About The Author
D. R. Prescott has written a novel, a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, a collection of essays, planetarium show/display scripts, two family histories, technical articles and business plans as well as written for and edited several newsletters.
Awards and published work include Writers' Journal, Long Story Short, Taj Mahal Review literary journal, The Orange County Register, Writer's Digest, and Writing.com and four books among other challenges.
As a former aerospace executive and planetarium program director, Prescott currently writes and explores life in Orange, California.
"Sentience can be annoying."-DRP Abt. 1990
Since 2008, Prescott has been a regular contributor of
essays and short stories to
The Taj Mahal Review Literary Journal
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O R D E R T O D A Y !
World Population Forecasts, Say What?
by D. R. Prescott
The United Nations statistical gurus have estimated what they think world population will be over the next three hundred years based on a number of assumptions about future birth rates, death rates, fertility rates, life expectancy, male-female populations, among other factors. They include three cases in their study—medium, high and low estimates.
Trying to understand these numbers is not what is difficult; the difficulty lies understanding what these numbers might mean for our descendants. The stark implications of these numbers captured my attention as did the relationship of GDP to people did in a previous article, GDP? I Have Questions.
Still having many questions, I decided to explore the United Nations forecasts to see where they might lead. Why do that? If for no other reason, it might be fodder for some fiction yet to be generated in my future. Let’s see where it goes…
Figure 1 below gives a quick visual summary of what intrigued me. Beginning in 1950, there were 2.5 billion people alive on the planet. By 2009, that number had grown to 6.8 billion. The United Nations has projected out to 2300 for three cases—medium, high and low. By 2050, the United Nations forecasts that human population will be somewhere from 7.4 to 10.6 billion with a medium of 8.9 billion as possibly what one might call their most likely case.
The calculations for the medium case show modest growth from 8.9 billion people to 9.9 billion by 2300 (Note: That is a considerably lower growth rate than we experienced between 1950 and 2000); the high case soars to 36.4 billion people by 2300 while the low case descends to 2.1 billion people in same time frame.
Looking at the medium case line (black solid line), you might notice that human population eventually grows from 8.9 million in 2050 to 9.9 billion people by 2300. But, look a lot closer. Somewhere after 2100, the medium line actually dips, bottoming out around 2175 primarily due to lowering worldwide fertility rates. The detail numbers show a 3.4 billion decline in the world population before it starts a climb to the 2300 level of 9.9 billion people, which is 1.46 times the number of people on the planet today.
The high case is sort of a business-as-usual scenario reproductive-wise except that fertility rates are dramatically lower than experienced from 1950 (over 5 children per woman) through 2000 (about 2.6 children per woman.) Being higher than replacement rate, we reach 10.6 billion people by 2050 (1.56 times the 2010 world population) because birth rates are assumed higher than replacement levels at 2.35 children per woman by 2300.
The low case on the other hand is calculated using lower than replacement rate of 1.85 children per woman for more than a century and a half after 2025. That assumption dramatically reduces world population in 300 years which brings up whether or not human population has ever had a significant plunge.
The answer is yes… most notably in the 1300’s with the Black Death, nearly two hundred years of the Crusades and, between the years 200 and 800, a number of plagues and wars. In the twentieth century, World War II took a great toll, more than 50 million casualties, which flattened world population levels for a couple of years. Then, after the WWII, humans began to multiply faster and live longer sending world population on an upward spiral to 6.8 billion by 2010.
Perhaps, the most important question is: What type of world will our progeny live in by 2300? Let’s look at it case by case:
From 2050, world population increases about a billion people by 2300 surfacing several troubling issues.
• How many people can the Earth support? The experts call it “carrying capacity.” (See related links for more detail about carrying capacity.) Over the last 40 years, experts have estimated low and high population levels that the Earth could support or carry. The median estimates range 2.1 billion to 4.95 billion people with the lowest being 0.5 billion and the highest at 14.0 billion. Assuming the medians are closer to the truth, the medium UN case has the world population projected to almost double the high median of 4.95 billion people. Oops!
• If GDP is dependent on population for its growth, what will happen if the economy levels off or grows very slowly? All we hear from politicians and financial people is that the economy needs to grow to be healthy. If you look historically at world GDP versus population, there is significant correlation between the two. GDP needs people but it also needs science and technology creating new ways to put people to work. If the economy doesn’t grow, then there is stagnation and unemployment. If GDP turns negative over a long period, the effects would likely be profound unless something buoys up the economy. GDP has steadily climbed with little bobbles during recession periods over the last 40 years until 2009. The GDP tanked a negative 2.9 per cent and unemployment soared into double digits. That type of GDP decline hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression in the 1930’s.
• How will the human standard of living fair in a world of limited or no population growth? Of course, standard of living is more than things materialistic; it also includes state of mind, a sense of well being. Improving health of the species and forging new medical advances are an integral part of increasing a sense of well being and improving humanity’s overall standard of living. However, if the world economy stagnates or, worse, is not sustainable, our descendants’ standard of living may be adversely, even catastrophically affected. If the current world population is over Earth’s carrying capacity, how can we imagine sustaining or improving standard of living?
Here is where the United Nations’ projections become challenging for our civilization as well as our Earth’s ability to sustain 36 billion people. The good news is that human population continues to grow and that means world GDP has an increasing base upon which to build. That is the extent of the good news as far as human beings living on Earth. Here are some of the challenges as I see them:
• Obviously the carrying capacity issue raises its head with a vengeance. With 36 billion people needing energy and living space, things could likely get dicey very quickly. Let’s put the number of people in perspective. If 5 billion people is anywhere near an accurate estimate of Earth’s carrying capacity, the trouble many think we are in today multiplies seven-fold by 2300. As I propose in my book (Is there Time? See related links), one potential solution is over our heads, off the Earth.
• The food, potable water and energy needed to support such a population staggers one’s mind. One could imagine resource wars as some critical resources become increasingly scarce. Food and potable water are critical to keeping our civilization stable. Energy shouldn’t be a problem as long as enough solar and other alternatives replace fossil fuels reducing the human carbon footprint. Energy upon which our civilization runs is available from all sorts of alternative sources. Unfortunately, you might logically ask, “Will climate change compound the problem of supplying food and water?”
• What about all the by-products of human habitation that are polluting our oceans and waterways today. Unless there is a real change in mindset, people are going to be people and garbage will still be garbage.
• Just keeping people employed, productive and engaged is likely to be a big issue. Whole new industries emerging from talented minds in the last hundred or so years are letting us live longer, produce more and live better which is the fuel for a growing world economy. However, the apparent ease with which we integrated all this wonderful technology over the last couple hundred years while growing our numbers is deceiving. From where will 6 times the number of jobs needed come? Again, a potential solution may be off the Earth if we have the wisdom, foresight and courage to do it.
The low case tends to be more worrisome than either the medium or high cases. It takes humanity where people have never gone before—eliminating two-thirds of human beings on the Earth in less than three hundred years (from 6.8 billion today to 2.3 billion by 2300.) As I mentioned earlier, historically plagues and wars reduced human population for short periods, but not by two-thirds. Further, the low case assumes that fertility plunges below replacement level for over 150 years until 2190 when it returns to replacement level and stays there for the rest of the long range forecast. That suggests that 2.3 billion would become a steady state human population for Earth if replacement can manage to hold population growth to zero. What are the implications of that assumption?
• World real GDP growth has steadily been positive over the last forty years until 2009. In 2009, GDP had the largest drop since the Great Depression which is why this period is becoming known as the Great Recession. If the planet’s population reduces two-thirds will real GDP also go down? Or, through automation and other technologies, will the people of 2300 live a charmed life with the highest per capita world real world GDP? Imagine everyone becoming billionaires or trillionaires (a word not yet in our lexicon.)
• On the other side of the equation, what if the 2009 negative real GDP growth follows the population to which it is so currently correlated? There are a couple of possibilities. (1) Realizing that their standard of living is threatened, especially materialistically, will our descendants create a new world economy where GDP is propped up by technology? (2) If people of the future are unable to adapt to a new state of affairs, will civilization as we know it crumble into feudal states?
• What happens to all the unneeded facilities (homes, vehicles, stores and infrastructure of all sorts) used by the people gradually phased out? Talk about recycling! Will we return to a 1930’s size of world or earlier where 2.0 billion people had only begun to foul their nest?
• Or, is hidden in this projection is an unforeseen (by many) of some catastrophic event (pandemic, war, or cosmic event) that will wipe out two-thirds of the world population leaving the survivors to pick up the reigns of civilization and press on as depicted in a number of pessimistic Hollywood movies?
• Depending on what form a low case civilization takes by 2300, only 2.3 billion people on Earth might be good for the Earth. Perhaps nature would have a chance to recover from the ravages inflicted by humans in the last 100 years. Whether that will be good or bad for humanity remains to be seen. It would seem wise for humans to learn to live with their environment if we are to remain Earth bound. My new book suggests that remaining isolated on a single planet in a hostile universe is a lousy idea.
There you have it: medium, high and low world population forecasts, each with opportunities and pitfalls. As William S. Burroughs said, “After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say I want to see the manager.” Your turn...download the data from the United Nations if you like and play with the numbers. See if you come to any different conclusions.
© Copyright 2010 D. R. Prescott (donprescott at Writing.Com).
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