The next billion people


Dr. Norman Borlaug now represents Iowa in National Statuary Hall at the the U. S. Capitol. The Iowa born Borlaug was a plant geneticist best know for developing high-yielding strains of wheat leading to the “Green Revolution” in the 1960’s The inscription on Dr. Borlaug’s statue reads “The man who saved a billion lives”.
We rightly celebrate the life and work of Dr. Borlaug. However, at some point we must ask the questions: What is the impact of a billion people on the resources and environment of the planet? How many more billions can we absorb before our finite resource systems collapse?
Dr. Borlaug saved countless people from starvation and raised the standard of living for millions of others. As a society we must do everything we can to improve the lot of the least fortunate people in the world. To not do so is the ultimate in arrogance and selfishness.
In 1900 there were 1.65 billion people on the planet. Over the course of the twentieth century that number grew to 6.12 billion, a 370 percent increase. There are now 7.2 billion people on and we will add the next billion in 14 years. We are adding the equivalent of the population of Iowa every two weeks.
In spite of the efforts of Dr Borlaug and many others, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates there are currently 842 million people in the world suffering from chronic hunger. One out of every nine people alive is hungry right now with little hope of alleviating their condition. The burden falls most heavily on children.
The majority of the next billion people will be born in Africa and India and this can only add to the ranks of hungry children. The United States will be home to about three percent of the next billion, a small fraction of the total number. However, we demand much more than our proportionate part of the finite resources that desperately need to be shared by all.
There are too many people. If we stabilized the population where it is now, we could probably find a way to cope and ultimately feed and cloth everyone-but the population is not stable. Additional growth is built into the system and is inevitable. Even those demographers who are most optimistic about our ability to ultimately control our population see a world with over 10 billion people by 2100. The most pessimistic forecast a total approaching twice that number.
Population growth is a problem that drives most of the other major issues we face; climate change, resource depletion, hunger, political instability, and just overcrowding. The problem demands attention by our best thinkers and our most forceful leaders. The inscription on the statue of the hero of the twenty-first century may well read “The man (or woman) who stabilized population and saved the world.”

Muscatine Journal Column 4/26/14