Tag Archives: population

Technology and population growth

fieldThere’s a great interview over at New Scientist with environmentalist and techno-realist Jesse Ausubel on the subject of how technology and improved agricultural practices may enable and support continued population growth and economic prosperity:

You’ve said that we could feed 10 billion people on half the area we currently use by improving agricultural efficiency. How would that work?

High yields are the best friend of nature. Even if humans remain carnivorous, if we continue lifting yields at roughly 2 per cent per year, as farmers have achieved over the past 100 years, then simple arithmetic shows lots of land now farmed will be abandoned and can return to nature. The world population is increasing by only around 1 per cent per year, so sustaining 2 per cent yield growth could free half of farmed land over 75 years or so. The highest yields that have been achieved in China, India, the US and many other countries are typically 300 per cent of average yields, so 2 per cent yearly gains are not miracles. They are business-as-usual, but with a lot of sweat.

It’s weird to hear someone talking about population growth as if it was something manageable, rather than something to be worried about. I was particularly intrigued by the notion of quorum sensing:

Surely our inability to limit ourselves is a major issue.

Some recent research suggests organisms do try to sense limits. Even bacteria turn out to have networks of social communication and to use something called quorum sensing to coordinate their gene expression according to the local density of their population, and so avoid disastrous growth.

Ever the optimist, I see no reason why problems like global warming, deforestation, or resource depletion should not eventually be resolved. It rarely seems to be a matter of practical or even economic barriers, but rather political will to take the kind of action needed.

Clean air laws and action taken on the ozone layer show that it is possible to make the necessary changes.

[image from Olof S on flickr]

Go green: stop breeding

baby and globeCOSMOS Magazine reports that the world’s wealthiest nations are experiencing something of a baby boom, standing in stark contrast to the general decline of birthrate in recent decades. In many respects this can be seen as a good thing, at least from an economic perspective; the “greying” of the population has produced a situation where the number of elderly people unable to work and in need of care and support has grown without a proportional increase in the numbers of young productive people able to keep the economy ticking over. [image by geraintwm]

But that classical economic viewpoint fails to consider other important factors, like the environmental impact of an increase in the number of children in developed nations. In a nutshell, large families are not environmentally sustainable in a country like Britain, where family planning researchers have begun to suggest that the best way for a young couple to “go green” is to restrict the number of children they have. Population is a global matter, certainly, but it’s estimated that a British baby will produce 160 times the greenhouse gas emissions of a baby born in Ethiopia. Or, to put it another way, each child born in the United States multiplies its parents’ carbon legacy by more than five times.

Statistics are all very well, but as any discussion of environmental responsibility shows, we struggle with making sacrifices for a nebulous and intangible greater global good – and personal experience suggests strongly that there are a sizeable number of people who get very offended by suggestions that they should restrict the number of children they choose to have. So, the two big questions are: should developed nations be instigating some sort of population control policy (while simultaneously assisting less developed nations with the education and medical support required to foster similar attitudes), and – if so – how should they incentivize such a controversial and personal decision?

Are religious skeptics bound for demographic doom?

fertility goddess In science fiction, there has long been an assumption (not present in all stories, but certainly present in many) that in the future religion will have been consigned to the dustbin of history; that it simply cannot continue to withstand the onslaught of scientific evidence against the existence of a deity.

Demographically, however, it is the believers who have the edge, at least in the U.S. Drawing on data from the General Social Survey, “widely regarded as the single best source of data on societal trends,” blogger The Audacious Epigone notes that believers out-breed non-believers (Via FuturePundit):

From GSS data, I looked at the reported ideal family size* and the actual number of children had, by theistic confidence, among those who had essentially completed their total fertility (age 40-100):

Theistic confidence Desired Actual
Don’t believe 2.26 2.23
No way to find out 2.25 1.95
Some higher power 2.18 1.98
Believe sometimes 2.37 2.34
Believe with doubts 2.34 2.31
Know God exists 2.58 2.64

He also finds among younger people, between the ages of 18-30, the number of children desired is also higher among those who “Know God exists” than any of the other categories, and says:

It is not that secular people cannot keep up with religious folks. They simply do not want to. In the numbers game, though, the results are what matter. The question regarding Steve Sailer’s suggestion that the future may belong to groups who are able to procreate the most is whether or not secularizing social trends are able to overcompensate for greater fertility among the religious.

Does the future, then, belong to believers, or will secular society suck the religion out of their children’s souls before they themselves grow old enough to breed? And how would/should this demographic data impact the fictional futures of SF writers?

(Image: Goddess of Fertility, Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara, Turkey, via Wikimedia Commons.)


Lovelock: give up on trying to save the planet

lifeboatJames “Gaia Theory” Lovelock suggests that there may be as few as one billion human beings left in 100 years time:

Lovelock’s point seemed to be that we should give up on trying to save the planet and the entirety of the human species by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and focus instead on equipping “lifeboat nations” with the necessary infrastructure (schools, roads, houses) to support swarms of climate refugees.

The UK and Canada are lifeboat nations, in case you’re wondering. Probably Siberia too. Basically, anywhere that will be relatively cool and have water in a world that is on average 5°C warmer than it was 100 years ago.

Which sounds interesting and… controversial. The suggestion that places like the UK and Canada should massively overinvest in infrastructure over the next few decades may be be Quite A Good Idea in any case (fiscal stimulus, anyone?).

But is this giving up too soon?

[image from Troon Lifeboat on flickr]


It’s that time of month again, when we at Futurismic unleash another fine piece of fresh short science fiction on an unsuspecting internet.

This time it’s the turn of Futurismic repeat offender David Reagan, who delivers a story about where the ultimate results of China’s one-child policy might lead her people – “Solitude Ripples From the Past”.

Don’t forget to leave David some feedback in the comments, and then go and check out his saucy Futurismic début, Only The Neck Down. But first …

Solitude Ripples From The Past

by David Reagan


Qui Nuoshui finished her breakfast with grim determination, though she suspected her stomach would soon rebel. Her husband read the paper and paid her no heed, so he asked no uncomfortable questions about diminished appetite.

As he did every morning, Qui Changbo looked from the newspaper to his watch and grunted in mock surprise. “Oh, dear, I must hurry or I will miss my train,” he said. He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm, picked up his briefcase and hustled for the door. He made a slight detour to peck Nuoshui on the forehead and then was gone.

Nuoshui knew his bustling nature was hollow — her husband took a later train than he claimed. Every morning, he walked down a narrow alley, knocked on an anonymous door, and spent an hour playing The Game of the White Dove. She resented his unneeded lie most mornings — his gambling was of no concern as long as he continued to provide — but today she relaxed at seeing him leave.

Already her stomach gurgled, and she knew that even this morning’s small meal would soon reappear.
She hurried to the bathroom and made it just in time.

Even after vomiting, her eyes streaming and stomach muscles strained, Nuoshui smiled. Soon she would be a mother. Continue reading SOLITUDE RIPPLES FROM THE PAST by David Reagan