By Austin Schaefer
THIS Halloween, the world reached a major demographic milestone; the United Nations reported that global population had exceeded 7 billion individuals. Though a surprise to no one, this has sparked discussion of the significance of this event, as well as its consequences for mankind.
An obvious concern lies in Earth’s need to feed its massive population, projected to peak at 10 billion by the end of the twenty-first century. In the early 1960s, global population was growing at the feverish rate of about 2 percent annually, doubling roughly every 35 years. This prompted scholarly interest in man’s ability to feed itself, though fortunately any fears of food shortage proved unfounded. Advances in agricultural technology during this time period were so drastic that increases in food production vastly outpaced population growth.
As David Lam, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan notes, global food production per capita increased 41 percent between 1961 and 2009, a result of the “Green Revolution” in agricultural technology. Though the world population has more than doubled since 1961, people are better fed today than they were fifty years ago. The Green Revolution ushered in an era of mechanized agriculture; small family farms were consolidated into larger, more efficient ones. Now that this transformation has occurred, it remains unclear where we could turn for our next massive increase in food supply.
The key to increased agricultural yields may be as simple as access to water, which proves increasingly scarce in the developing world. Water, obviously, cannot be “grown” or “produced” as food can, and regional water shortages have already caused environmental damage. Soviet irrigation projects during the 1960s, for instance, diverted rivers that previously fed the Aral Sea. The sea shrank to about 10 percent of its original size, wiping out a source of fish – and commerce – that once sustained much of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that water consumption will rise by 50 percent in developing countries over the next twenty years, creating a dramatic sense of urgency for new sources of water, lest environmental resources be depleted as they were in Central Asia. Desalinization will likely play a prominent role in this “water revolution,” though current processes are expensive and require large amounts of energy. Whereas the Green Revolution of the 1960s lowered costs and increased output, reliance on desalinization would increase the cost of water (and therefore food), possibly entrenching poverty in the developing world.
Another concern that might disproportionately affect poorer regions of the world is climate change. If global temperatures rise over the next century, as many researchers believe they will, massive changes in food production will follow. Desertification will worsen near the Equator, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, making water scarcer and agriculture more costly and difficult. Meanwhile, supply centers for food will move north, making higher latitudes more suitable to agriculture. Canada and Russia, for instance, may become the breadbaskets of the twenty-first century as land formerly under permafrost becomes suitable for large-scale agriculture. The poorest regions of the world would suffer dramatically, while wealthier countries would experience an agricultural renaissance.
Population growth has not been uniform across countries, so massive demographic changes will occur alongside challenges to global food and water supply and distribution. Developed countries’ growth rates have slowed dramatically since their peak mid-century, and their populations are aging substantially. This will place great stress on their economies and welfare systems; more and more people will reach retirement age without corresponding growth in the labor force. In the United States, for instance, Social Security is projected to run out of funds by 2037, according to the Congressional Budget Office. As the elderly tend to vote at higher rates than the general population, this demographic change will lead to pronounced electoral changes. Entitlement reform will become increasingly difficult, amplifying the stresses these systems place on the economy.
The developing world, by contrast, will continue to experience rapid population growth, a phenomenon often linked with poverty. Developing countries’ high growth rates will cause their populations to grow progressively younger. While providing a steady supply of labor, the poverty associated with the high growth rates can cause other problems. Economic dislocation of young populations tends to lead to civil unrest, as was seen in the Arab Spring in early 2011. Social turmoil might befall the developing world as fiscal crises confront the developed one.
The shifting demographics of the global population will certainly have drastic impacts in years to come. Societies will have to adjust to the pressures caused by changes in their composition, and new methods will be required to feed the masses and satiate their thirst. Once the global economy has adjusted to these new realities, all will be thrown into turmoil again as the global population plateaus, forcing developing nations to adjust to aging populations.
Austin Schaefer is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.