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Rapid population growth: past benefits, today's problems, bold solutions

By Dick Pelletier

    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 UW researcher 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 evolved into today's humans.

    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 increase 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 more than seven billion today.

    Though past population growth was beneficial in strengthening our DNA, experts now warn that an overcrowded world places terrible burdens on resources. Food prices have reached unaffordable levels for many; and global warming, caused by a polluted atmosphere, could make life unsustainable on Earth.

    The World Bank estimated that rising food prices pushed 44 million people into poverty. Most of us in developed countries spend less than one-tenth of our income on food, so higher food prices are not too critical. However, for the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, food represents about two-thirds of their income. For many poor families, this means going from two meals a day to one.

    Recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria 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 grow another 2-to-3 billion in just 38 years. In addition, 3 billion people hope to climb the food chain and consume more meat, milk and eggs. As more families in China, India and other nations enter middle class, they expect to eat better.

    The 2012 State of the Future Report addresses many of our overpopulation issues, such as climate change, soil erosion, agriculture mismanagement and more. The report also predicts that by mid-century, medical advances will improve health and extend lifespans, resulting in net population growth. While we view longer healthier lives as positive, increasing our numbers places more pressure on the future.

    How can we solve these overpopulation problems? The SOF Report offers the following solutions: 1) Produce pure meat without growing animals (more details on this in the next paragraph); 2) improve rain-fed agriculture and irrigation management; 3) encourage vegetarianism and acceptance of GM foods; 4) accelerate nanotech development; 5) expand telemedicine efforts; and 6) promote efforts to curb obesity.

    PETA recently offered $1 million to the first producers of commercially viable in-vitro chicken; and billionaire Peter Thiel's Breakout Labs has just funneled $350,000 into Modern Meadow, a startup using 3D printers to manufacture food. The process is explained in this 4-minute video.

    Currently, genetically -created or –modified foods are too expensive, but using Kurzweil's "law of accelerating returns," experts predict that in the near future, lab-produced, nutrient-enriched meat will be priced competitively, and accepted by mainstream society as a healthier alternative to animal grown food.

    According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock take up 70 percent of all agricultural land, and generate 18 percent of greenhouse gases, more than all the vehicles on Earth. Lowering animal populations would reduce global warming, and as a plus; make more land available for human housing.

    The late Julian Simon discarded the notion that too many people will cause us to run out of resources and space. Simon believed that adding more people would provide creativity and innovation to solve our overpopulation problems, always keeping us ahead of the curve. Was he right? Comments welcome.

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

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