The Global Citizen: The News Behind The News

Thirty years ago Paul Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb" and I paid no attention. I was engrossed in biochemistry research and preparing to go on a year-long trip halfway around the world. I doubt if I could have listed more than the top two of the world's ten most populous nations. They were, in 1968 (with populations listed in millions):China - 730 India - 524 USSR - 238 USA - 201 Pakistan - 123 Indonesia - 113 Japan - 101 Brazil - 88 Germany (West) - 60 Nigeria - 52The trip halfway around the world took me through four of those countries and woke me up on the topic of population. Ten years later, in 1978, I was testing my students' knowledge of the planet by asking if they could list the ten most populous countries. The list had changed. Brazil had just grown past Japan. Bangladesh had split off from Pakistan but both still made the list, knocking Germany off. In ten years China had added more than the whole population of the United States.China - 972 India - 661 USSR - 261 USA - 226 Indonesia - 145 Brazil - 116 Japan - 115 Bangladesh - 84 Pakistan - 81 Nigeria - 68By 1988, I was no longer teaching full time, but I was still keeping track of the top ten population nations. Pakistan had outswelled Bangladesh, and the numbers were getting astonishing.China - 1,122India - 818 USSR - 285 USA - 249 Indonesia - 177 Brazil - 143 Japan - 123 Pakistan - 112 Bangladesh - 106 Nigeria - 97In the past 10 years the USSR broke up, pushing Russia down the list. The Nigerian population has more than doubled since 1968. Though China's and India's birth rates have plummeted, they are still adding more than 100 million per decade. Japan has nearly stopped growing. There are 70 million more people in the USA than there were 30 years ago. The 1998 numbers are:China 1,242 India 989 USA 270 Indonesia 207 Brazil 162 Russia 146 Pakistan 141 Japan 126 Bangladesh 123 Nigeria 122I look at the 30-year evolution of these numbers and I see an enormous event happening so slowly that it never makes the news -- yet it is constantly in the news. The instability of Nigeria, the bankruptcy of Indonesia, the kowtowing to China, the fear that drives India and Pakistan to nuclear bombs, the growing number of endangered species, the fires burning out of control in Indonesia and Mexico and Florida, the changing climate. Population growth is not the single cause of any of these happenings. But it is an inexorable driving factor behind all of them.Looking almost as far ahead as I have just looked behind, assuming neither a great catastrophe nor a great awakening but a continued steady decline in birth rates, here is the medium UN estimate for the ten most populous nations of 2025. Russia and Japan are both expected to lose population; Japan will fall off the list; Mexico will take its place.China - 1,561 India - 1,441 USA - 335 Indonesia - 275 Pakistan - 258 Brazil - 208 Nigeria - 203 Bangladesh - 165 Mexico - 140 Russia - 134This last set of numbers is ahead of us, not history, not destiny, but an excruciating combination of luck and choice.

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