Thursday, August 27, 2015

Earth's Population Rising and Aging

Current U.N. projections predict that global population will rise to 11.2 billion by 2100. While population increase has been steadily slowing and is expected to level off eventually, it hasn't stopped yet:

World to Get More Crowded

And another article on the same study: World Population

Most of that predicted increase will occur in Africa, while birthrates continue to fall elsewhere. I was surprised to note that North America and Oceania together account for only five percent of the world's people. I knew we were in the minority, but I didn't realize how small a minority. Also, everywhere outside of Africa the proportion of older people is increasing. At present, about a quarter of Europeans are age 60 or older. The global median age today is 29.6. It's expected to reach 36 in 2050 and 42 in 2100.

Back in the 1960s, the prevalent fear was that population would keep increasing out of control until the planet became uninhabitable. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay calculating how soon this fate would overtake us at the then-prevailing rate of increase. I don't remember when he published this article or exactly when he figured the limit would be reached, but his doomsday date fell in the surprisingly near future. In that hypothetical year, he predicted the entire Earth would have the population density of Manhattan at noon on a work day. Everybody would live in high-rises, and food would be grown on the roofs, probably in tanks. Of course, in the real world rather than the realm of mathematical models, society would collapse under the strain and populations would crash long before that point.

The SF motif of relieving terrestrial overcrowding by interplanetary colonization isn't likely to materialize. When such colonies become possible, they will siphon off only a tiny percentage of Earth's people. New World colonies might have revitalized Europe in many ways, but they didn't make a significant dent in the population of the Old World.

At present, though, it appears that our long-term problem won't be overpopulation but an aging society. What solution to the potential shortage of working-age people in first-world countries wouldn't lead to unwanted population increase? Maybe robots?

Also, as has often been proposed, a society dominated by elderly people would need to shift its focus from working for a livelihood to the fruitful use of leisure time. Work as we know it would become only one phase among several stages of life. The residue of our country's Puritan work ethic (one hangover of which is the peculiar "early to bed, early to rise" attitude that sixteen active hours out of twenty-four are somehow more worthwhile if they start at sunrise) will have to be reexamined. We need to question the still too prevalent idea that workaholism is a virtue and relaxation a wicked indulgence. We can hope the world won't look like Jack Williamson's classic novel, in which robots took over all jobs and forced human beings into total idleness for their own safety. Ideally, people relieved of the need to labor for survival would devote themselves to tasks or leisure pursuits that would enrich their lives.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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