The Population Time Bomb

After writing about numbers and calendars I got into a discussion on the GoodReads forums about dystopian concepts and backdrops and the impact of rising populations the population time bomb I might call it.

 https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1486060-what-is-the-most-overused-dystopian-cliche

The discussion some of which I have repeated in this blog was mainly with Will Once a fellow GoodReads author http://www.will-once.com/

We were discussing dystopia or utopia in the future. Will wrote:

Nano technology and stem cell research are interesting because they hint at a possible utopia/ dystopia that we may be heading for. As medicines, improve we are living longer – that much is evident. What happens when the world is full of millions of 200 year olds? Do all the young uns find that the only work they can get is as doctors/ nurses and social care workers? And that they can’t afford to buy a house because the old folk aren’t dying off to release their houses back into the market.

In 1900 the average life expectancy for a man was in his fifties. He probably didn’t get much time to enjoy his retirement. Now the average life expectancy for a man is in his 80s. Some are saying that the first person to live to be 200 may have already been born.

And now the £64,000 question. Will that lead us to utopia or dystopia?

 I responded:

This is exactly the backdrop that is driving much modern sci-fi. I am trying to see how we get to the utopia without a significant event to force change. Global warming will have an impact but forget industrial CO2 emissions, the cause of those emissions is population growth, worldwide causing demand for products and resources. Add to growth better healthcare which extends life and you have a double whammy. Previous growth led to exploration to the Americas from Europe and then to Australasia. Earth’s population is rapidly on the way to seven billion without the impact of better healthcare. Curing disease is a very noble act but there is a knock on effect.

I think there will be a worldwide food and water crisis at some stage unless food production and water preparation can be increased significantly. Of course that would mean a better survival rate thus increasing the problem. For exploration we either populate the current uninhabited areas or find more space – Mars anyone?

All those actions require energy and fuel so until we have fusion power or get over our hangups over nuclear we will continue to generate more carbon. As for renewable ever tried a dull overcast day with no wind! Unless we can store the renewable energy we will always be limited that means batteries or pumping water to use as hydro electric at night/dull/windless. Tidal barrage is a possibility near coasts but fusion holds the key.

To which Will responded

I‘m not sure that emigration to Mars (or anywhere else) is really going to be the solution. As you say, we’re currently at 7 billion population. This number is increasing by an extra billion every 12 years or so. If we assume that the growth stays the same and we want to keep earth’s population static, then we would need to ship one billion people to Mars every 12 years.

That’s 83 million people every year. Or 233,000 people every day.

Let’s say that our spaceships can each carry as many passengers as an Airbus A380 – that’s 853 people in an “all economy” configuration (and also coincidentally twice the number of passengers that Star Trek’s Enterprise could carry, but let’s be optimistic).

Let’s also be really generous and say that the trip takes just 48 hours, including loading and reloading the passengers at either end. That is definitely into NC1701 levels of speed and probably needing transporter technology to get folks through the transit lounges.

We would need a fleet of 550 of these spaceships operating 24/7.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Mars would be filling up at a rate of 1 billion people every 12 years – for the first few years, but then accelerating to up to 2 billion every 12 years thereafter (their own 1 billion growth plus the 1 billion shipped over from earth).

If we started this programme tomorrow and assume that Mars was instantly colonisable, then within about 60 years Mars would be as full as the earth is now.

Oops.

A more likely scenario is that we are either going to have to learn how to live with hyper-population and/or start talking about euthanasia/ population control – eg the Logan Run idea of death at the age of 30 and/ or the Chinese one-child per family policy.

The future may well be one of minimalism. Fewer possessions, less energy consumption per person, smaller homes, less travelling, Hong Kong style city living.

 So much for my Mars idea…As I like numbers I thought I would explore the discussion with some statistics. The World’s population has increased from 2 Billion (probably under reported in the developing world) to 7 billion in a little over eighty years.

The statistics of course hide a lot of variations from life expectancy. The numbers and extension of age has a primary causation of living beyond age 1 and then age 5. Public Health improvements are the main reason life expectancy has increased and the reason life expectancy in the developing world is still so low relative to Western Europe and Japan. The number of 100 year-olds is doubling every 13 years and this rate is increasing.

Public health will improve in large potential population areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian populations of India, Pakistan, Indonesia etc. and South America continues to expand. We will have a double whammy not just in terms of greater birth rates but better and longer survival rates. More children will survive to adulthood, to produce more children and those same children will live longer.

Now tie the population to carbon emissions, I’ll use the USA and India as examples. The USA has 4.4% of world population in 2010 figures. India has 17.4%. Respectively they produce 17.3% and 6.4% of carbon emissions. Therefore USA has a quarter of the population but produces three times the carbon for it’s higher standard of living. The population in the USA has a greater life expectancy than India therefore they not only produce more carbon per head per year but for longer. If India was to raise it’s public health and consequent carbon emissions to US standards of survival and consumption, their population would nearly double, average age would increase and consumption would increase by nearly 300%. To achieve that consumption without different forms of energy is simply unrealistic. We do not have the fossil fuels on earth to produce that much energy. The impact of the carbon emissions on global warming would be well in excess of the predicted temperature rises.

I’ll not get into the argument of whether this is man made or not. It’s a pointless discussion. The rise is happening. Anyone who has been lucky enough to visit a coral reef can see the impact of pollution on coral over the last thirty or forty years. Call it temperature rise or just pollution in the water, the coral is dying regardless. Fish stocks are declining in virtually every species.

The loss of fish as a food has been largely offset by the growth in agricultural production. Most of this food has gone to people who can pay for it rather than who need it to survive, because the cost of production has to be paid for somehow. The World’s altruistic efforts to provide Governments, NGOs and the UN with funds to help famine victims only increase the pressure to grow and distribute food.

Unfortunately, I can see a future of famine for much of the Earth’s population. The West maybe partially immune because we have money to buy the resources, but that is until the demands outweigh the resources around the world. We must discover either new energy or new ways of producing and distributing food and water. We could use desalination plants for water but they need energy to run the process and create other waste in the form of carbon emissions and other toxic waste. Once salt has been removed where is it put…

We could irrigate the deserts. This would require massive investment in digging, and then pumping water, more energy and would have it’s own impact on local climate. If you visit southern Arizona (Yuma to the Californian state line) you can see this in action, desert turned green but the locals will tell you the climate has changed from dry desert to humidity. Of course the ancient Egyptians did this with the Nile so it’s nothing new.

So all we need are:

  • Clean renewable energy
  • More food
  • More water
  • Or population control

Otherwise we will have famine. We already do! It just doesn’t grab the headlines everyday although South Sudan was in the news this week. We have battles over resources around the world. They can be dressed up as political arguments and religious disputes but the underlying causes are frequently resource driven. Food, water, energy or control of these.

The Colorado River used to flow into Mexico; the trickle at Yuma that crosses the border had been used for farming, recreation, and power generation in the USA. This leaves very little for the Mexican neighbours. Water resource is already a huge issue in parts of California. The growth of Las Vegas as a city impacted the available water resource for Los Angeles and the available power generated by the Hoover Dam hydroelectric power plant. California’ population has been growing 6.3 million in 1910 census to 37 million in 2010 census. In one person’s lifespan, albeit a centenarian, a 600% population increase. As far as I am aware no new natural resources have been created in California for several billion years. Human beings have found some, maybe all, imported even more.

Droughts and floods in the UK have been met with equal levels of surprise because we cannot fund water distribution or flood defences within current tax, or payment levels. In a drought we can’t move water to drought areas and in a flood we cannot pump it away for storage. We do not want to build reservoirs, which could provide hydroelectric power. We seem to lack the vision or will for large infrastructure projects especially in the crowded expensive south of the country. The very area where demand for power, water, sewage is the greatest and growth is the highest.

To solve this will take massive sustained long-term investment, but the world does not seem to be awake to the issue. After all it will take more time than the next election window. As a final example of the absurdity of the situation I’ll pick on Coca Cola (no offence to CC but they are big enough not to care). It spends $2.9 Billion per annum on advertising its products. The largest Fusion Research effort, ITER, is costing approx. $15 billion for it’s 35-year lifespan and is 11 years late so far. In other words Coca Cola spends more per year advertising its products than the world spends on fusion research. In fact CC’s advertising spend is larger than the GDP of thirty of the poorest nations. Yet CC will need water, ingredients, and power to produce its products for the expanding world population. Where exactly are these resources to come from? This is not a rant on the failures of capitalism, socialism, communism or any other ‘ism. Where are the answers to the problem? We need food, water, and space to live and breathe clean air. We need to distribute it as fairly as possible.

Unless we can discover ways to produce more with less then the population time bomb will continue to tick. On the forum, Will finished part of the discussion mentioning Human Rights – one child per family as China experimented to reduce it’s population growth. That’s another whole realm of discussion and for the fiction writer another opportunity for stories on dystopias. I haven’t sneaked a book link in until now so hear it is – My To the Survivors story has a virus do this correction… I can’t see many utopias awaiting the human race. Mother nature/God/evolution has in the past sorted the problem out. If one species grows too big it starves or a disease reduces the levels. For the last few thousand years human beings have strived to overcome the balancing act that naturally occurred. Perhaps another major balancing act for human beings is overdue.

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