsistence farmers, woodcutters or tradespeople.
Maybe they'll own a small shop. Their ambitions will not be overweening:
weatherproof shelter, sufficient food and adequate clothing.
But it is unlikely the world's 6 billionth inhabitant will grow up to
share its parents' modest aspirations. Given current trends, the child may
consume more than its parents -- much more.
And not just rice and homespun cotton cloth. He or she will want, and
probably obtain, a wide array of sophisticated consumer goods: a television,
radio and refrigerator. Processed food and drink. Perhaps even a motor
scooter or car.
And that's the problem, many scientists say. The population crisis isn't
just about more people, though that's certainly a big part of it. The United
Nations projects there will be 9 billion or more living on the planet by
It's also about the inevitable expectations of the billions of people who
will be born in the coming decades. Most will be born in developing
countries; most will aspire to the same energy-intensive consumerism now
promulgated in North America and Europe. And that could have profound
consequences for global ecosystems.
Already, scientists say, the expanding human population is causing a mass
extinction of other species -- only the sixth time such a widespread
eradication of life has occurred in the planet's history. And skyrocketing
energy use appears to be loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and
other trace gases, causing global warming.
The severity of these problems -- and whether humanity can avert
catastrophe -- is a matter of some dispute, but there's little doubt about
one thing: For the first time, human population is shaping the planet's
basic dynamics rather than the other way around. In some ways, current
population trends are heartening -- or at least not as distressing as they
were even a decade ago.
Family planning programs begun in earnest 30 years ago have paid
impressive dividends. Worldwide, fertility has been more than halved, down
from around six children per woman in the 1950s to 2.06.
In developed countries, the birthrate is even lower than the global
average. The fertility rate in the United States is 2.03. And both Europe
and Japan have rates of 1.4 -- meaning that they may actually decline in
Dianne Sherman, director of communication for the population office of
the U.S. Agency for International Development, said birth control accords
reached during a 1994 international population conference in Cairo are
Birthrates have dropped, said Sherman, because women in developing
countries are obtaining the information and materials they need to limit
Sherman recently returned from a visit to India -- a country that is
approaching 1 billion in population and that promises to outstrip China as
the world's most populous nation by 2050.
``Much of our work is being done in Uttar Pradesh, a single state in
India that has a population of about 220 million, which is close to that of
the United States,'' said Sherman.
Uttar Pradesh is an extremely poor state characterized by a rural,
conservative culture. Yet people are determined to control the size of their
families, Sherman said.
``Virtually everyone we talked to wanted no more than two children,'' she
said. ``Reproduction is a politicized issue in India, but (birth control)
enjoys tremendous support at the village level. The Cairo accords are
working. There are very real challenges ahead, but significant progress has
been and continues to be made.''
Still, the average birthrate for most developing countries hovers around
3.8, and many African nations post fertility rates of 6 to 7. That means
human numbers are still spiraling upward.
Moreover, the world's population continues to grow at close to 80 million
annually because of ``population momentum.'' In other words, the average
woman is having fewer children, but there are more and more women reaching
child-bearing age each year.
The future, in short, looks crowded.
RANGE OF ESTIMATES
The United Nations has plotted three likely scenarios for global
population growth, with human numbers ranging from 7.3 billion to 10.7
billion by year 2050. Depending on a variety of factors, population may or
may not stabilize at these levels.
Those figures are discouraging in light of current resource trends.
Desertification and deforestation are accelerating in many countries, local
water shortages are expanding into regional crises and about half of the
world's fisheries have been overharvested.
It is estimated that there are about 740 million acres of high-
quality agricultural land in the world, and about three-quarters of that
amount is already exploited.
To bring the rest into production would require vast monetary investments
for infrastructure and market development, and would also exact a high
environmental price in the form of obliterated wildlife habitat, soil
erosion and water pollution. So there are clear limits to expanding
agricultural production to feed the billions of new mouths that are
The global marketplace may be creating unprecedented prosperity, but it
is also raising troubling questions about the capacity of the planet to
support such wealth, some scientists say.
``The trouble is that every villager in India and Pakistan now has access
to a television, perhaps even the Internet,'' said Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford
University biologist whose 1959 book, ``The Population Bomb,'' is considered
a seminal text on the modern population dilemma.
``Increasingly, these folks are comparing themselves to Bill Gates, not
their parents or their neighbors,'' said Ehrlich. ``They're adopting the
American model of consumerism. There are twice as many people today as in
1960, but we're using five times the energy.''
Ehrlich said the new consumer paradigm comes at an infelicitous time,
conjoined as it is with a huge, rapidly expanding population and strained
``Frankly, the scientific community is worried sick,'' he said. ``In some
ways, we know how to solve the population problem -- we've seen some
progress there. But we don't know how to solve the consumption problem.
We're basically mining our natural capital -- soil, water, biodiversity --
for transitory economic gain.''
A big, hard and thoroughly unpleasant crunch is inevitable, said Ehrlich.
``I think a good case can be made that we're already at the edges of it,''
Ehrlich has many allies in the scientific community, but he has been
making dire predictions on resource depletion, famine and epidemics for
three decades. So far, few of his prognostications have come to pass.
While other population experts are hesitant to couch their concerns in
terms as apocalyptic as Ehrlich's, they nevertheless have serious concerns.
``Obviously, the risk of serious environmental problems is high for the
next century,'' said Robert Engelman, vice president of research for
Population Action International, an environmental research and lobbying
group in Washington, D.C.
Engelman said many developing countries already face serious food and
water shortages. ``In terms of food, sometimes that's due to production
problems, sometimes to transport problems, but the fact remains that many
countries are incapable of feeding themselves,'' he said.
Still, said Engelman, there has always been poverty.
``In and of itself, poverty is not unique,'' he said. ``What is unique to
our time is a combination of a population that is at an all-time high and
growing, coupled with rising affluence. What is unique is that we now have a
global model based on the U.S. model, one that says that the good life
depends on consuming large quantities of natural resources.''
A COSTLY TASTE FOR MEAT
Meat is emblematic of this model.
Meat consumption is going up worldwide, and that demands correspondingly
higher per capita production of grain. It takes about 7 pounds of grain to
yield 1 pound of beef. Poultry takes 2.7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound
of meat, while swine eat 6 pounds of grain for every pound of pork.
In the United States and Canada, each citizen consumes about a ton of
grain annually -- partly as bread or pastries, but mostly indirectly, as
meat. By contrast, developing countries have yearly grain consumption rates
of about 200 pounds per capita.
Meat is esteemed as a luxury food -- indeed, a status symbol -- in many
developing countries, so demand is acute and growing. And with the desire
for meat comes the demand for grain-based livestock feed.
Between now and 2030, grain consumption, primarily as animal feed, is
expected to grow by about 2.5 percent annually in the developing countries.
That may not seem like much, but a single percentage point can represent
millions of tons of wheat, corn, sorghum and barley -- enough to feed
millions of people if eaten directly.
And those millions of tons of grain represent, in turn, great quantities
of expended natural resources -- from water for irrigation to the natural
gas used to produce fertilizers.
Then there is the environmental impact associated with both the grain and
the meat: rivers polluted with pesticides and nitrates, exhausted aquifers,
eroded soil. And ultimately, there is a wall waiting to be hit: The quantity
of arable land is all too finite.
So should people in Chad, Bangladesh or Bolivia be denied the chicken
dinner they crave? Given the extravagant consumption in the developed world,
that hardly seems fair, population analysts say.
``The United States, Europe and Japan created the model, and it isn't a
sustainable one,'' Engelman said, ``so we have to be the ones to apply
pressure to change it. We need to look at the way we live. Is the quality of
life really directly correlated to the amount of stuff we consume? Do we
really need the biggest house on the block and the three SUVs in the
driveway? Even if we stabilize population where it is now, it won't matter
much unless we address consumption.''
Not all experts are irremediably gloomy about population growth.
``I'm not saying we should adopt a Pollyanna attitude, but doomsaying
isn't appropriate either,'' said Robert N. Stavins, a professor at the John
F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who specializes in
natural resource and environmental economics.
The world stands ``at the frontier of an enlightened policy to turn
things around, though I don't think we're there yet,'' Stavins said. ``I
don't suggest a laissez faire approach, but I think the marketplace is
sending signals that will ultimately improve the environment and address
natural resource issues.''
Stavins said ``nonrenewable'' resources such as oil, coal and metals are
not a critical problem in the long run because the marketplace will either
find new ways to extract them profitably, assuring steady supplies, or will
Paradoxically, said Stavins, a more worrisome problem is so-
called renewable resources, such as fisheries and timber.
``It's the `tragedy of the commons','' he said. ``There are generally no
incentives to manage these resources, but there are ample incentives for
everyone to exploit them. So while they are theoretically renewable, they
are often exploited to the point of collapse. And then environmental quality
may not be adequate to assure a recovery.''
But there are also ways for the market to address the plundering of
renewable resources, said Stavins.
``We can put scarcity value taxes on fish landings, for example,''
Stavins said. ``Or you can use a tradable permit system, similar to what's
being used to reduce acid rain. Say the government wants to reduce the catch
of a species 10 percent from 10,000 pounds a year. They issue permits for
9,000 pounds total, and inefficient producers can sell their permits to more
In the long run, said Stavins, modern industrialization may reduce rather
than exacerbate pollution and resource waste.
``Industrialization can cause problems short-term, but studies have
demonstrated that after a certain point, rich, industrialized societies
demand tougher and tougher controls on pollution,'' he said. ``Globally,
it's getting harder and harder to buy dirty technologies. The incentives are
shifting away from them. That's why I'm not as pessimistic as some people.''
THE RISK OF SURPRISES
But no one -- not even moderate optimists like Stavins -- is predicting a
future without rough spots. Six billion people create a great deal of
stress, both environmental and social.
Things, in short, could go wrong. Quickly. All the estimates for
population growth, says Engelman, are assuming ``no surprises'' scenarios.
Unexpected catastrophes could cause the population curve to angle sharply
A few back-to-back poor harvests in the world's grain-producing regions
could trigger global famine. AIDS and Ebola could pale in comparison to the
next unknown virus waiting to emerge from an African or Amazonian rain
``There are very real risks ahead, and disease is one of them,'' said
Engelman. ``We also don't know what the future climate will be. If big
surprises are in store, all bets are off.''
Still, said Engelman, ``if we all work together, we can probably dodge
the bullet. And the real work is in the middle ground, assuming neither the
worst nor the best scenarios. We have to address population growth and
consumption simultaneously. Dealing with only one or the other won't do
-- Looking back...
World population stood at well below a billion
from prehistory through the 18th century, kept in check
by disease and famine.
By the 1800s, however, progress
in agriculture, medicine, sanitation and industry resulted in
substantive gains in longevity. Consequently, population
growth took off.
-- ...and looking ahead
Globally, the birthrate has fallen dramatically
in the last 30 years, from about six children per woman to around
two. But rates remain high in many parts of the developing world,
stretching natural resources.
6 billion Oct. 12, 1999
7.3 billion (Low projection for 2050)
10.7 billion (High projection for 2050)
Source: Population Reference Bureau and United Nations
Steve Kearsley / The Chronicle