The UN estimate of the population of the world at the end of 1998 is 5.9 billion. In 1940 (three years before I was born) it was estimated at 2.3 billion. In 1900 the estimated total was 1.65 billion. This is an increase of 4.25 BILLION – 258% - in 100 years.

This growth is the primary cause, or a major contributing cause, for some of mankind’s worst problems. Major fisheries have collapsed, due to ever increasing demand for food fish coupled with technology allowing more complete harvests. Tropical rain forests are disappearing at a staggering rate, often to be replaced by bare rock. Marginal grazing lands in the Sahel are converted to desert by overuse. Wars are chronic in many areas that used to be normally peaceful, as people get pushed closer and closer together. Available fossil water is being rapidly depleted in areas such as the Middle East and American southwest that have much less renewable water available than is necessary for the rising populations and standards of living.

Population increase and overcrowding have also led directly to wars (or at least served as excuses) in more “developed” regions such as Europe. Hitler’s war for Lebensraum was by no means the last. The Serb attempts to push out the Albanians and Hungarians (the latter with virtually no press attention) are but one example.

Most Americans don’t think about this growth, or if they do they consider it no problem. After all, the US population has grown at a virtually the same rate for the last century (76 million in 1900 to 272 million in 1999, 258%) as the world as a whole, while living standards have steadily increased for the vast majority of Americans. Many people consider the only real problem today the increase in gridlock on the roads.

There are some rather profound differences between the US and the rest of the world. The US contains huge amounts of rich land with deep soil and profuse water. Certainly most of the east, old northwest, south and far west could support far larger populations.

The problem is that the growth of the rest of the world is primarily in parts of the globe which do not have those geographic advantages. The tropical rain forest is the richest environment in the world, but it rests on only inches of soil. While we lived in Sri Lanka the conversion of large areas from lush jungle to bare rock, within one year for each plot, was evident in wide areas. Traditional slash and burn agriculture works on flat land with low population density. Crops are grown on a patch for a year or two, until the soil is exhausted, and then the farmers move on to another piece of forest. With the used plots given decades to recover, the process was permanently sustainable. Without that rest period, there is no regeneration. And when the cutting is done on a slope, the next rainy season strips all soil away. In months a lively patch of forest has become a moonscape.

Another and very rarely discussed problem (in the sense of this note) is education. Through human history, those who lived on the land could survive quite well with no formal education. Provided the natural resources were available, OJT was adequate for learning how to farm or fish or hunt or weave. Now billions have no space available on the land or seaside and crowd into cities. Prior to around 1800 this was no problem – there was plenty of grunt work in the cities. Supplies had to be brought in, waste products and bodies removed.

Some of the uneducated used to find employment in simple "crafts." Aleppo is a marvelous living museum for such, due to Hafez al’Assad’s economic policies. I love the street of the bucket makers, some taking old tires apart ply by ply, others sewing the plies into the buckets used throughout the region on construction sites and archeological digs. And the street of the iron workers, smiths using millennia-old skills to fashion nails, shoes for horses and donkeys, knives, hoes, anything. But when you visit an open market country such as Turkey those craftsmen have been replaced by a few merchants selling cheap factory-made materials such as plastic buckets.

In 1900, the United States was already firmly committed to education (at least for white males), and there was a nationwide network of schools at all levels. Much of the rest of the world was held in colonial status, with the worst masters flat refusing education to the local population. Countries such as the Congo and Indonesia came to independence with essentially no educational (or any other) infrastructure.

Today there are probably one BILLION people with no formal education in cities and megacities such as Jakarta. These are people who have no hope of employment in the modern economy, for even a sales clerk or server has to be able to read and do some numbers if not use a computer. And most are in countries without the resources (or whose leaders don’t use the resources) for educating the next generation.

What do these people, and particularly the males, do? Many just sit around but others turn to trades requiring no formal education – theft, prostitution, war. Where governments are corrupt, or at least seen to not be trying to help, many join the nearest rebel. Liberia, Ivory Coast and the Congo (sometime Zaire) are examples of the worst that can happen.

And worse yet is conceivable. What if some charismatic leader managed to mobilize a million or 10 million for a march on the promised land (western Europe or the US)?

Aid programs from the developed world have helped solve the education problem in some countries, and others have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. But for much of the world the only real solution is the multinational corporation. Shoe factories and such can and do employ large numbers of unskilled, uneducated people who are taught to do one small task. Getting those people off the street and on some sort of payroll will hopefully generate the funds and interest necessary to allow the next generation a better future.

last update 9 December 2000

Gamber Net | Life's Lessons | contact Dan