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Rapid population growth: past benefits, present dangers, solutions

By Dick Pelletier


    A team led by University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks recently discovered that Earth's rapid population growth played a key role in human development by supercharging our evolutionary progress.

    The group identified DNA changes made since the Stone Age, and found that more than 1,800 new genes had been added, an unusually large amount for such a brief period. The new genes, many that protect us from disease, emerged as these ancient ancestors were evolving into today's civilized world.

    Hawks credits some of the new genes to rapid population growth. Charles Darwin suggested the idea when he wrote that ‘herd size' is important for successful evolution of a species. Those that multiply their numbers faster, develop a stronger variety of genetic improvements, which increases the survival odds.

    This theory applies to all animals, but the parallel to humans is clear. Homo sapiens' numbers have increased exponentially; from about ten million 10,000 years ago, to two hundred million by A.D. 0, six hundred million by 1700, one billion by 1804, two billion by 1927, and a whopping seven billion today.

    Although past population growth was beneficial in strengthening our DNA, experts now warn that an overcrowded world places terrible burdens on resources and the environment. Food prices have already reached unaffordable levels for many; and global warming, caused by a polluted atmosphere, could make life unsustainable on Earth. Some experts even blame this environmental peril for today's bad weather.

    The World Bank estimated that from 06/2010 to 01/2011, rising food prices pushed 44 million people into poverty. Americans spend less than one-tenth of their income on food, so higher food prices are not too critical in the U.S. However, for the world's poorest 2 billion people, food represents 50-to-70 percent of their income. For many in developing countries, this could mean going from two meals a day to one.

    Recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya can be traced, not only to demands for better jobs, more personal freedoms, and a general distrust of their dictator; but also because far too often, families cannot put enough food on the table. Food is fast becoming the unseen driver of world politics.

    Global population has doubled in the past 40 years, and some predict it will reach 8-to-10 billion by 2050. In addition, 3 billion people hope to climb up the food chain and consume more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China, India and other countries enter middle class, they expect to eat better.

    The State of the Future Report, http://www.millennium-project.org/millennium/2010SOF.html, highlights a number of issues facing society. Climate change, soil erosion, and agriculture mismanagement could reduce much of the world's food production. And in the next 25-to-50 years, researchers predict advances in biotech and nanotech will improve health and extend life, which will result in net population increases.

    So what's the answer; can technologies rescue us? The SOF Report offers these solutions: we must 1) learn to grow meat without using live animals, 2) convince society to accept genetically-modified foods, and 3) expand nutrition research to curb obesity and gain better insight to the body's food requirements.

    An animal rights group recently offered $1 million to the first producers of commercially viable in-vitro chicken by mid-2012. Biomedical engineer Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands predicts that using stem cells and genetic engineering techniques to grow meat, fish, and vegetables in the lab, instead of harvesting these products from live plants and animals, would eliminate world food shortages.

    According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock take up 70 percent of all agricultural land, and generate 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the vehicles on Earth. Since animals are responsible for these gases, lowering their numbers would greatly reduce global warming.

    Focusing on energy solutions – forward thinking future watchers believe that by mid-century or so, breakthroughs in solar-produced electricity, hydrogen storage, and other innovative power ideas, could eliminate much of humanity's needs for burning fossil fuels, which would further reduce global warming.

    Finally, here's an opposing viewpoint on runaway population growth. The late economist and populace researcher Julian Simon discarded the notion that humanity will run out of resources and space. Simon believed that additional people would provide creativity and innovation to break through any natural barriers to human population growth. Developing technologies would always keep us ahead of the curve.

    Again, we ask; will technologies come to the rescue and save our planet? This writer believes they will.

This article appeared in various print publications and on-line blogs. Comments always welcome.

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