Link - by Avi Abrams

Good news, bad news: exploring trends in human population that will shape our future.

National Geographic magazine begins a year-long series on human population with January 2011 issue's cover article "7 Billion" by Robert Kunzig, award-winning science writer and senior editor of the magazine (also watch a YouTube video with lots of cool stats and graphics)

Today we welcome Robert Kunzig, Senior Environment Editor of National Geographic magazine, for an exclusive interview exploring some of the key factors around population, with plenty of startling insights and little-known facts:

(fragment of the January cover of National Geographic magazine, photo by Randy Olson)

Avi Abrams, DRB:
Thank you for appearing on Dark Roasted Blend and the opportunity to ask you some questions. Your article has some great insights, but also contains some surprises: for example, the fact that the much-hyped exponential population growth has actually slowed down and stopped being the main concern, is quite unexpected... when everybody assumes that global population explosion is still in place, and nothing short of a plague, bomb or natural disaster is going to slow it down. So there is hope for humankind yet - and yet there are huge questions of sustainability and waste... Which brings me to the first question:

- Do you believe that United States (and Canada) are going to revise their rate of consumption of energy, water and food, or is it too much to hope for (seeing how hugely disproportionate their consumption footprint is already, and still growing)? Will Las Vegas wake up one day to the fact that it is actually located in the desert (and not on some heavenly cloud) and start reducing water consumption? High consumption brings glamor and comfort but what will it take to sober up before we reach the limit?

Robert Kunzig, National Geographic:
I never thought I would say this but — I must rise up and defend Las Vegas. It has already reduced its water consumption dramatically. I went there in 2007 when I was reporting a story on the ongoing drought in the American West for National Geographic. At that time the city had cut its water use by 20 percent in the previous four years - even though its population had continued to grow. New front lawns had already been banned - sprinklers are the big water hogs in Vegas - and the city was paying people to rip up back lawns. Of course they still have a water crisis there. Their supply is Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, and they've watched it drop this year to a near record low, because of that drought. But believe me, Las Vegas is not living on a heavenly cloud as far as water is concerned.

United States: A new house went up every 20 minutes during the 2004 building boom that seized Las Vegas and its sprawling suburbs, like Henderson. The American lifestyle - characterized by gas-thirsty cars and big houses using lots of electricity — contributes to the country's energy appetite; its carbon emissions are four times higher than the global average. (photo by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Altitude - click to enlarge)

Americans already consume a lot less energy per person than they did in 1978 - that was the all-time peak. Total consumption keeps rising here, except when the economy is tanking, because population is rising. Will we find a way to reduce it? I think we can. There are two good ways: prices and rules, especially prices. Europeans consume around half as much energy as Americans, not because they are better people, but because energy is more expensive there, in part because governments tax it heavily. If our government were to tax carbon, Americans would reduce their energy consumption right quick. Failing that bit of enlightened leadership, we'll have to wait for the market to do the job for us, for instance as we start to run out of oil.

But let me raise one objection to your overall premise. The point is not to reduce consumption per se, because consumption is not evil per se — it's important not to get moralistic about these issues, if only because moralism is self-defeating. The point is to reduce the damage that certain kinds of consumption cause. If we can find a cheap way to tap limitless solar energy, would it matter if our energy consumption continued to rise? Not so much, except in deserts covered by solar panels.

The question of having enough food is a tougher one. We Americans do indeed eat a lot more than we used to. Why we sit around more and eat more and move less is a largish subject that I'm very far from being an expert on. Personally I blame Canadians for the whole mess. If I were not sitting here answering questions from a Canadian website, my office lights and computer would be off, I wouldn't be eating this candy bar, and I'd be out enjoying a nice wholesome walk in the cool night air, on my way home to a supper of locally grown broccoli.

(Worker housing project in China; image via)

DRB: Do you think that the American Dream (a house in the suburbs, a car and minivan, huge outdoor mall nearby, safe neighborhoods to raise kids) is even attainable for the majority of emerging middle class in Asia? Is this lifestyle something they want? Can the world support the idea of two cars per family, say, in China? By the way, happy cyclists in Amsterdam may be living their own sort of dream: of a downsized and car-free kind. What do you think about that? Is the middle class Dream itself changing?

I can see you really like tightly focused questions, don't you? I believe you are now asking me "What do Asians want?" Well, I assume they want to be happy. The evidence at the moment is that they want a lot of the same stuff we have in America - refrigerators and cell phones and yes, cars. But people's ideas of what they want or need to be happy is contingent on circumstances and government policies and historical accident, as your Amsterdam example suggests. (Funny coincidence: on my way back from Delhi I broke up the trip by spending a night in Amsterdam, where I rented a bike.) What you describe as the American Dream is just a particular 20th century version that happened for a variety of reasons. It could have happened differently. And yes, it already is happening differently — baby boomers are getting old and realizing they don't want to be trapped in the suburbs, and their children, now grown, aren't having as many babies and finding they like the city, etc etc. One of the biggest challenges we face these days is overcoming our built legacy of car-centered sprawl. And one of the big challenges for Asia will be to try to avoid the worst excesses of a particular time and place that they don't have to make their own.

India: Its steaming streets crammed with vendors, pedestrians, and iconic Ambassador taxis, Kolkata throbs with some 16 million people — and more pour in every day from small towns. In 1975 only three cities worldwide topped ten million. Today 21 such mega cities exist, most in developing countries, where urban areas absorb much of the globe's rising population. (photo by Randy Olson/National Geographic)

DRB: My first exposure to the horrors of overpopulation in India came from reading "Song of Kali" by Dan Simmons which describes the squalid living conditions in Calcutta.. and some pretty horrid religious rites that went along with it. Do you think that people give up in despair when living in a slum, or do they still maintain some decency and even hope? Can you share some examples of people successfully escaping the slums?

I think that people are able to maintain decency and hope in all manner of conditions. In Delhi I visited a neighborhood that would be called lower middle class there, but would certainly be considered a slum in the U.S. It was a squatters' neighborhood, where people who had come in from the countryside had built multi-story buildings with their own hands on government land. In one of those houses I met a mother and her 18-year-old son. She was barefoot and wore a traditional sari with a head scarf; he was in flip-flops and cargo shorts and a T shirt. She was from a peasant background and had never been to school; he had just finished high school. In all those years she had only visited his school one time, on a day when he had forgotten his lunch. She had never met his teachers. She was too ashamed of her own illiteracy to show her face at school. But she was clear about one thing - if her son didn't get a scholarship to go to engineering college, she and her husband were going to find the money to pay for it. Around the corner, in another tiny living room, I met a father who had the same ambition for his two teen-age girls. Indians spend a huge portion of their budget on education. And kids on average are much more educated than their parents. There is way too much poverty and hunger in India. Things would be much easier if there weren't so many people. But it is a country with a lot of hope.

Spain: Immigrants like these Indians at a Sikh festival in Barcelona are bolstering Europe's stagnant population growth rate. Around the world, the childbearing decisions of young women will determine whether global population stabilizes or not. Research shows that the more education a woman receives, the fewer children she is likely to have. (photo by Randy Olson/National Geographic)

DRB: I heard the story of a man from Congo who crossed the Sahara desert on foot to try to reach the European paradise (he reached Italy and eventually moved to Canada). Are such stories and experiences common in Africa? Should not we hear more such testimonies to make us more aware of African people's plight, or just to gain some respect for their struggle to succeed?

Yes, we should hear more such stories. In general, we should try to remember to think of people as individuals, not as members of a faceless population whose swelling number terrifies us.

DRB: Do you think that European politics might be affected in the future by the influx of immigrants? Racism and nationalism were quite rampant and popular views in the beginning of 20th century Europe, and we all know what came out of it.

Europeans in particular know what came out of it. Immigration is affecting their politics right now, of course. Every time some right wing party exploits the issue and surges in the polls, we hear about it. I lived in France for 12 years, until 2008, and in 2002 I think it was, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front got nearly 20 percent of the vote in a presidential election, largely on an agenda that promoted fear of foreigners. But since then his party has faded back into irrelevance. So in general I'm hopeful that Europeans will be able to keep a lid on that particular expression of the collective id.

Demographically, a large influx of immigrants to Europe would make a lot of sense. It's a rich continent with an aging population in need of youth; Asia and Africa still have booming populations and a lot of youth looking for economic opportunity. From that point of view, immigration is win-win. Culturally, it's much harder. People who grew up in a certain culture are inevitably going to feel a loss if immigration changes it out from under them. I think politicians need to acknowledge that feeling and not invalidate it - but also not cater to it too much.

DRB: How would you respond to some extremely nutritious but utterly bland food (for example, some sort of universal green paste, the Answer to Feeding Millions)- would you accept it? Would you eat it happily, knowing that it helps the planet?


DRB: Here are a few purely hypothetical questions, more of a science-fiction variety, but something we find fascinating to think about:

- It was surprising to find out that seven billion people standing together would only cover the area of Los Angeles... but what about another mental experiment: putting not only living people but all the people that ever lived on a stretch of land? Philip Jose Farmer in his "Riverworld" described just such an eventuality, where Hitler and Stalin / both live together and forced to "rub shoulders" in a tight environment, together with untold billions of other people that ever inhabited the Earth. Do we even have an estimate of how many people lived during the Earth's history?

Joel Cohen, a demographer I interviewed for my National Geographic article, recently wrote a paper on that very question. He puts the total number of people who ever lived at around 77 billion, around 9 percent of whom are alive now. If he's right, you would need 11 Los Angeles (each one covering 500 square kilometers) to hold all the people standing shoulder to shoulder. Whether or not Hitler and Stalin would be able to elbow their way through the crowd in order to rub theirs together, I don't know.

("The Homeworld", art by David Fuhrer)

DRB: In your article you speak a lot about migration to the cities, but do you see a future migration of people from overpopulated and polluted cities back into the country, to some pastoral garden communities? When telecommuting to work becomes the norm and, say, flying cars are put in every garage? Many science fiction writers envisioned such a suburban utopia, or distopia (depending on the writer's preferences) - as an alternative to "Bladerunner" type high density urban centers. Would such a migration even be desirable?

That migration back into the country to "garden cities" already happened, in the last century - that's what gave us the suburbs. My guess is it was good for a lot of the migrants but not good for the planet as a whole. In general, concentrating people is a good thing for nature insofar as it leaves more room for people-free areas.

("Blue Moon", art by David Fuhrer)

DRB: What sort of overpopulation would we need to endure in order to prompt us to start actively colonizing other planets? Or should we rather start inhabiting the ocean depths, build flying cities - anything to stay on Good Old Earth instead? (I am a little bitter about the demise of 1950s Rocket Age and Space Colonization.)

As Ralph Kramden used to say, back in the 1950s - "To the moon, Avi!" You go first. (Maybe you're too young to have heard of Ralph Kramden. You can look him up on YouTube)

I've always found the sci-fi idea that population pressures are going to push us off the planet a little ridiculous. Now it seems even more so. Population looks set to peak at 9 or 10 billion later this century, and probably fall after that. The Earth then will be around half as densely populated as France is today. Living space is not the problem. Feeding all those people is going to be challenging - but growing wheat or corn would not be easier on Mars or any other planet we could reach. Don't talk to me about Universal Green Paste.

Robert Kunzig is Senior Environment Editor of the National Geographic magazine. His story "Population: 7 Billion" can be found at National Geographic website.




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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Kunzig says, "In general, we should try to remember to think of people as individuals, not as members of a faceless population whose swelling number terrifies us."

"In general" seems a needless qualification unless we think that it is ever necessary for us to be terrified of a 'faceless' and growing population.

It is the "us" that reveals the folly of this way of looking at the world. This is the view of the global elitist who feels the urge to control world affairs. A population is only faceless as long as it is distant. If you want to do good in the world, work with the people who are close and familiar to you.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My professor of World Politics had us read an article that claims everyone could have a house with a front and back yard, and fit them into the State of Texas!

Blogger Allen Knutson said...

In general, concentrating people is a good thing for nature insofar as it leaves more room for people-free areas.

Two other factors are much more important, I'd say:
1. They then don't need to drive all the time
2. It's much more efficient to temperature-control an apartment building than an equivalent number of houses.

Every now and then I meet someone who hates cities, and thinks that they're environmental disasters. Then I make them look up their estimated carbon footprint vs. that of a city dweller.

Anonymous AnthonyA said...

@Allen Knutsen: The person that believes that cities are environmental disasters are not necessarily wrong. While that person's carbon footprint might be larger, most cities do have significant problems with waste: trash, sewage, runoff, construction debris, noise, etc. NYC's harbor is surely not as clean of toxins as most rivers, lakes, and streams in North America. Thus the perception that "cities are environmental hellholes".

The most important thing to remember, as has been touched on, is that each individual has their own needs and preferences, and that while a majority might prefer city living, it is well to provide for those that don't.

Blogger Chris Phoenix said...

Cities' problems with pollution tend to be self-limiting. Suburban or country dwellers can just export their pollution; city dwellers have to deal with it.

This is one reason why cities may generate less pollution _per capita_ than rural living.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Universal Green Paste is People!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The world can't be overpopulated that easy. It's a great misconception. Problem is city density. If people were more thoughtful when they are starting cities, we'd have organized places instead of centralised cities like today and the planet could fit several billions more without any problem. There is enough food and water for everyone, the problem is distribution. One percent of people is holding 40% of the planet's wealth.
Zeitgeist 3 has a great explanation how world could be organized and how planned cities would work perfectly.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The myth of "overpopulation" is easily seen through and I'm really sick of hearing about it from smart people who should know better. It's based upon the false ideas of Malthus, and ever since him crackpots like Paul Ehrlich have been predicting "overpopulation". What is the "correct" amount of a populous to have to begin with? No answer.

Please stop feeding into this myth. As long as human beings are free to think and take action to feed and shelter themselves there will be no such crisis. Things such as mass starvation only occur when human production is crippled like in the Soviet Union.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overpopulation is most certainly not a myth, but merely a mystery as to at what point the unstoppable force, the Capitalist drive for perpetual, infinite growth runs headlong into the immovable object: the fact that we reside on a single planet with an ultimately finite amount of natural resources.

Anonymous Benny said...

Two points that weaken the overpopulation argument are it ignores issues such as inequality and bad infrastructure as the real problems, and it sees people as just consumers and not producers. There are actually many reasons to celebrate 7 billion. This milestone proves how ingenious we are, that we're better at keeping more people alive longer now than ever before, and we have more brains to create and develop more useful technologies and innovations to accommodate a growing population. Yes, there are still problems of starvation and lower standards of living for many on the planet, but neither history nor mathematical logic bears out the conclusion that population pessimists reached of resource scarcity. Where there are these problems, we need to go about creating more for everyone rather than curbing our numbers. In the Victorian times, the world's population was a small fraction of what it is now, yet there was still poverty. What changed and improved our lives in the West was not going down from 1 billion to less, but improving sanitation infrastructure, healthcare, our general standards of living, and taking advantage of scientific breakthroughs. We should see humanity as a solution and not the problem. I came across a spoof recently that parodies the many ridiculous overpopulation fears/paranoia - it is hilarious and brilliant! http://www.worldbytes.org/get-off-my-planet-happy-birthday-7-billion/

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't bring them to Texas, we got plenty of people already.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bare in mind 100% of the people in the world can stand shoulder to shoulder in the state of Texas and overlap the boundary of Texas.


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