The Scale of Things and Demographic Fatigue


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An NPG Forum Paper
by Walter Youngquist

The earth is straining under a demographic assault on a scale never before seen. The overwhelming scale of its problems comes from resource demands of continued population growth, the problem that underlies nearly all other problems.

From the time of the appearance of modern humans it took 200,000 years to reach the first billion in population in 1840. As late as 1750, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, world population was only an estimated 725 million. Then from improved living standards – marked especially by increased food production, advances in sanitation, and medicine – population began to grow exponentially, so that by 1930 it was globally two billion. As recently as 1960 world population was only three billion, but by 1975 it had reached four billion. It is now 7.3 billion, and it took only 12 years for the most recent billion to arrive. This scale of population growth has no precedent.

The United Nations now projects world population will reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100. Humans are now appropriating Earth’s finite resources to support the growing numbers at exponential rates. Here are a few consumption growth rates just from 1958 to 2008: Copper from 3.2 million tons to 15.4 million tons, iron ore from 405 million tons to 2.2 billion tons, phosphate rock from 33.7 million tons to 161 million tons. And oil, our current single-most important energy source, from 7.6 billion barrels a year in 1958 to 33 billion barrels in 2016. The world has consumed approximately 1.2 trillion barrels of oil since the time of the Drake well in 1859. Half of that total consumption has occurred since 1988. Global energy demand is projected to increase by 25 percent by 2040. But oil production now may be very close to its peak.

We have heard the admonition “go forth and multiply,” but what must inevitably follow is “and now divide.” Here we are running into the problems of scale, as depleting nonrenewable natural resources are faced with an exponentially increasing demand that ultimately cannot be met. Perhaps even by mid-century these two factors will collide head-on, and the fabric of our industrialized economies – and the societies they support – will begin to unravel. Governments will be hard pressed to maintain their structures. Political promises of what have come to be called “entitlements” will fall short against natural resource limitations. Natural resources are the ultimate basis for economic growth from which tax revenues are expected to finance the entitlements. Such revenues may not materialize.

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