John Colson: Hit and Run | AspenTimes.com

John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I’m tired of politics. Just for a moment, let us turn our thoughts to something less fraught with hyperbole, less susceptible to anger and bombast, such as the population bomb that Paul Ehrlich so eloquently described in his 1968 book.

It’s appropriate to take a look at our growing numbers this week, since the U.S. Census Bureau has informed us that our population crossed the 300-million line for the first time this decade, between 2000 and 2010. There are now 308.7 million or so of us, a growth of a little under 10 percent over 10 years.

Here in Colorado, our numbers went up at a slightly steeper rate, some 16.7 percent, which puts us well below the growth rates of Nevada (35 percent) and even of Utah and Arizona, both around 24 percent. Of course, Nevada and Utah still sit way back in the pack with about 2.7 million people compared to Colorado’s 5 million.

Of the Four Corners states, only Arizona (more than 6 million) can claim supremacy over Colorado, while New Mexico is not only the smallest of the four with 2 million, it has the lowest growth rate at 13 percent or so. Taos, anyone?

Also out this week was a report by National Geographic that, among other things, tells us that the world’s population will top 7 billion in 2011, and if things stay the same will reach 9 billion or more by 2050.

That’s a lot of souls to coop up on one little planet.

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On a historical and fictional note, the late, great Isaac Asimov penned a novel in 1954, when I was all of three years old, titled “Caves of Steel.” In it, he posited a future when the world’s population would reach 8 billion.

At that point, according to Asimov’s vision, we’d nearly all be crowded into super-cities of 10 million or more, eating food manufactured at “yeast farms” dotted around the suburban landscape surrounding each city, and we’d be perilously close to the point where humanity could no longer survive on the planet.

While Asimov set his story hundreds of years into the future, at a time when we also would have colonized 50 planets in the nearby reaches of space, it appears his vision was a little off.

For one thing, it took us only a little more than a half-century to approach his maximum population number.

He was close to correct about the cities, though. Just take a look around. According to those who pay attention to such things, we passed the point in 2008 where more than half of the world’s population lived in urban areas. There are now 21 cities around the globe with populations of 10 million or more. Consider, for a moment, that in 1800 it was believed that only about 3 percent of the world lived in cities and that there were only about a half a billion of us here at that point.

As for colonizing nearby planets, well, it was a good fantasy while it lasted. Colonization of other planets was Asimov’s escape valve for humanity, as it was for uncounted other sci-fi writers, and it continues to be for some who think we’re rapidly ruining this planet beyond redemption.

I should note that, in the National Geographic piece, it’s not all bad news.

Some demographers believe that the ongoing population explosion, which started at roughly the same time as the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, is leveling off. Put at its most basic level, according to demographers, women are more educated now than they ever have been, even in developing countries with high illiteracy rates, and they are choosing to have fewer babies.

So, perhaps we’re getting a better handle on how to manage our numbers.

At the same time, people in general are learning more about the finite nature of the world’s resources. And the hope is that we learn enough, and put that knowledge to work in serious enough ways, to avoid either polluting ourselves right off of our home planet, or over-consuming our resources to the point where we all die of thirst and starvation.

On that uncharacteristically hopeful note, I will end this little moment of meditation with one last countervailing thought – maybe it’s not too late to start serious work on perfecting interstellar travel so that if we need it, we’ll have it.

jcolson@aspentimes.com

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