Pre-Script: I wrote this post years ago, but for some reason, it still gets a lot of traffic. So I’m reposting it here, with a few updates.
Two weeks ago, I zipped through Dan Brown’s Inferno. Obviously, there are the critics – but I love pacey detective thrillers that involve puzzles and artefacts and surprise twists that aren’t altogether that surprising. And much like Michael Crichton’s style of story-telling, each Dan Brown book plays around with a central theme/concept that we all half-know but don’t really think about.
Inferno is about overpopulation. Here’s the shocking graph of where we stand today:
Which is, frankly, a fairly staunch argument against our ability to be sustainable. Especially when we talk about the world’s population topping 9 billion before 2050 (just extend that curve upward by 2 without any shift to the right).
Is The End Nigh?
To lighten your shock and horror, here’s another graph of world population, as brought to us by the biblical literalists:
When I first saw this, I was like, surely not.
And then I found this article which explained the math that gets us to an average of 10 billion!
Some baseline assumptions for the Biblical math:
- People lived longer in Genesis (lifespans of 900 years – which became progressively shorter with each successive generation – presumably, because Mankind continued to Fall further away from its original perfection).
- Longer lifespans meant that people could have more children (although according to the Bible Belters, the antediluvians* tended to bear children only between the ages of 65 and 100).
*Antediluvians – ante (before) + diluvian (the deluge).
- Also, the long lifespans indicate that there was clearly less disease (or early Biblical man was less susceptible to it).
Putting some skepticism aside, of all the above statements, I think that point 3 is the one that could make the most sense. If Mankind was a fresh arrival on the planet – no bacterium or virus would have evolved yet to disease him. In the same way that hackers have only recently started to code viruses that infect Apple macs. Before that, what was the point? Not enough critical mass…
And then I found this article which suggests that God formed “the other three races” on the 5th day, and then made Adam on the 6th. Which “explains why the whites are the smallest race”. #Speechless. And the skepticism came flooding back.
Either way, there is an encouraging message to take from this is you’re from the Evangelical school of thought. Namely: “Fear not, we’ve done this before, and we still have a way to go”.
And if you’re not from the Bible Belt?
Well – it’s a really good question, because as it stands, 7 billion people need to be fed, watered and sheltered. With the very strong implication being that we’ve long since cruised past the point of being able to do that successfully, and destruction of ecosystems and all that.
In my mind – the really amazing thing is that it hasn’t happened more quickly. Some might even see that as the hand of Providence at work.
But I also think we forget that humans aren’t quite bacteria or viruses. We may make the host sick – but in general, we make real efforts not to kill anything off (except for the rhinos, obviously – but every population has their outliers). We don’t run around stripping trees bare and eating lizards. We’re too industrial for that: we clear swathes of land, grow our own grain and raise our own livestock. Sure – it means that some parts of nature have to give way to artificial methods of food production. But the alternative is that we just raid everything anywhere to sustain ourselves naturally, which would have resulted in the world dying out and us with it a long time ago. So Mankind is resourceful, industrious, and inherently conservationist. Because he is consciously self-interested.
So that’s the first point – Mankind generally tries to find a way, intentionally or otherwise.
Secondly, if you look back over population control in history, you might notice that Nature has often taken care of things herself. The plague that arose between the 5th and 8th centuries halved the population of Europe. HALVED. As in every second person you know: gone. And today: there are billions of us. And we don’t even have the barriers of geographical distance between us any more. Also, with our cocooned lifestyles of antibacterial soaps and Health & Safety, we have become soft. Our immune systems have turned on us with allergic reactions to a growing list of things. We use the most powerful of medicines for the most minor of infections. We are breeding perfect conditions for plague.
And lastly, we also have a history of dire predictions that come to nothing. And I’m not just talking about the Christian Doomsday cults and the New Age Mayan calendar crazies. I’m talking about Thomas Malthus and his 1798 prediction that we would run out of food by 1850. I’m talking about Paul R. Ehrlich and his 1968 prediction of mass global famines in the 1970s and 1980s. There are people in every generation that fully expect the end, crisis and calamity. And yet here we are, continuing, flourishing even.
So maybe the growing trends of selfishness and education will result in us having fewer children. Or maybe a new disease will emerge that will turn half of us into fertiliser. Or maybe Providence will continue to be munificently compassionate and give us something entirely unexpected to help us along the way.
After all, crazier things have happened. Did you know that the hole in the ozone layer is growing smaller all the time? The current forecast is that it’ll be completely closed within a few short decades.
There’s plenty to be hopeful for.
But read Inferno anyway. For fun.
PS: for more relief, watch this video TedTalks: Hans Rosling on Religions and Babies. Shout out to Matt for directing my attention to it!
Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.