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Get ready for a world where overpopulation will be the biggest threat we face.

The most credible source for projections about impending overpopulation has been the United Nations. Just in 2010, its World Population Prospects Report foresaw world population reaching 9.1 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100, 2-3 billion people added to the 7 billion who inhabit the planet today. But, updates now suggest the midrange projections are far too low. In the fall of 2011, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a warning that was reported in The Economist:

“Although the world population is not growing as fast as it was in the mid 1960s, because developed countries like Britain have a lower birth rate, the number of people in 58 countries, including India, continues to grow. However if birth rates in developing countries continue to grow, the total could reach 10.6 billion by 2050 and 15 billion by 2100.

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‘Much of this increase is expected to come from the high fertility countries, which comprise 39 in Africa, nine in Asia, six in Oceania and four in Latin America,’ reported the UN.”

Previously the UN had kept to the conservative estimate that the population will grow to more than 10 billion by 2100. Now, public acknowledgement of the possibility of 15 billion by 2100 also suggests a world with 12 billion people by 2050, 71% more people than today.

That will mean, we will have to find room, and food, and water for populations almost equal to two more China’s and two more India’s.

(Information in this blog is drawn from the new two eBook set PROGENETER, a work of fiction that uses real-world issues to highlight a very pressing and impending international/global crises.)

We have grown somewhat sanguine about population growth because of demographers suggesting only gradual growth for the next 40 years, but then a reversal toward fewer people as the next century approaches. Until the latest UNFPA comments, the peak population theory was the one most in favor in the popular media.

The predictions for a declining global population have been predicated on the belief that economic prosperity will spread around the globe. The follow-on assumption was that with higher incomes and better lifestyles, people also become better educated, decide to practice birth control, and thus have fewer children. There is evidence that this happens. Simply look at the experiences of developed nations where fertility rates have dropped over the past 60 years to a point where couples, on average, have less than two children. A fertility rate below 2.1 sees populations shrink.

But, there is mounting evidence that different dynamics are at work in countries where populations are still growing rapidly and in these instances A + B won’t necessarily = C, i.e. nowhere is it written that prosperity equates with fewer babies.

Historical precedent certainly suggests dramatic population growth will continue over the next 88 years, for all the reasons that will be discussed: lifespans will continue to lengthen, more infants will survive, several killer diseases are being mitigated, and advancing genetics research promises to further forestall the rampages of aging and disease.

The direction of change for global population—barring some global calamity—is on a steady, and steep upward trajectory. An examination of how our species has multiplied in just 200 years is enlightening.

Population Explosion for 200 Years

It took from the beginning of time until the year 1800 for the first one billion humans to inhabit the earth.

  • then, 2 billion by 1927 (127 additional years)
  • 3 billion by 1960 (33 additional years)
  • 4 billion by 1975 (15 years)
  • 5 billion by 1989 (14 years)
  • 6 billion by 1999 (10 years)
  • 7 billion by 2011 (12 years)

Global population projections have consistently had to be revised upward, and the current projection of 10 billion by 2100 seems just as likely to be wrong. If global population grew from 3 billion in 1960 to 7 billion in 2011 in 51 years, is it likely that the world will see only 3 billion more people over an 88-year time span with longer lives, fewer infant deaths and ongoing medical advances? Research suggests no.

The Raw Numbers: How Many are Born, How Many Die? 

The numbers from numerous credible sources vary slightly, but, on average, there is agreement that about 131 million babies are born each year. Also each year, about 57million people die, so the net population increase is about 74 million, an extra 1 billion people every 13.5 years. But, we know people are living longer and that other factors are also at play that may reduce the number of deaths—that’s key.

Infant Mortality Rates Plummet

The infant mortality rate (IMR) is the number of children who die per thousand in the first year of life. In 1950, even in advanced countries such as the U.S., Canada, and the U.K, the IMR ranged from 30-38 infant deaths per thousand, whereas it now stands at 5-7 in those countries. Much more dramatic, however, are the changes in the developing word. Fewer children dying means more adults to grow old.

Statistics from several of the most populous nations on earth reveal how staggeringly high infant mortality rates in 1950 have plummeted; the lower IMRs largely explain their dramatic population growth (numbers rounded):

IMR 1950 to now       Population 1950 to 2011

China:              122 down to 25           562 million to 1.34 billion

India:               165 down to 61           370 million to 1.21 billion

U.S.                 30 down to 7               152 million to 313 million

Indonesia:       192 down to 35           83 million to 192 million

Nigeria:           189 down to 109         32 million to 162 million

Pakistan:          177 down to 65           40 million to 179 million

Brazil:              135 down to 28           53 million to 192 million

Mexico            122 down to 22           29 million to 122 million

In 1950, these eight countries were home to 1.32 billion people, whereas today, the number is 3.73 billion, 53% of earth’s population.

Billions of dollars have been successfully devoted to help children in the developing world survive and live longer. And further dramatic improvements to lessen infant mortality are yet to come in Africa where the IMR, for the most part, is still very high.

The Epicenter of Population Growth to Come

Even as more babies survive, Africa’s population is projected to balloon from slightly more than one billion today to 3.6 billion by 2100. Can the nations of that continent cope with such growth in terms of food, water, overcrowding, politically, or economically?

People Live Longer

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2011) sees lifespans increasing dramatically without additional interventions. Americans, by 2095, should live a minimum of 10 years longer to about 90. Chinese and India people will also advance longevity from the current 73 and 64 respectively, to 84 and 80. Similar lengthening of life spans will also take place in every other country on the planet, and this is without major medical innovations, such as cures for cancer or heart disease.

Some Nationalities Face Extinction: Not so Fast! 

Due to a fertility rate of less than 2, demographers project that there will virtually no Europeans or Scandinavians alive in a few hundred years. And those nationalities would not be alone if current fertility rates hold steady. It’s a strange contradiction between the developed and the developing worlds.

While the populations in the developing nations are still growing quickly, the number of people in many nations of the developed world are stagnating and may begin to reduce. Italy, for example, had 47 million people in 1950, but is expected to be home to only 43 million Italians by 2050 and fully one third of those people will be senior citizens. This mirrors much of Europe, North America, the Scandinavian countries, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and more where fertility rates are also below the replication number of 2. In fact, 72 countries have birth rates of less than 2, so statistically, the populations of all of these countries are on their way to extinction.

But, how likely is it that nationalities with centuries and millennia of ethnic pride are going to do nothing once the specter of extinction gains high profile? The biological imperative argues against it, and there are indications already that the low fertility rates are becoming of such concern that both governments and corporations are getting involved. In the fall of 2011, The Rand Corporation stated that the outlook for fertility in the EU as a whole is not as bleak as it was a decade ago, and the company reinforced that more needs to be done to remove the barriers to parenthood by implementing measures that help both women and men to combine their career with their family life.

As awareness builds that entire peoples are in danger of disappearing due to low fertility rates, strong policy actions will be taken to stimulate human responses. Survival instinct makes this certain.

Killer Diseases are Being Tamed

Global focus on diseases that once killed millions every year, suggest that the number of deaths will soon begin a steady decline. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), three of every five deaths in 2008 were caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, stroke, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

According to the report, of the 57 million global deaths each year, 36 million, or 63%, were due to NCDs. Each year, NCDs are estimated to cause more than 9 million deaths before the age of 60 years. Over 80% of cardiovascular and diabetes deaths, almost 90% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and more than two thirds of all cancer deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.

NCDs also kill at a younger age in countries like India where 29% of NCD deaths occur among people under the age of 60, compared to 13% in high-income countries.

CVDs, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes account for around 80% of all NCD deaths, and share four common risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol and poor diets.

Advancements in cancer detection using microchip technology (electrode and nucleaic acid sensors engineered on a nanoscale) will soon allow the earlier identification of many cancers that have high mortality rates due to the fact that they are not well detected in early, more treatable stages.  Rapid diagnosis means more lives saved.

Tuberculosis is another disease that will benefit from the early detection and treatment that microchip technology will provide.

More than one biotech company will soon produce machines capable of sequencing a human genome in just one day, rather than the weeks or months it has been taking up until now.  With easier and quicker access to genomes, health-care providers will be able to tailor treatments to individual patients.  The dream of cancer treatments that are specifically tailored to kill only cancer cells, rather than the broad scale chemotherapy that kills every quickly reproducing cell in the body, appears to soon be within reach.  Cancer may one day be considered a chronic disease rather than the killer that people fear today.

Why Not Adopt China’s One-Child Policy?

China is the most notable example of engineered fertility control with the single child policy that it mandated in 1980. China’s fertility rate plunged from 5 in 1970 to 1.54 in 2011, and the government claims success in that the reduction in births and thus population growth  reduced the severity of overpopulation, epidemics, slums, overwhelmed social services (such as health, education, law enforcement), and strain on the ecosystem from abuse of fertile land and production of high volumes of waste.

But even now China is seeing that it will have too many old people and not enough young workers within very few decades, so even there, there may be a sudden and dramatic shift to more births to ensure economic and social viability.  Dr. Susan Newman, writing in 2011 in Psychology Today, said China is already relaxing its one-child policy: “With serious economic and population issues at stake in China, the government has relaxed the one-child rule to some degree already. Previously if both parents were only children they could give birth to two children; now if one parent is an only child, the couple can have a second child.” 

Serious Problems Loom

The implications for over-crowding are evident in a world with twice as many people, but that is just the most obvious consideration, add in pollution and environmental degradation, too little potable water, and the potential for global socio-economic upheaval. And the time of reckoning isn’t far in the future.

Consider that government pension systems are already showing signs of collapse, yet by 2050, the UN believes more than 2 billion people will be older than 60 years of age.

State-funded pension obligations in 19 of the European Union nations are five times higher than their combined gross debt, according to a study commissioned by the European Central Bank. The countries in the report compiled by the Research Center for Generational Contracts at Freiburg University in 2009 had almost 30 trillion euros ($39.3 trillion US) of projected obligations to their existing populations, a clearly unsustainable obligation.

CONCLUSION 

Most thinking people see lower infant mortality rates and longer life spans as indisputable goods, and indeed, at first blush, it is difficult to argue to the contrary. However, given that the life supporting physical and financial resources of the planet are finite and unevenly distributed already, it is difficult to conceive how even conservative projections for a 35-40 per cent increase in the number of humans will produce positive results in the coming decades, let alone a doubling.

If conditions are already setting up to be unmanageable, consider what will happen if a drug such as PROGENETER is added to the mix, a treatment that would cut in half the number of deaths among the elderly of the world. While it sounds callous, the last thing the world needs is more old people. We really do need to be very careful what we wish for.

Governments are rarely accused of thinking and planning long term, but in this instance, someone, somewhere absolutely must. To ignore facts, and to ultimately be proven wrong, will spell irreversible disaster. The soon-to-be-released PROGENETER books explore the consequences of commercializing a drug that dramatically extends human life spans on a planet where pockets of overpopulation already cause distress. Although the storyline is fictional, what we’re seeing unfold around the world means the story could easily be ripped from the headlines.

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