Friday, December 30, 2011

A Hundred Years of Multitude

As the year runs its course, I thought it might be time for a bit of reflection on the longer term. A maxim around here is that demography is fate, therefore this Malthusian reflection. This was the year of various “springs,” beginning with the Arab one. To this have been added others, more or less energetic, including our own Occupy movements, the early signs of exuberance in Russia, and even a village-sized eruption in China. Barely noticed—because, around here, Africa is barely noticed—have been the altogether obscenely violent upheavals on that continent. They don’t look like springs, but, in this humble opinion, they are of the same root and branch.

I bring here world population figures from 1950 through 2050: a hundred years of population growth. These data are the series published by our own Census Bureau (link), which is the most complete and, in its projections, closely matches other people’s. My graph is by decades so that I can display interesting decade-to-decade changes. For the record, the 2011 data say that world population is 6.946 billion, representing an increase of 77.5 million since this time last year, prominently shown on the graphic.

I note here that world population increased nearly three-fold (precisely 2.7 fold) 1950-2010. In the next fifty years we’ll add more than 2.5 billion more people. In recent decades we have been adding three-quarters of a billion per decade. The add-odds, based on these projections, will diminish.

Malthus was ahead of his time. It has pleased technology hawks to belittle his projections as they glowed in the heat of oil, approval, and prosperity. But the future, it seems, will manifest another reality: unbelievable masses of humanity engaged in celebrating the joys of a Global Spring beneath a few pathetic windmills with blades frozen for lack of maintenance.

But there is a silver lining here, however hard to see. If the purpose of being human is something other than grabbing all the gusto that we can, what this great demographic thunderstorm predicts is a return, in time, to the fundamentals.

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