Is Anyone Listening?

By Isaac Asimov

Everyone who has reached my level of late youth and has spent his time watching people and listening to them is bound to have become cynical. I, too, have become cynical. I have difficulty accepting things according to appearances and have trouble believing promises and assurances.

One justification for cynicism is that people don't listen, even when warnings are explicit, and even when the outlook is threatening.

I devoted at least two essays in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine to warning of Earth's growing population. In May 1969, there was "The Power of Progression." At that time, Earth`s population was 3.5 billion as compared with about 2 billion at the time of my birth nearly half a century earlier. In the half- century, it had increased 75 percent.

In the May 1980 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction I published "More Crowded!" At that time, Earth's population was 4.2 billion, so that in 11 years the number of human beings had increased by 700 million, which is nearly the present population of India. In 11 years, in other words, we had added another India to the world, form the standpoint of numbers.

In "More Crowded!" I made the statement: "It is quite likely that we will end the 1980s with a world population edging toward 5 billion."

As usual, I was conservative. We are not edging toward the 5 Billion mark, we have passed it. An we did it not by the end of the 1980s, but some time late in 1986, or early in 1987.

In the seven years after "More Crowded!" then, the Earth added 800 million people, 100 million more than it had added in the previous 11 years.

In the 18 years between 1969 and `87, Earth's population grew by 1.5 billion people (as much as it had gained in the previous 50 years), and that is equal to the population of two present-day Indias. What's more, since the birthrate in poor and industrially undeveloped nations is far higher than in long-industrialized ones, about 90 percent of the new mouths are born in poor nations. We have therefore added two Indias not only in terms of numbers, but in terms of poverty.

And this has taken place despite the fact the rate of increase has dropped from 2 percent a year in 1970 to 1.6 percent a year now, thanks chiefly to stern measures taken in China to reduce the birthrate.

Are we entitled to be relieved at the drop in birthrate? No, for the increase in population more than compensates for that. An increase of 2 percent a year in 1969, when the population was 3.5 billion, meant an increase of 70 million that year. An increase of 1.6 percent a year in 1987, when the population was 5 billion, meant an increase of 80 million that year. So we're growing both in total numbers and in numbers of increase.

Let's take a closer look. An increase of 80 million people in one year means an additional Mexico in a year. That is equivalent to 220,000 new people every day, or one new Lima, Ohio, every time you wake up in the morning. It is also equivalent to 150 additional people every minute or five more people every two seconds. If we had a digital recording on which the Earth's population could be read off at each instant, the units figure would be flipping up new digits at more than twice the rate that the seconds figure would change on a digital watch.

In "The Power of Progression" I began with a world population of 3.5 billion and a doubling rate of once every 47 years, and worked out an equation that would give me the world population at any time in the future, provided the doubling rate stayed constant.

I showed that by 2554 A.D., the world population would be 20,000 billion, so that the average population density over the entire surface of the earth, land, and sea would be equal to the average density, today, of Manhattan at noon.

I then assumed that every star in the Universe had 10 habitable planets and that we could transfer people form planet to planet at will and instantaneously. By 6170 A.D. every planet in the Universe would be filled to Manhattan density.

Since the birthrate has dropped since 1969, we can calculate the doubling rate right now at once every 50 years. This gives us a little more time. It won't be till 2585 A.D. that we achieve Manhattan density over all of Earth's surface. But at that point, another few years to do it in is not going to help one iota.

We can't continue multiplying at this rate for very long, no matter what we do. It won't help us to advance technology by any conceivable amount. For instance, it won't help us to go out into space at any conceivable rate. After all, since we're going to have 80 million more people a year, when will we be able to put that many people in space in one year so as to stabilize our population? Do you want to be optimistic and say we can do that 50 years form now? Well, by then we'll be gaining 160 million new mouths every year, and the people in space will be multiplying, too.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we'll maintain this increase indefinitely, because we won't. We won't for the most insuperable reason in the world: We can't. The only question about population that we can ask is how to stop the population increase.

And the answer to that is that either a) the birthrate will continue to decrease, or b) the death rate will increase, or c) both. There are no other alternatives. I've said that before and I'm saying it again.

Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?

The feeling on the part of demographers is that by the year 2000 the population will begin to level off and that by 2100 it will stabilize, though by then it will have reached some 10 billion, or twice what it is now.

Is that a big sigh of relief I hear?

Then think! What kind of a world will it be by the time population stability is achieved?

The population of Earth is not going evenly. I said earlier up that 90 percent of the population increase is in the underdeveloped nations. Within those nations, the rural areas are ground ever deeper into poverty as population multiplies. With land less and less available, the peasants drift into cities in search of jobs, so that at cancerous rate.

The cities of these nations are growing at In "More Crowded!" I expressed my surprise that the second largest city in the world was Mexico City. Between 1967 and `79 its population had gone from 3,193,000 to 8,628,074. In merely 12 years it had increased its population nearly three-fold, going from the size of Chicago to more than the size of New York.

The latest figure I could find on its population is 13 million, and that is probably low. I have heard larger figures. In any case, by 1988 it had become the world's most populous city.

Before World War II, London was the largest city with 8 million people, and New York City was second with 7 million. New York has kept its population at that height (with its suburbs growing rapidly, of course) and London has actually shrunk.

New York is now, according to the latest statistics I can find, only the fourteenth largest city in the world and London is the sixteenth. Here are the figures, which I imagine are on the low side:

Mexico City, Mexico 13,000,000
Sao Paolo, Brazil 12,600,000
Shanghai,China 12,000,000
Cairo, Egypt 12,000,000
Seoul, South Korea 9,600,000
Beijing, China 9,300,000
Calcutta, India 9,200,000
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 9,000,000
Tokyo, Japan 8,500,000
Bombay, India 8,300,000
Moscow, U.S.S.R. 8,000,000
Tianjin, China 7,900,000
Jakarta, Indonesia 7,700,000
New York, U.S.A. 7,200,000
Guangzhou, China 6,800,000
London, U.K. 6,700,000

Of the 13 largest cities in the world, one is in Africa, three are in Latin America, eight are in Asia. Only one is in Europe, and that is Moscow.

None of this alters the fact that the richest very large city remains New York, and this is significant. Size does not necessarily mean wealth. In fact, the very large cities in the non-industrial countries tend to contain square mile upon square mile of hovels, shacks, and shanties deprived of any of the amenities that an average dweller in a large city in an industrialized nation takes for granted.

And this will only get worse. Fast though the world's population is growing as a whole, and still faster though the world's underdeveloped population is growing, the fastest growth rate is in the cities of the underdeveloped nations. By 2000, even though the population will begin to move into its stabilizing period, the cities of the underdeveloped nations may still be expanding and may collapse into rotting nightmares.

Consider, too, that the terrible need for agricultural land forced by the population increase, together with the need for firewood (which is the most important fuel in many underdeveloped areas), is already resulting in the slaughter of the forests, particularly the rain forests, which are being hacked down at a fearful rate. Almost 15 million acres are being cleared each year, and, by the year 2000, half Earth's present forests may be gone.

Remember that forests aren't just pretty trees taking up land that might better be used by human beings. Forests have root systems that conserve the soil and prevent the violent runoff of excess water. The trees give off water into the air, instead, cooling and moistening it. Forests also produce oxygen at a rate higher than will any form of vegetation replacing them.

The soil in which rain forests grow is not very good and will be soon leached of nutrients by crops planted in them, while rain runoff will gully and destroy the soil altogether. Far from supplying us with agricultural land, the vanishing rain forests will yield to deserts.

The deserts are indeed expanding as a result of forest destruction, overfarming, and general human mishandling, and, by the year 2000, the area of new desert will be perhaps 1 1/2 times the area of the United States. And the fact that there will be less and less good land to cultivate will send more and more people into the overcrowded, festering, fetid cities.

The forests, too, are the habitat of myriad species of plants and animals, a couple million of which (mostly insects, to be sure) have not yet even been classified. Destroying the forests destroys habitats, and about a fifth of the animal and plant species now living will be extinct by the year 2000.

This is not something to be dismissed lightly. Such extinctions will upset the ecological balance and wreak havoc far beyond the extinctions themselves. There is also the question of what compounds of important medicinal and industrial value might exist in the plants and animals we have not yet investigated, and which will vanish forever together with whatever good they might have done us.

Then, too, the more people there are, the greater the rate at which we must consume the Earth's finite resources. Worse yet is the fact that the more people there are, the greater the rate at which we must produce waste products, many of them toxic.

Usable fresh water supplies will decrease, since larger and larger portions of them will be polluted to the point where they will be undrinkable without costly treatment that many regions will not be able to afford. Nor will life be able to thrive in polluted water. Acid rain will grow worse and kill more lakes and more fish.

Even the ocean rim, the richest portion of the sea, is being increasingly polluted (and remember that microscopic forms of plant life in the uppermost layers of the ocean produce 80 percent of the oxygen that we cannot do without).

The atmosphere, too, is being increasingly polluted, and cities are becoming more and more smog-bound.

Even carbon dioxide, which is itself a rather benign and relatively nontoxic substance, is a deadly danger. The fuels we burn for energy at an ever-increasing rate are producing carbon dioxide at a rate greater than Earth's vegetation can utilize it and the ocean dissolve it. The result is that the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air (quite likely only .035 percent) is slowly but steadily increasing from year to year.

By 2000 A.D., the carbon dioxide content of the air may have increased by one third beyond today's content. This won't interfere with our breathing noticeably, but it will conserve more of the heat Earth receives from the sun so that Earth's average temperature will go up somewhat. This will change the weather pattern, probably for the worse, and increase the rate at which the polar ice-caps melt, raising the sea-level noticeably and causing coastal areas to suffer more from high tides and storms - in short, the greenhouse effect.

Other forms of pollution are just as slowly and just as surely destroying the ozone layer in Earth's upper atmosphere. This will increase the intensity of ultraviolet light from the sun at Earth's surface. The warning here is that skin cancers will increase, and so they will, but there may be worse. We don't know what the additional ultraviolet will do to the microscopic forms of life living in the soil and in the uppermost layer of the ocean. If these are badly damaged, the very viability of Earth as a planet may be decreased markedly.

To be sure, Earth's resources may be made more efficient use of and wastes may be more rationally disposed of, if we make the social and technological effort, but there is a limit to what can be done if we continue to pour tens of millions of new human beings onto Earth's surface each year.

And as the population increases, as people crowd together more closely, as people find they can only get a smaller and smaller part of a pie that does not increase as the numbers do (but decreases in many ways), there will be increasing alienation, increasing refuge in drugs, increasing crime, increasing chance of war. In short, the world will become ever more violent.

Every one of these changes, which come about more or less directly because of the ever-increasing population, will serve to raise the death rate. There will be increasing starvation, and bodies weakened by undernourishment will be more prone to disease. There will be more deaths by violence. In short, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death) will ride the Earth.

This might seem a natural way to make overpopulation self-limiting. It will seem an automatic cure -- but what a horrible cure it will be. Surely, the alternative of a deliberate effort to lower the birthrate is far preferable.

But is anyone listening? Does anyone care?