Catastrophe By The Numbers


T he poet, who a century and a quarter ago, “dipt into the future, far as human eye could see” and “saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be,” would, if he dipt into it today, find disaster for the human race squarely ahead down the road our species is travelling with gathering speed. Even in 1842, however, when Tennyson’s paean of optimism and affirmation was published, there was no need to have been unprepared for the fate mankind now appears bent on bringing on itself. More than forty years earlier, the professor of history and political economy at East India College in Haileybury, England, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, had called attention to the fact that the power of the human race to reproduce itself is infinite, while the capacity of the earth to support its numbers is finite. By 1842 birth rates and death rates in England, which had been in a rough balance a century before, showed a wide disparity. Owing to a fall in the death rate, the annual excess of births over deaths had reached thirteen per thousand persons, which meant that in another fifty years the population would double.

Death rates for the human race as a whole have been tumbling ever since, as science has been bringing the big killers of mankind under control and extending its beneficent sway from the advanced parts of the world to the less favored. The paradoxical result has been that human existence is threatened. Scientists concerned with the world’s future have for a decade and more been urging mankind to grasp and be guided by the ominous statistics——so far with little response. The figures cannot be too often rehearsed.

The population of the world, from an estimated five million 8,000 years ago, reached 500 million about 300 years ago, having doubled about every 1,000 years. It reached one billion before 1850, having doubled in less than zoo years. Two billion was reached about 1930—the doubling period having been reduced to about eighty years. The population of the world is now over 3.5 billion, and the doubling period is now down to about thirty-five years. Every day the population goes up by 190,000—the equivalent of a fair-sized city.

The joker in the population pack—the terrible, cruel joker—is that with a rate of population increase that is constant, or even somewhat declining, the population will not only continue to grow, but the amount by which it grows will every year become greater . The principle is that of compound interest. If the present rate of population increase were to continue, at the end of only 650 years there would be one person for every square foot of the earth’s surface. Such a horror could not, of course, actually come to pass. If birth rates had not long since been sufficiently reduced to bring them back into balance with death rates, nature would have achieved t he same end by scourging mankind with one of the traditional mass killers—war, famine, and plague—or with a more modern agent, crippling psychic ills.

The rate of population increase is highest in the poorer countries. What most of us have failed to grasp, however, is that the rate of increase is menacing in the United States—menacing to ourselves and, because of our disproportionate demands on the world environment, menacing to everyone else. As in other technologically advanced countries, though less so than in some others, the birth rate in the United States has markedly declined in the past century. Nevertheless, our population, having passed ioo million in 1917, passed 200 million in 1967. Even at the present low fertility rate (the birth rate for women of childbearing age), which is the lowest since the 1930’$, it will reach 400 million before a child born today is seventy years old (by which time the population of the world will have reached fifteen billion). When the Republic is as old again as it is now, in 2162, the number of Americans will be getting on toward 1.5 billion, while many children born that year may live to see the equivalent of the entire population of the world today jammed into the United States.