There is an African story of Genesis where the first humans were offered 2 choices. The first choice was they could live forever, to be immortal, but have no children. The second choice was that they could have children, but they would die. While living forever sounded like such a good thing, the prospect of never hearing children’s laughter or being around children took away whatever joy there would be and the world would be a sadder place. The first humans then made the decision to be mortal so that they could have children.
I was reminded of this story the other day when I read that the world’s population today is upwards of 7.8 billion people, and growing. That is a lot of people. That is a lot of any kind of large mammal. Compared to other large mammals, we have by far the largest population. It is not even close. For instance, there are only 880 mountain gorillas, period. That’s it. For every mountain gorilla, there are almost 9 million people. Other species don’t fare much better. There are only 3890 tigers in the world and only 31,000 polar bears. Lions? About 35,000. The number of chimpanzees is put at around 300,000, while there are about 65,000 orangutans. People? 7.8 billion. That doesn’t sound so big until you actually write it out. 7.8 billion = 7,800,000,000. That is what 7.8 billion looks like.
There have never been more people in the world than there are today. As a matter of fact, 90% of all the humans who have EVER lived did so in the past 100 years. It is estimated that the world’s population first reached 1 billion in 1804, about the time Thomas Jefferson was beginning his second term as president. By 1974, when I was in high school, the world’s population had reached 4 billion. In 1987, when I graduated college, it was 5 billion. It rose to 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2012. In the time since I graduated high school, the world’s population has doubled. The world’s population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by the year 2100 according to the United Nations.
How did we get here? It’s been a long road. It is estimated that in the year 1 C.E., the world had roughly 300 million people in it, slightly less than what the United States has today. As a matter of fact, the population of the entire Roman Empire, from Spain to Asia Minor, had only 45 million people. Granted, making population estimates for that long ago is at best imprecise, but at any rate, the global population 2000 years ago was a tiny fraction of what it is today.
By the late Middle Ages, the world’s population had grown to an estimated 475 million, or to about 50% larger than it was 1300 years earlier. The growth was slow, and the threats to human survival were numerous. The Black Death killed 30% to 60% of Europe’s population. Taking into account the spread of the disease, the world’s population may have been reduced by well over 100 million, down to about 350 million by the 14th century. The Black Plague wiped out about 1000 years of population growth, setting the world’s population back to what it was about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. If the world’s population grew from 375 million in the year 1 C.E. to 1 billion in the 19th century, it took almost 2000 years for it to triple. By contrast, the world’s population has now more than doubled just since the time I graduated high school, which was 44 years ago. The speed with which the population is growing is at an ever-increasing speed.
The growth of the human population today can be called nothing short of explosive. If the topic ever comes up in conversation, the most typical and predictable responses have something to do with the birth rate. “People are having too many babies,” some will say. Others will criticize the impoverished in nations like India, and make derisive comments like “they can’t feed themselves and yet they keep on having babies.” To link the increasing global population with the birth rate seems obvious, and it is, deceptively so.
Each day about 150,000 people die and approximately 360,000 babies are born. More than twice as many people are born each day than die, which adds roughly 175,000 people to the world’s population EVERY DAY. This is simply unsustainable. Something clearly must change to bring the birth rate and death rate in alignment. If nothing changes, mankind will eventually run out of room, resources, or luck. An overcrowded planet is ripe for pandemics, war, and other events that will bring the population down to a sustainable level. Mankind can do it, and if mankind does not, nature will take care of it for us.
The birth rate, however, is not the problem. The death rate is. The birth rate has actually been dropping in the last 75 years. In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime. The fertility rate today is almost half that at 2.4 children per woman. The real problem is that people are living much longer than ever before. In 1900, the average global life span was a mere 31 years. By 1950, it went up to 48. And in 2017, the average global lifespan has gone up to 72. The average global citizen is now living more than twice as long as his counterpart did in 1900. It’s no secret people are living longer, not just in the US, but worldwide. There is a saying making the rounds today that “100 is the new 80.”
The U.N. estimated there were 343,000 centenarians worldwide in 2012, a figure projected to grow to 3.2 million by 2050. Consider that, in 1960, there were only 20,119 centenarians worldwide. That represents a 17 fold increase in the last 60 years. The United States has the most centenarians, with an estimated number of about 80,000. Barring some major demographical event, this number will only go up.
What can be done? Probably not much. China’s experiment in limiting parents to 1 baby was mostly a failure and resulted in a small younger population working to support a much larger aged population. So too people feel they have the right to reproduce as much as they want. The truth is that there is no way the population of any country is going to accept being told how many children they can have.
If we cannot limit the number of children being born, the other option seems even more dreadful — limiting how long people can live. Modern medicine has prolonged life remarkably with surgery and other treatments that 50 years ago would have been the stuff of science fiction. Surely no one is going to suggest killing off our elderly once they reach a certain age, or withholding medical treatment for the same reason. This is the stuff of dystopian novels. We are as averse to watching our elderly die as we are too limiting the number of babies we have.
That is where we are stuck. We are on a collision course with unsustainability. In terms of the African Genesis story, we want both — to live forever AND to have children. This was not a choice we were given. We do not want to have to make a choice, and the good news is that we really don’t have to. Nature will make that choice for us at some point further down the road.