Friday, October 9, 2009

Overpopulation - Our Greatest Threat?

Compelling article by Paul Farrell in MarketWatch the other day, describing a meeting which took place last May that gathered some of the most influential movers and shakers.  The goal: to reach a consensus as to what constitutes the greatest threat to humanity.

    "Bill Gates called billionaire philanthropists to a super-secret meeting in Manhattan last May. Included: Buffett, Rockefeller, Soros, Bloomberg, Turner, Oprah and others meeting at the "home of Sir Paul Nurse, a British Nobel prize biochemist and president of the private Rockefeller University, in Manhattan," reports John Harlow in the London TimesOnline. During an afternoon session each was "given 15 minutes to present their favorite cause. Over dinner they discussed how they might settle on an 'umbrella cause' that could harness their interests." 
 The world's biggest time-bomb? Overpopulation, say the billionaires. And yet, global governments with their $50 trillion GDP, aren't even trying to solve the world's overpopulation problem. G-20 leaders ignore it. So by 2050 the Earth's population will explode by almost 50%, from 6.6 billion today to 9.3 billion says the United Nations. And what about those billionaires and their billions? Can they stop the trend? Sadly no. Only a major crisis, a global catastrophe, a collapse beyond anything prior in world history will do it."

The dangers of overpopulation have been argued over the years - indeed the centuries. Thomas Malthus, the classical economist famous for his theories on the limits of natural resources, wrote way back in 1798, in, "An Essay on the Principal of Population:  

"I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.  Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.  By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.  This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind."

Others, such as the the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug -  most famous for his stunning achievements in agricultural growth - was less widely known for his life-long belief that the greatest threat to food security was overpopulation.  

A debate remains as to the tipping point number...9 billion, 12 billion, even more, but it seems evident that natural resources such as water, energy and land can only sustain a limited amount of people before catastrophe occurs.  It would be a tragedy to see our world undergo a sudden population correction (a nice way of saying massive war, famine, disease etc.), when instead, sound policy direction and investment in family planning initiatives could steer us smoothly towards a more stable growth trend.  

This issue needs as much attention as the global alternative energy movement.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Politically, it's a touchy subject matter and attempts by countries such as China's "One Child" policies,  have left behind a bad taste.  Meetings such as the one last May are encouraging, but will real change happen in time?

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