When Norman Borlaug died recently at the age of 95, his obituary included one of the most extraordinary claims that any human could ever possibly make. Because of the “Green Revolution” that he pioneered, the ability of this planet to produce food to support the human population was dramatically increased. The use of fertilizers and pesticides and simple changes in practices taken together probably meant that at least a billion people were alive because of Prof. Borlaug that would not have otherwise been.
It sounds great, unless you start to think about the resources that all those people consume. But what if, in the end, it all worked itself out and we didn’t devour this planet like a giant swarm of very smart locusts? That may actually be what winds up happening, if just a bit beyond the lifespan of the brilliant Prof. Borlaug.
A recent article in The Economist explained the situation. As the world moves towards greater industrialization in all corners, the birthrate per female is starting to fall dramatically. There are many reasons for this, most of them related to the improved availability of contraception and the education of women. In the end, however, as women enter workforces to be more than just farm wives, the families they belong to have a greater interest in having fewer children than would be reasonable if they were raising more help to work the land.
This appears to be just what is happening. Globally, the replacement fertility rate averages out to 2.1 births per woman, a bit over two because some children die before they reach the age where they are fertile. In poor nations, the replacement rate is a bit higher because more children die young, but overall it works out to 2.1 as the magic number. Right now, the humans on this planet have a birthrate of about 2.3 and falling – by 2020 it is expected to be below 2.1, as the population tops out around 9.3 Billion people.
That’s still a good 50% higher population than today, but what matter most is that there is a peak that is manageable and imaginable with today’s technology. Many nations in Southeast Asia are already below replacement birthrate and have relatively low populations of the very old to support. The USofA is sitting right on replacement birthrates already, and currently has a higher percentage of its population in the working ages of 18-65 than at any time that has been tabulated.
The most interesting case in the world can be found in Iran. In 1979, the mullahs who took power decreed that a greater population was a good thing, making birth control more difficult to obtain. By 1984 the fertility rate hit 7.0. As that generation grew up, however, the situation stabilized and women born in that time started to enter the workforce in the cities that groaned under the growing population. The birthrate today is 1.9 and still dropping, well below replacement. This massive generational change is at the root of the political strife playing out on the streets of that nation – as it probably will for another generation to come.
As nations become richer, there’s no doubt that they will demand more resources to support more lavish lifestyles, so it’s not all great news for the net burden on our planet. However, as demographics is destiny, the world will at least stabilize in population and probably in the great disparities between the relative wealth of the nations.
In these difficult economic times, it’s easy to find horrible news that supports the idea that nearly everything is going badly. But as surely as demographics is the best read of the tea leaves that tell our future, this is likely something that we’re going through to get to the other side of a more stable world. That’s what Norman Borlaug wanted, after all, and it’s just a shame that as long as he lived he didn’t quite get to see it.