Population: The Last Taboo
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The Last Taboo

There are 7 billion humans on earth, so why can't we talk about population?

IT'S MIDNIGHT on the streets of Calcutta. Old women cook over open fires on the sidewalks. Men wait in line at municipal hand pumps to lather skin, hair, and lungis (skirts), bathing without undressing. Girls sit in the open beds of bicycle-powered trucks, braiding their hair. The monsoon's not yet over, and grandfathers under umbrellas squat on their heels, arguing over card games, while mothers hold bare-bottomed toddlers over open latrines. On every other block, shops the size of broom closets are still open, kerosene lights blazing, their proprietors seated cross-legged on tiny shelves built above their wares of plastic buckets or machetes or radios. Many people sleep through the lively darkness, draped over sacks of rice or on work carts full of paper or rags or hay. Groups of men and women, far from their home villages, sprawl haphazardly across the sidewalks, snoring.

I'm crossing the city in one of Calcutta's famously broken-down Ambassador taxis. The seat's been replaced with a box, the windows don't work, there never were seat belts. Sneezes of rain blow through. It's always like this, arriving in the dead of night after incomprehensibly long international flights, exiting the hermetically sealed jet onto humid and smoky streets perfumed with gardenias and shit. The coal haze is thick as magician's smoke. Out of the dark, suddenly, the huge haunches of a working elephant appear, tail switching, big feet plodding carefully over piles of garbage, each footfall spooking a hungry dog. The mahout tucked between her ears nonchalantly chats on a cell phone.

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The festival of Durga Puja has just ended, and my taxi slows nearly to a stop behind a procession of trucks, Land Rovers, minivans, and people on foot escorting a 10-arm clay idol of the goddess Durga to the Hooghly River to be submerged. Traffic here is astonishing, with more vehicles per kilometer than any other city in India. At one complicated intersection between three major arteries, two men herd a hundred goats dyed a festive hot pink through a tangle of pedestrians, bicycles, overloaded trucks, and hand-drawn carts carrying 20-foot bamboo poles, powered by matchstick-thin barefoot men straining forward at the waist. Calcutta's famous rickshaws, among the last human-drawn taxis in Asia, are stabled in herds for the night, their pullers contorted in sleep across the double seats.

My family ties to Calcutta, renamed Kolkata in 2001, in the state of West Bengal, reach back to the city's 17th-century British beginnings. My genetic roots in India wend back farther. Remarkably, little of architectural note has changed since this capital city of the British Raj was built; it's only aged, postapocalyptically, with slumping buildings cobbled together from broken buildings and banyan trees growing opportunistically from tiles eroding to humus on old roofs.

* Future figures based on UN projections. Sources: US Census Bureau, UN.* Future figures based on UN projections. Sources: US Census Bureau, UThat so many can live among the ruins seems impossible. Yet so many do. The city is home to about 5 million people, at a population density of 70,000 per square mile—2.5 times more crowded than New York City. Another 9 million live in the urban agglomeration, bringing the population of greater Kolkata to 14 million. More are added every day—though not as many as you might expect from births. Kolkata's fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman) is only 1.35, well below the global replacement average of 2.34 (the number where population stabilizes as births balance with deaths). Instead, the city's growth is fueled largely through migration from a poorer and more fertile countryside.

What supports the crowds of Kolkata are what supports life everywhere: air, water, food, fuel, climate. Three hundred miles north of the city rises the mighty buttress of the Himalayas, home to 18,000 glaciers covering an area of ice larger than Maryland. After the Arctic and Antarctic, this "third pole" holds earth's greatest freshwater reserve, supplying the outflows of some of the globe's mightiest rivers—Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo, Brahmaputra—water for one in seven people on earth. Fifty miles to the south of Kolkata, at the end of those rivers, lies the enormous Bay of Bengal, where 3 million tons of seafood are netted, hooked, and trawled annually. In highlands to the north and south lie the seams of coal that fuel the city.

Konica Modol lives in Topsia, a Kolkata slum of shanties and godowns (warehouses). Days after these pictures were taken , fire consumed the slum, leaving 1200 homeless.Konica Modol lives in Topsia, a Kolkata slum of shanties and godowns (warehouses). Days after these pictures were taken, fire consumed the slum, leaving 1200 homeless.Seen from above, the circulatory system of roads and railroads of the Indian east—home to 300 million people, roughly the same as the US—funnels into Kolkata, with trucks and freight trains running day and night, laden with fuel, fish, and food. The city itself funnels into a central core, a defensible bend in the Hooghly River and the classic star-shaped, 18th-century Fort William—a stronghold harking back to a time when wealth was measured in tea, silk, jute, ivory, and gemstones, and when survival was assured with cannon fire.

Survival in the 21st century is different. Its real measure lies in the depth of the snowpack in the Himalayas, in the sustainable tonnage of fish caught in the Bay of Bengal, in the inches of topsoil remaining on the Indian plains, and in the parts per million of coal smoke in the air. The root cause of India's dwindling resources and escalating pollution is the same: the continued exponential growth of humankind.

As recently as 1965, when the world population stood at 3.3 billion, we collectively taxed only 70 percent of the earth's biocapacity each year. That is, we used only 7/10 of the land, water, and air the planet could regenerate or repair yearly to produce what we consumed and to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Global Footprint Network, a California think tank, we first overdrew our accounts in 1983, when our population of nearly 4.7 billion began to consume natural resources faster than they could be replenished—a phenomenon called "ecological overshoot." Last year, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 earths.

The United Nations projects that world population will stabilize at 9.1 billion in 2050. This prediction assumes a decline from the current average global fertility rate of 2.56 children per woman to 2.02 children per woman in the years between 2045 and 2050. But should mothers average half a child more in 2045, the world population will peak at 10.5 billion five years later. Half a child less, and it stabilizes at 8 billion. The difference in those projections—2.5 billion—is the total number of people alive on earth in 1950.

The only known solution to ecological overshoot is to decelerate our population growth faster than it's decelerating now and eventually reverse it—at the same time we slow and eventually reverse the rate at which we consume the planet's resources. Success in these twin endeavors will crack our most pressing global issues: climate change, food scarcity, water supplies, immigration, health care, biodiversity loss, even war. On one front, we've already made unprecedented strides, reducing global fertility from an average 4.92 children per woman in 1950 to 2.56 today—an accomplishment of trial and sometimes brutally coercive error, but also a result of one woman at a time making her individual choices. The speed of this childbearing revolution, swimming hard against biological programming, rates as perhaps our greatest collective feat to date.

But it's not enough. And it's still not fast enough. Faced with a world that can support either a lot of us consuming a lot less or far fewer of us consuming more, we're deadlocked: individuals, governments, the media, scientists, environmentalists, economists, human rights workers, liberals, conservatives, business and religious leaders. On the supremely divisive question of the ideal size of the human family, we're amazingly united in a pact of silence.

I'm returning to India, where the dynamics of overpopulation and overconsumption are most acute, where the lifelines between water, food, fuel, and 1.17 billion people—17 percent of humanity subsisting on less than 2.5 percent of the globe's land—are already stretched dangerously thin.

"Overpopulation, combined with overconsumption, is the elephant in the room," says Paul Ehrlich, 42 years after he wrote his controversial book, The Population Bomb. "We don't talk about overpopulation because of real fears from the past—of racism, eugenics, colonialism, forced sterilization, forced family planning, plus the fears from some of contraception, abortion, and sex. We don't really talk about overconsumption because of ignorance about the economics of overpopulation and the true ecological limits of earth."

Core differences about how the population issue is viewed have reinforced the paralysis. Conservationists tended to frame the issue as people vs. nature, while human rights activists found this analysis simplistic and even racist, failing to address what they saw as the core problems of poverty and environmental injustice. Yet they in turn have tended to deny the limits of growth. Add the tension between rich and poor nations, and the issue quickly becomes radioactive. "In the developing world," says Kavita Ramdas, the president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Global Fund for Women, "the problem of population is seen less as a matter of human numbers than of Western overconsumption. Yet within the development community, the only solution to the problems of the developing world is to export the same unsustainable economic model fueling the overconsumption of the West."

I'm returning to India, where the dynamics of overpopulation and overconsumption are most acute, where the lifelines between water, food, fuel, and 1.17 billion people—17 percent of humanity subsisting on less than 2.5 percent of the globe's land—are already stretched dangerously thin. India's population is projected to surpass China's by 2030 in a country only a third China's size—adding 400 million citizens between now and 2050. But that's the mid-level projection. A slight uptick in global fertility, and it may be home to a staggering 2 billion people by 2050. Here, before anywhere else on earth, the challenges of 20th-century family planning will become a 21st-century fight for survival.

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