By Tito Sasaki
Two centuries ago when the world population was barely one billion, English scholar Thomas Malthus said that the exponential population growth is unsustainable because of the finite resources we have with which to feed people; it would eventually lead to war, famine, pestilence and death.
This apocalyptic view gained popularity in the post-War decades as the population passed the 3-billion mark and more people were then on earth than the entire human population ever lived previously. We had best-sellers such as “Silent Spring” (1962), “The Population Bomb” (1968), and “The Limits to Growth” (1972). Paul R. Ehrlich, a Sierra Club award winner and the author of “The Population Bomb,” predicted that in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people would starve to death. He also predicted that by 1980 all important life in the sea would be extinct and coastal communities would be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.
Then, what happened? Although the world population doubled in the last half century, food supply tripled, and life expectancy increased by nearly 20 years. And our coastal communities are still here, suffering not from the fishy stench but from the choking regulations of the California Coastal Commission.
The doomsday mentality, however, created self-fulfilling prophecy in different ways. People looked to government to solve the perceived problems through regulations. The National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, though appropriate when introduced between 1969 and 73, soon evolved into dysfunctional regulations. It also established popular goals, such as renewable energy and sustainability, with little regard to their economic soundness. Environment now became the business of the government. We are still living under these doomsday spells.
In reality population growth will slow down and eventually decline, not because the food supply is limited as it was thought, but because more people choose to have smaller families. The world’s population growth rate peaked in the 1960s, and it has been declining since. It hasn’t yet turned negative, but the total population may top at about 9 billion later in this century, and then decline. In the meantime, our environment has gotten better despite of – or because of – expanding economy and wealth.
As farmers we still have to feed the world population that may grow from the current 7 billion to some 9 billion in this century. There will be obstacles, but nothing suggests a doomsday for us. We can do it!
A more challenging problem is how to adjust to the eventual population decline. Worldwide, it may not come about for a century, but it is already a reality in Japan, Germany, and Eastern European nations.
Our economy has been based on the increasing population, consumption, and production. As population starts to decline, the whole economy may contract. At the same time the proportion of older people will increase, taxing the younger population. How to prosper in this new economic milieu will require fresh thinking and creativity.