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
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
The World Bank estimated that rising food prices
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
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.
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
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;
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
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.
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.