Growth of world population and terrorism - are they connected?

Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

As I look at world events, my thoughts go back to the old essay of Thomas Malthus written in 1798 entitled, "The principle of population." His basic idea was that resources grow in arithmetic proportions while population grows in geometric proportions. Simply put, resources grow at a rate of one, two and three. Population grows much faster. First two, then four, then sixteen then two hundred and fifty-six.

Many years ago, scientists carried out an experiment. They put rats in a caged area, fed them and then watched what happened. Before long, the rats were protecting their areas and began to kill each other to defend their territory. From the psychologists' point of view the rats became very "paranoid" and destructive.

What do I see now? Fifty years ago, the world's population was about five billion people. In the next 20 years it will be nearly nine billion people. Humans are spreading across the face of the earth like a cancer. Let me put it in perspective. My Norwegian great- grandparents came here a hundred and fifty years ago. They had four children. Those children and their grandchildren married and had children. At the family reunion, a hundred years later, there were 600 descendants, and most of the descendants couldn't make it to the reunion!

What we see today is that more and more people are crowded into smaller and smaller spaces. Farmlands are blacktopped, forests are decimated in the name of "progress," huge subdivisions and "developments" are built. In Japan, for example, in central urban areas, several thousand people live in one city block. In India, the Middle East, South and Middle America, it is the same. The economic world is built on a pyramid principle: More is better. Cities and states have to "grow" to survive; the young must pay for the old.

Very few people want to even discuss or mention population growth. I'm afraid that most of us are still thinking as if we live in the ancient past when each hunting group, each clan, each tribe wanted as many new members as possible, simply to survive. Perhaps an entire way of thinking has to change if we as human beings are to continue.

One of our problems is that as human beings we have religious beliefs that come from the past, based simply on knowledge and science from previous generations. Those beliefs and teachings sometimes say that we must reproduce as our ancestors did many generations ago. Is that the teaching of "God" or simply tradition? Is the real problem one of beliefs, economics, space and the modern world?

Are the terrorist bombings in London, the World Trade Center, the Gaza strip, Indonesia, Russia, and other places the symptoms of a worldwide problem? Are we like the rats? Are we living on a limited planet where people are struggling to survive, but where people believe that the only solution is to do what worked for their ancestors hundreds or thousands of years ago? That the only answer is to kill each other? Are world population, overcrowding and growth like global warming? Are they symptoms of our demise?

• Wally Olson is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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