World Population Slows and Yet We’re Not Satisfied

This fascinating article passed my way and I guess I’m confused. Time was when we feared explosive population increases.

1955 redux

I was twenty years old in 1955 and had just proudly purchased my first brand new automobile, a Chevy Bel Air, white over yellow. So there were three markers for 1955: the car, my 20th birthday and the fact that world population was two billion. I’ve written before on the subject. Sixty-five years later, we’re nudging eight billion. Sit down, put your feet up, pour a cup of coffee and think about that for a moment.

It took what we would call modern humanity about 300,000 years to reach the delivery date of my first new car. Side issue: that two billion headcount brought them out of caves and into the driver’s seat of an automobile that included power steering and brakes, automatic transmission, air conditioning, electric windows and a 200 cubic inch V-8 engine. Throw in a signal-seeking radio.

Got it? And then the fun began

In an eye-wink (about 2 hours out of 300,000 years in relative time) we multiplied the entire history of human population by four. In my single lifetime we did that. Thank god they don’t all get a car—although we’re working on that.

To quote the opening paragraph of the article,

Fewer babies’ cries. More abandoned homes. Toward the middle of this century, as deaths start to exceed births, changes will come that are hard to fathom.

Well, they’re not hard for me to fathom

Possibly hard for a millennial, but I remember with great pleasure and accuracy what a two-billion person world looked like and we have a long way to go to get that back, so there won’t be all that much sticker-shock.

  • You’ll be able to walk or ride a bike to the grocery,
  • become a family again and go fishing,
  • send your kids to college,
  • live without fossil fuels,
  • get to know your neighbors and a whole lot more.

Just sip your coffee and dream with me. That world holds out a whole lot more promise than who will or won’t be our next president.

But less is more requires a few re-sets

That was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s architectural motto and I met the great man near the end of his career in Chicago. I chided him, “So that ultimately means “nothing is everything?”

Not exactly,” he replied with a wink. But the point is well taken and ‘less is more’ is absolutely applicable in this context. Less housing, less crowded cities, fewer cars on the road and a move toward deconstructing in the place of endless constructions. If only Mies was here to see it.

Wal-Mart and Amazon shrunk to size and the re-invention of small town, now boarded-up centers. Strip-malls reconfigured into suburban parks or housing, light-rail drawing the whole town into walk-about, cycle-about places where neighbors actually know one another and kids are safe. The end-game might well be an environment where a single breadwinner can keep a family comfortable and that single income might be earned by a woman.

Social security reinvented for a declining worker-base

The whole basis of retirement income was badly thought through, because it was intended as a supplement, a lifeline rather than a primary support structure. Yet for the vast majority of low to middle-income wage earners it’s all there is.

Everyone is nervous about how that may play out. Certainly there will be a gap between how much the currently employed contribute and a growing number of elderly. But that’s temporary, as we old codgers drop off the rolls and fewer come to replace us. I’ve always maintained that an annuity based national retirement income would make more sense because it takes advantage of compound interest over a long period of years. That has capabilities, but it’s complicated beyond my pay-grade.

We’ll have to see how it plays out

But life in a period of declining population is going to become far more equitable, particularly as a technologically advanced society spreads into less wealthy nations. Consider these contributions to a smaller world population:

  • Extreme reductions to energy costs as the world goes solar and weans itself from fossil fuels,
  • As desalinization and air-extraction brings drinking and agricultural water to the Middle East and Africa, turning deserts into gardens,
  • making schools and healthcare systems available to the reduced populations of poor nations,
  • with vertical farms growing food within dense cities and
  • reduced pressures on immigration as all of the above occur.

My faith in the future is based on life in Prague

I live in Prague and when I moved here twenty-eight years ago, the city was gray and dilapidated and you could taste the air in winter from coal burning furnaces. Thirty years later it’s a wonderland of repaired and painted buildings, having shrugged off its five years of Nazi occupation and following forty of communist rule. I compare it to a beautiful old lady, growing younger every year.

I’m well acquainted with the world as it was when I was twenty and witnessed the following sixty-five years of that worldly and beautiful lady growing bent and weary from carrying too many people, far too much poverty and the strain of a finite pie with fewer and fewer slices to share. I see capability in a lesser world. It’s a simple equation, based on finite resources and fewer mouths crying in hunger, pain and poverty. Growth was our mantra for a century and growth is a harsh landlord.

Edward Abbey said ‘“growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Abbey was a wise man.

I hope to hang around long enough to see that worldly, bent and weary lady grow young and beautiful once again. The capability is there I’m sure.


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