Posted by: Mark | April 7, 2009


Uh oh. This is a big one.

Today in chapel a woman from the Stanford Blood Bank told some sensitive and emotionally stirring stories of how blood donations have helped to save lives.

And I found myself in a morally-dense and guilt-ridden place.

So here’s the thing. There are tons of advances in medicine that have done wonders to help extend the length of lives. And that, of course, is good. And then there’s organizations out there, like the Daraja Academy, which do wonders in helping to improve the lives of those less fortunate.

But then here’s the problem. Our planet has a pretty serious population crisis. We have almost 7 billion people on earth, with an average of 3 people being added PER SECOND. That’s insane. The general predictions are that we are going to get to about 9 or 10 billion, before the growth “levels out” and then stabilizes at around 9 billion.

Let’s first talk about the aging problem. Less people dying of disease means more people living longer, and thus a shift in the breakdown of our society. We’re going to have a lot more old people. The elderly are dependent, and so shifting our population pyramids around to have a lot of old people who aren’t dying creates a much bigger dependent part of society. Therefore, more and more of our resources needs to go toward sustaining this part of the population, thus draining away what are already precious resources. In places like Japan where this is already a reality, they’re getting creative and inventing stuff like sensor-fitted pants that  can sense when the muscles of the pants-wearer are failing, and thereby become rigid to help support the person. (Yes, I’m talking about pants that basically walk themselves. And unfortunately I don’t have a link for this. I remember hearing it on NPR and wish to God I had a link!)

On the other hand, the reality of what that “leveling out” would look like in global population growth is potentially horrific. Assuming that the birth rate in developing parts of the world doesn’t change, we’re talking about an increase in the death rate in order for population growth to decline. And because of the aforementioned advancements in medicine, not to mention all the other stuff that is coming down the pipeline that will probably save millions and blow our minds, it seems likely that the increased death rate will be due to us humans. In other words, large-scale war due to the scrambling for scarce resources. Or, we could potentially have some calamitous natural disaster, likely aided and abetted by global warming.

So basically, and this is about as Debbie-Downer as I get, but I’m worried about population growth. I’ve been teaching about global issues for a while, and much of my concern is informed by reading the likes of Nicholas Kristof and J.F. Rischard.

So here’s where I get back to the initial guilty thought that crossed my mind during chapel. Yes, the death of anyone is terrible, but our finite planet cannot sustain our exponential population growth. And therefore my question is this: by DELAYING the death of so many people through medicine, couldn’t we also be AMPLIFYING the strains we are putting on the planet, and thereby HEIGHTENING the potential for calamitous disaster? (I know that’s the second time I used calamitous; I like the word, and think it’s fitting.)

So in other words, should I really give blood? Should I really work on a school in Kenya? Were the social darwinists right?

This thought flashed through my mind for a second. The other seconds of the day I am firmly committed to do what I can to improve the living circumstances of those that are on this planet right now. But I can’t deny this thought’s existence. It’s scary to think about, and obviously foundation-shaking enough for me to expand upon this one second thought and turn it into a blog post. It’s there and I can’t exactly ignore it.

I’m throwing this out there because for this post I’m really fishing for comments. I’m very curious to hear what others think about this. Is anyone else worried about where our population growth is taking us? Anyone else ever think that what seems like an obvious (short-term) good, like curing cancer, may in fact be a much bigger (long-term) bad?




  1. Mark – again, great post. Keep em coming.

    Last year, I spent time researching vertical farming, a radical approach to agriculture that involves building skyscraper-scale greenhouses to help provide fresh foodstuffs to urban cores.

    The idea is rooted in urbanization trends and a diminishing supply of arable land. Statistic after statistic about population control and food security really started to plague my thoughts, and to this day I carry a genuine fear for our future.

    My two cents: I’m as confused as you are. I think one of the biggest discussions of our era will be about food insecurity. Do you think America will ever adopt a one-baby-per-family legislation?


  2. Initial thoughts:

    +Growth is uneven. Saving lives and having children when you live in the U.S. is a pretty marginal addition to the population crisis, given the untapped potential of our landscape. (The growth problem in the U.S. is more related to destruction of this potential.

    So save lives. Have kids. Go nuts.

    +Population growth is really only slowed by things like wealth and education. Yes, a natural disaster or plague or something would do wonders to the population problem. But so will Daraja or a more equitable global economy.


  3. the population growth seems inevitable…but I’m reminded of an economy professor of mine that loved to quote Yogi Berra and Marvin Gaye… He would pose theories that seemed inevitable, then smile and remind us “it’s hard to predict the future, because it hasn’t happened yet.” He also thought Marvin asked THE question when he sang, “what’s goin’ on?”

    Anyway, the science and math behind population growth are undeniable, but I think our generation has more power than we know. lots of things are changing exponentially, population growth being one of them. it’s hard to predict how that changing trend will come together with all the other rapid changes in our world.

  4. Goldenmeg- your assumption that population growth is inevitable is wrong. We can change the population trajectories tremendously by simply giving women around the world access to contraceptives.

    Evidence shows that when women have access to contraceptives ( and there are MANY barriers to this) they will use them want and have fewer children. Look at the developed countries- Our fertility is dropping even below fertility rate, probably due to adequate access and information! Unfortunately there is a huge unmet need for contraceptives (women who don’t want to have more children, but do not use contraceptives- I would say because of inadequate access) In the developing world, increased contraceptive use will also save many many women’s lives and improve maternal and child health globally.

    Many people, including Bill Clinton, say that family planning is “too controversial” of a topic, but how is it controversial, if women want to limit their family size!!

    Its a women’s right to have as many or as few children as they want, and it is our responsibility to ensure this right by ensuring contraceptives. It is also everyone’s right to good health.
    The answer is not to stop saving lives, but to address population growth through a human rights framework.

  5. As far as giving blood goes, I say do it. My reasons are personal: I know a wonderful little boy who might not have made it through his first night without a transfusion. If it ever came down to it and by giving my own life I could save his, I’d give it and consider my life meaningful and well-lived. I am grateful to the person whose blood he received.

    As far as extending the lifespan of the elderly is concerned, my parents have given me much in addition to life. Should I — or someone else? the state? — apply some algorithm to decide when the usefulness of their lives no longer meets or exceeds the energy that goes into preserving those lives?

    I can think of the benefits of zero (or reduced) population growth in a logical context, and see the broad benefits. Ask someone to put ZPG into action with their own friends and family, and of course the equation is no longer so easy to solve.

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