Population depletion is the new threat


According to predictions from previous decades, India is supposed, as we speak, to be a basket case of poverty and starvation.

Its population, we were told, would be scrabbling in the dust for sustenance. Oh, and America would be hungry. The world, in general, is meant to be running out of food as population growth runs out of control.

So how do we explain India’s entry into the top 10 of The World’s Wealthiest Nations?

And how does that relate to the emergence of widespread obesity in America?

Now a new paradigm enters the fray – the prospect of population depletion; humanity
under threat; global population diminishing to 2-3bn. As a natural consequence, the majority of its inhabitants will be ageing, and the stress placed on the young minority will be intolerable.

For goodness sake, can we stop with the bloody Doomsday scenarios, shut down all computer models and just get on with what we know?

In the early 1970s, the Club of Rome built one of the first computer modelling programmes. It was designed to map population growth into the 21st century and tell us about resources – food, oil – and other things, such as pollution.

Now, take a look at at their blue line – Resources – in the illustration below and see it start diving around the mid-70s, never to recover. Anyone in the computer modelling business will tell you, well, y’know, it was the first attempt.


Well, y’know. Screw you! We only have to look at the accuracy of weather forecasting to know that while computers have become more sophisticated, there’s still no guarantee – what with the jet stream, and el Nino, and the stratosphere and whatnot.

The Club of Rome published its findings in a book called The Limits To Growth. Among its key findings were that population would grow exponentially. Technology, on the other hand, would develop linearly. Thus technology would fail to keep pace with its ability to help us solve our problems.

Now pay attention at the back there! Because it is a true irony that population growth, far from being exponential, has not even been predictably linear. It has taken longer to get from six billion to seven billion people than it took to get from five to six billion. So while population depletion isn’t just around the corner, the rate of population growth has definitely slowed. The trend clearly suggests it will start a downward trend.

Technology, on the other hand, has grown at a wildly exponential rate, to the point where the power of computers doubles every 18 months. Only 20 years ago, writers and designers were struggling with 4k of memory. Now we’re dealing in terabytes.

And, of course, we keep finding new sources of oil, and gas. And within 50 years, maximum (possibly it’s imminent) we will have a clean, renewable energy source to power our automotive and manufacturing worlds.


And then along comes graphene. Have you heard of graphene yet? It’s the sort of discovery that maintains confidence that homo sapiens, on the whole, produces enough smart brains, who produce enough smart ideas, that we can survive our general greed and stupidity. Google graphene and marvel.

Those of us born just after WW2 (the baby boomers) have lived in the shadow of the bomb, the threat of WW3 and all manner of population-decimating viruses. Flesh-eating infections, bird flu, Sars virus – you’ve all seen the headlines.

The trick is to live long enough to realise that, in the immortal words of William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything”. He was talking about film-making, but the sentiment applies to life in general.

And yet politicians and scientists, who deal in the nuts and bolts of society, and the dark matter of the universe, won’t shut up about what’s going to be happening 100 years from now. Why do we give them any credence?

It’s enough to make you want to stand on top of the highest skyscraper shouting: “Oh. Do. Shut. Up.” And, “Population depletion! What’s your take on that?!”

A female scientist, talking recently about why female scientists don’t offer themselves up to radio interviews and self publicity, had this to say: “My whole training, my whole being, is about finding something and then setting out to prove I’m wrong, before I can say I’m right. That’s the scientific process, and it doesn’t lend itself to going public and dealing in certainties”.

God bless that woman, and the devil take all harbingers of doom. You really don’t know anything.



Slate magazine article


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