My Turn: A 'pyramid scheme' with serious consequences

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2011

The January 2011 issues of the “National Geographic” has an article entitled “Population 7 Billion: How your world will change.”’

As I read the article I thought, “We’re in a ‘pyramid scheme’“ as humans. Pyramid schemes are programs where newcomers at the bottom of the pyramid provide for those at the top who got into the game earlier. The sales pitch goes something like this. “We need new participants to advance the program.” That is, towns, cities and states must grow so that businesses can have more customers and thrive. Cities must expand and develop diversity. Our social support systems need more young people as contributors. Yet as I look out my window 1 don’t see planet earth getting any bigger or producing more resources. We are locked into one little planet.

Centuries ago, Robert Malthus (1766-1834), a religious scholar looked at population growth and limited resources and made some dire predictions based on mathematics. At that time he had no idea what new techniques in agriculture and technology might provide. In spite of innovations, and reproductive rates. his basic insight seems to be correct. That is the Earth can support only so many human inhabitants.

Long before Malthus, when the world population of humans could probably be counted in the millions, each band of hunters, tribes or nations wanted more members. With a larger membership, they could expand as a group, control more lands and rule over others. From that belief and tradition came a perception that has survived to this day. It is that “family planning,” or what some call “birth control,” is a social evil because in numbers there is power. Some say that it is God’s command that humans “increase and multiply.”

It is becoming increasingly clear though, that even with the improvements in food production, our highly consumptive species and production must be restrained. The Earth can only provide a certain amount of food and resources. As a biological species, humans cannot expand forever.

China took a dramatic step in requiring families to have only one child or be punished for having more. Now China finds, like Japan, that the population pyramid has changed. It is taller. That is, people are living longer. It is narrower because there are fewer young people at the bottom to support the elderly.

My personal opinion is that we as humans have to question the whole idea that “more is better” for our human population and economy. There are those who say that there is no need for alarm. They say that population growth is slow, that other issues are more important. Or, that with new innovations, there is no limit to the number of people planet Earth can support. Yet, population growth compared to geologic change over time, is more like an atomic explosion. It is estimated that the world population in 1950 was 2.5 billion. In just 60 years the number has more than doubled. I think Malthus was right. At some point in time we have to recognize that the resources of planet earth are limited as our population explodes.

As I look out the window of my office, I see the sun going down in the west, I know that it will soon set and there will be darkness. It is our responsibility today to recognize the problem, accept it and try to find solutions. Are there any possible, realistic solutions or are we simply doomed to extinction by our own behavior? Surely, there must be some solutions. We need to explore them now and put them into effect today. What’s at stake is the possibility of a permanent sunset on the “human species,” our descendants and all future generations.

Others who have read the article in the “National Geographic” may have different opinions, or suggestions.

• Wallace M. Olson is a professor of anthropology (emeritus), University of Alaska Southeast. He is a resident of Auke Bay.

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