Why the Population Time Bomb Hasn’t Finished Exploding

Human population growth
Human population growth. Data: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Wikimedia Commons

In a 1968 book The Population Bomb, population biologist Paul R. Ehrlich warned of an impending systemic collapse of a world which was, at that time, pushing toward a human population of 4 billion. A soaring population, too great for the natural resources of the planet and the agricultural capacity of farmers, would collapse into famine, disease and, likely, war, he argued.

In a five-part exploration of the ever-growing human population, now sitting at 7 billion and expected to hit 9.3 billion by 2050, Los Angeles Times reporter Kenneth R. Weiss describes how the world may, finally, be on the cusp of diffusing the still-ticking time bomb.

Weiss and LA Times’ Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Rick Loomis trekked across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, exploring the lives of those stuck in the middle of the back-and-forth battle between political, social, and religious forces—a debate often driven by the transient political whim of outside influences rather than by the decisions of those whose livelihoods are on the line.

In the first part of the series, Weiss describes Ramjee Lal Kumhar and his wife Mamta, who were married at 11 and 10 years of age, and had their first child when they were both 13. They had a second child two years later. Weiss says,

At 15 and finally able to grow a mustache, Ramjee made a startling announcement: He was done having children.

“We cannot afford it,” he said, standing with arms crossed in the dirt courtyard of the compound he shares with 12 relatives, a cow, several goats and some chickens in the northern state of Rajasthan.

Horrified, his mother and grandmother pleaded with him to reconsider.

“Having one son is like having one eye,” his grandmother said. “You need two eyes.”

Weiss describes how similar scenes are playing out around the world. In many places, the fertility rate is starting to fall. Despite this, the population will continue to rise, a repeating echo of the high birth rates of previous generations.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Looking Back on the Limits of Growth

The Changing Demographics of America

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