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The devil of demography: How to feed the multitudes?

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Lady Demography has cleaned up her act and we’re headed toward 10 billion people on Earth — a mere 100 years away. It’s not just that the numbers are changing — the basic rules of population are shifting as well.

Demography, the study of population, is a cold-hearted mistress, and she’s wearing a new dress. For most of history, demographic control has fed on human misery:

• Disease and pestilence were once a cure-all for population surges, sure to wipe out the masses. Black death, typhoid, yellow fever and Spanish influenza could always be counted on in the cause of human diminishment. But the days of quarantines and sawbones have given way to immunization and antibiotics.

• Old age and infant mortality have also been demoted. Lifespans continue to creep up as modern medicine makes sure that babies born today will bounce into their eighties.

• Even wars have been tidied up — mongol hordes, jihads and crusades, World War I butchery, and atom bombs have had a deterrent effect on mass slaughter. These days, even the U.N. will take action if conflict tolls reach toward the six-figure level. (Keep the dead below six figures and the U.N. will be content with passing resolutions.)

• Natural disasters can no longer be counted on. They’re still solid performers, but relief efforts and a very stubborn medical industry have reduced the sledgehammer-effect of floods and earthquakes.

• Yet, despite all the relegations, abortion has been promoted as the dowager of population control, extinguishing over 40 million humans per year.

Well, all of that is old-hat these days. Lady Demography has cleaned up her act and we’re headed toward 10 billion people on Earth — a mere 100 years away. It’s not just that the numbers are changing — the basic rules of population are shifting as well.

Time was, when a country was thriving economically, population surged accordingly. Prosperity meant population explosion. No more of that in most Western countries, as birthrates plummet and dog ownership rises. If we take a look at fertility rates in Germany, France or Italy — the numbers are a sagging 1.3 or 1.4. Shockingly low tallies; made even more so considering that while Europe is chopping away at its population base, the rest of the world is still headed toward 10 billion by 2100.

So where is the booming population coming from? Forget the West, China or Japan. Instead, look to underdeveloped, weak economies across Africa and Asia. And yes — don’t turn away — these are the same countries already fraught with failed governments and medal-laden dictators. Therefore, a part of the world in perpetual courtship with humanitarian disaster is set for a population burst.

Assuming Lady Demography plays nice, and population clips 10 billion in 2100 — the masses will all have to eat. Free-range chickens ain’t gonna cut it. Rice, wheat, corn, tubers, beans — these will be trump crops. Ahmed and his family of six in Bangladesh will depend on staples as never before, and he won’t care whether his rice is genetically modified or not.

In 2100, there will be 10 billion mouths to feed. Agriculture, as it always has, will be at the pulse of political climates: Take away my bread and I’ll riot. Hoard my rice and I’ll topple the king.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Dale Fagerland (not verified)
on Nov 7, 2011

Chris, I like your insight and foresight. Dale

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