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Progress in slowing the increase in people on the earth is critical to finding solutions for global problems in the 21st century

World Population

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"There's no question that population growth is eventually going to come to a halt," says Stanford University demographer Paul Erlich. "The question is whether it's going to end because we manage to humanely lower birthrates or because we exceed the earth's carrying capacity."

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The fact that most of today's 5 billion people have escaped famine is credited partly to the "green revolution" of the 1960s. The dramatic increases in world food production that resulted from breakthroughs in plant technology, irrigation, and farm management are a hint, say some economists, of the limitless possibilities offered by technology and human ingenuity to keep up with the needs of an expanding world population.

But as the growth in human numbers rolls relentlessly past the finite productivity of the green revolution, the future seems less promising. Since the mid-1980s, increases in food production in some regions have fallen behind population growth. In the poorer nations of Latin America, harvest deficits have been widening for a decade. In sub-Saharan Africa, which was once self-sufficient in agriculture, food production is growing at only half the rate of population, leaving an estimated one-third of the co ntinent undernourished.

"Population growth is clearly outpacing agricultural potential in Africa," says Stephen Vosti, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. "It is a Malthusian train crash waiting to happen," he adds, referring to the predictions of Thomas Malthus, the 19th-century British economist who warned that population growth would someday outpace food supplies.

Population growth has also contributed to the worsening poverty that now affects hundreds of millions of people living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Many economists and demographers warn that population growth combined with inefficient agriculture, inappropriate government policies, and outdated technologies has brought the world to critical thresholds of sustainability. Demographers point to the contribution of relentless population growth to deforestation, overgrazing, and the degradation of the very agricultural lands needed to sustain such growth.

Finding solutions to the global problems that will dominate the agenda of the 21st century will be nearly impossible without progress on the population front.

"There's no possible solution to the global problems of poverty and environmental degradation that does not include action to reduce projected population-growth rates," says former World Bank president Robert McNamara.

Environmental problems, such as global warming and depletion of the ozone layer, are not caused by population growth but by the extravagant use of resources in the rich industrialized countries, where 75 percent of all energy is consumed. But if even the most optimistic population projections materialize, the sheer weight of human numbers will soon make the third world a major burden on the global as well as local environment.

"For the most part, global pollution is a consequence of the use of resources and the waste of developing countries. But the simplest projections into the future tell you that's not going to be the case 10 years from now, even if per-capita consumption rates stay the same," says George Zeidenstein, president of the Population Council, a private research group in New York. "We're at a transitional moment."