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NPR: 7 Billion And Counting: Can Earth Handle It?


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7 Billion And Counting: Can Earth Handle It?

Earth's population stands at nearly 7 billion, and demographers project we may reach 9 billion by the middle of this century.

In the past 50 years, population has grown at a rate never before seen in human history. Pastures have become towns, cities have sprawled across the landscape, and humans now live in places once considered remote. The change is so dramatic that some scientists now refer to this as "the age of man."

But as humanity's reach expands, forests are vanishing, glaciers are melting and almost 1 billion people go hungry each day.

Robert Kunzig is a senior editor for National Geographic and author of this month's cover story, "7 Billion," which considers the possibility of the global population overwhelming the planet.

He tells NPR's Neal Conan that he believes India is emblematic of where current population growth is taking us.

"I spent a few weeks there," he says, "and there's really no place like India to get the experience of being immersed in a crowd." Kunzig describes the heat hitting Western visitors "like a brick," and dust swirling.

He says he visited two very different places in India — the South, where populations have stabilized, and Delhi, which is still growing.

"It's a typical developing-country megacity ... 20 million people, people streaming in every day," Kunzig says.

But it still lacks the infrastructure to handle the influx.

"The government tries to plan, but it's really just sort of overwhelmed by events, so people make their own way," Kunzig says. He adds that while there are "outright slums and shanty towns," there are also neighborhoods where people are building their own apartment buildings and making their way, stealing power from the electric company. Kunzig calls those neighborhoods "a hodgepodge of worlds — cows in the streets, satellite dishes on the roofs."

Because of that hodgepodge, Kunzig says he was optimistic when he left India.

"There's a tremendous energy there," he says. "I met people ... that have come in from the countryside, have built their own homes and are now devoting themselves to the education of their children."

Richard Harris, a science correspondent for NPR, notes another kind of energy related to this growth: the energy being used by these growing populations, and the impact that has on the Earth's atmosphere.

"It's not just body counts, it's our lifestyles and how much resources we consume," he says.

Because of that, some think population trends are less important than energy use and lifestyle trends when it comes to the planet's future health. Consider that as populations grow, so does demand for food, and an expansion of agriculture leads to increased emissions.

"It works both directions," Harris says. "Population feeds energy needs; energy needs make the planet more uncomfortable and, in some places, more difficult to grow crops."

Water is another stress point for population growth. Upmanu Lall, director of the Water Center at Columbia University, grew up in India at a time when developing the infrastructure to deliver water was a major concern.

"Today, the situation has changed dramatically," he says. "The question today is one where the resource itself has become significantly depleted in many parts of the country."

Consider Delhi, which has a population of around 22 million. One of India's largest rivers, the Yamuna, flows by it.

"This river is now essentially a sewer over most of the year," Lall says. So today, agricultural pumping, mining and Delhi's water consumption have depleted the groundwater resources of surrounding areas.

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The earth will survive. The question is whether it will be in a form that is habitable by humans.

No No No... this has happenned before on a smaller scale. When the overpopulation becomes so great the earth can not support folks. There will be a massive die off. then when people travel from un exposed parts of the earth to those parts where we live today; all that will be left is giant stone heads randomly facing in different directions.

Seriously that's all that will be left of our culture... That and the membership of the NRA.

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Does it depend on population distribution? I think the US can support more because of it's relatively low population density. Places like China, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines are too crowded and don't have the resources to support their population.

We do have to reduce energy consumption consider the US uses more than it's share of energy. But I don't really think it's the developed nations that are causing the population problem? In fact developed nations have really low birth rates. In a weird, way it tends to be the poor nations that are jacking up the population.

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Does it depend on population distribution? I think the US can support more because of it's relatively low population density. Places like China, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines are too crowded and don't have the resources to support their population.

We do have to reduce energy consumption consider the US uses more than it's share of energy. But I don't really think it's the developed nations that are causing the population problem? In fact developed nations have really low birth rates. In a weird, way it tends to be the poor nations that are jacking up the population.

Actually the population of the entire industrialized world is shrining. It's the poor nations where the population is taking off. In germany for instance the average woman only gives birth to 1.4 children. That's a 30% decrease in the workforce over the next few decades.

Even the US where the population is actually still growing, is only growing because of immigration.

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Actually the population of the entire industrialized world is shrining. It's the poor nations where the population is taking off. In germany for instance the average woman only gives birth to 1.4 children. That's a 30% decrease in the workforce over the next few decades.

Even the US where the population is actually still growing, is only growing because of immigration.

Even in most poor countries, the growth is slowing rapidly. The population will continue to rise for a while because there is a large bubble of fertile people still out there and old people are living so much longer, but the long terms trends are pretty clear.

In the 1970s only 24 countries had fertility rates of 2.1 or less, all of them rich. Now there are over 70 such countries, and in every continent, including Africa. Between 1950 and 2000 the average fertility rate in developing countries fell by half from six to three—three fewer children in each family in just 50 years. Over the same period, Europe went from the peak of the baby boom to the depth of the baby bust and its fertility also fell by almost half, from 2.65 to 1.42—but that was a decline of only 1.23 children. The fall in developing countries now is closer to what happened in Europe during 19th- and early 20th-century industrialisation. But what took place in Britain over 130 years (1800-1930) took place in South Korea over just 20 (1965-85).

Things are moving even faster today. Fertility has dropped further in every South-East Asian country (except the Philippines) than it did in Japan. The rate in Bangladesh fell by half from six to three in only 20 years (1980 to 2000). The same decline took place in Mauritius in just ten (1963-73). Most sensational of all is the story from Iran.

When the clerical regime took over in 1979, the mullahs, apparently believing their flock should go forth and multiply, abolished the country’s family-planning system. Fertility rose, reaching seven in 1984. Yet by the 2006 census the average fertility rate had fallen to a mere 1.9, and just 1.5 in Tehran. From fertility that is almost as high as one can get to below replacement level in 22 years: social change can hardly happen faster.

http://www.economist.com/node/14743589

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_birth_rate

Again, don't know if it has anything to do with anything but the birth rate thing is still tied to the fact that in agrarian/pre-industrial societies there is still a benefit to having big families.

In the Philippines, the only Catholic nation in South East Asia, maybe Asia, the Catholic Church holds strong sway and contraception is frowned upon. The middle class takes a more liberal view of the thing but the lower classes follow church teachings pretty closely.

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Even the US where the population is actually still growing, is only growing because of immigration.

I think even without immigration the US right around replacement rate. Not shrinking naturally yet.

And yes the Earth can survive. Humans on the other hand....

When is the first moon or Mars colony supposed to be up and running?

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If you look at the history of global growth in population, once the birthrate to current population ratio peaks at a very high level, there is always an event (natural or manmade) that wipes off a big chunk of the number to bring is back down to equilibrium. I learned this in college my freshman year, and it made sense, haha.

Get ready folks!

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Does it depend on population distribution? I think the US can support more because of it's relatively low population density. Places like China, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines are too crowded and don't have the resources to support their population.

We do have to reduce energy consumption consider the US uses more than it's share of energy. But I don't really think it's the developed nations that are causing the population problem? In fact developed nations have really low birth rates. In a weird, way it tends to be the poor nations that are jacking up the population.

Don't forget Japan and Mexico. Space is so limited in Japan that houses are so small and they have micro hotels which is basically a bed with a mini fridge and a small tv and screens separating them from other bunk beds. Lol.

The Philippines has 92 million people and Mexico 112. Mexico has a water shortage problem.

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In the 70's they were so worried with 4 billion people.

That's because the fertility rates in the 1970s were so much higher, the statistical projections were terrifying. Few people anticipated the worldwide drop in fertility that has come about in the past few decades.

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Our population will die off and hit equilibrium again, rebuild and do the same thing. It's like every other population graph, but we can alter our ecosystem enough to grow beyond it. There will be a point where nature will win, and we will die off. It's just a matter of prolonging it.

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