It’s often difficult to get the attention of my students. But when I told them that it’s possible that a few of them would see the year 2100, and that most of their children surely would, they stopped furtively texting under their desks and began paying attention.
When I was born just after World War II, I told them, the population of the United States was about 141 million; of the world, about 2.7 billion. Now, 62 years later, Americans tip the scale at about 303 million; the world’s population has grown to about 6.6 billion.
A little extrapolation of U.S. Census data, I told them, shows the American population hitting 518 million at mid-century and 758 million in 2100. The world’s population is likely to grow to 14 billion at century’s end. Imagine what that world â€” their world â€” would be like, I challenged them.
But I was too optimistic. In a report to be released today, a Virginia Tech professor estimates that between 2100 and 2120 the population of the United States will reach one billion people.
Arthur C. Nelson, described in a press release as an expert in estimating population changes and their impact on planning and economic development, will present his new and as yet unpublished findings at the American Planning Association’s 100th National Planning Conference in Las Vegas.
(Las Vegas seems to be an appropriate place to announce a tripling of the American population in one lifetime. More than 500,000 people live there, and its population has more than doubled since 1990.)
Dr. Nelson says, according to the planning association’s press release, that his predicted population figure isn’t the issue. Rather, the factors driving population growth and the inadequate planning accompanying that growth ought to be closely examined. According to the release, Dr. Nelson points out:
â€¢ Public water supply systems often have a 100-year planning horizon, and there is an argument for thinking 500 years out.
â€¢ Major rail transit facilities take up to two or three decades to plan and another one or more to build.
â€¢ Airports were built less than 50 years ago with the thought they would never need to be replaced, but many have been, with more planned.
â€¢ We know enough now about the threat of climate change to shape planning for coastal communities over the next century.
â€¢ Government involves many fixed investments that in order to be economical must be paid off over a long period of time.
There are few public policy issues unaffected by one blunt, rarely discussed fact: There are too many of us, and, although growth rates vary from nation to nation, we’re increasing in number at the rate of about 1.17 percent of the world’s population per year.
That impacts health care. Drinking water. Foodstuffs. Commodities. Housing. Energy. Name an issue; population growth affects it. Politicians discuss resource issues solely in terms of scarcity; they do not discuss the other side of the equation â€” demand caused by increase in population. Population growth determines peace: Wars are fought over resources strained by population pressures.
Paul Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb,” launched the Zero Population Growth movement in the late 1960s. It was widely mocked in a post-war era of economic growth and higher living standards. [ZPG (birth rate = death rate) changed its name to Population Connection in 2002.]
Few are laughing now. My students will have to unplug the cell phones and iPods from their ears and figure out to live, survive, even prosper in a nation that at least one researcher says will triple in population in their lifetimes. Unbridled growth is unlikely to serve my young students well as they inexorably descend to dotage.