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Myanmar

Myanmar

Union of Myanmar

President: Lt. Gen. Thein Sein (2011)

Vice President: Vice President Sai Mouk Kham (2011)

Land area: 253,954 sq mi (657,741 sq km); total area: 261,969 q mi (678,500 sq km)

Population (2012 est.): 54,584,650 (growth rate: 1.07%); birth rate: 19.11/1000; infant mortality rate: 47.74/1000; life expectancy: 65.24; density per sq km: 72

Capital and largest city (2009 est.): Rangoon (Yangon), 4,259,000

Naypyidaw (administrative capital)

Other large cities: Mandalay, 1,009,000; Nay Pyi Taw 992,000

Monetary unit: Kyat

National name: Pyidaungsu Myanmar Naingngandau

Current government officials

Languages: Burmese, minority languages

Ethnicity/race: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Mon 2%, Indian 2%, other 5%

Religions: Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Islam 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%

Literacy rate: 89.9% (2011 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2011 est.): $82.72 billion; per capita $1,300. Real growth rate: 5.5%. Inflation: 8.9%. Unemployment: 5.5%. Arable land: 15%. Agriculture: rice, pulses, beans, sesame, groundnuts, sugarcane; hardwood; fish and fish products. Labor force: 32.53 million; agriculture 70%, industry 7%, services 23% (2012). Industries: agricultural processing; knit and woven apparel; wood and wood products; copper, tin, tungsten, iron; construction materials; pharmaceuticals; fertilizer; cement; natural gas. Natural resources: petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, some marble, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, hydropower. Exports: $9.543 billion (2011); note: official export figures are grossly underestimated due to the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to Thailand, China, and Bangladesh: clothing, gas, wood products, pulses, beans, fish, rice. Imports: $5.498 billion (2011 est.); note: import figures are grossly underestimated due to the value of consumer goods, diesel fuel, and other products smuggled in from Thailand, China, Malaysia, and India: fabric, petroleum products, plastics, machinery, transport equipment, construction materials, crude oil; food products. Major trading partners: Thailand, India, China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia (2004).

Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 604,700 (2011); mobile cellular: 594,000 (2011). Radio broadcast stations: AM 2, FM 3, shortwave 3 (1998). Radios: 4.2 million (1997). Television broadcast stations: 2 (1998). Televisions: 320,000 (2000). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 1,033; note: as of Sept. 2000, Internet connections were legal only for the government, tourist offices, and a few large businesses (2012). Internet users: 110,000 (2011).

Transportation: Railways: total: 5,031 km (2011). Highways: total: 27,000 km; (2011 est.). Waterways: 12,800 km; 3,200 km navigable by large commercial vessels. Ports and harbors: Bassein, Bhamo, Chauk, Mandalay, Moulmein, Myitkyina, Rangoon, Akyab (Sittwe), Tavoy. Airports: 76 (2011).

International disputes: despite continuing border committee talks, significant differences remain with Thailand over boundary alignment and the handling of ethnic rebels, refugees, and illegal cross-border activities.

Major sources and definitions

Flag of Myanmar

Geography | Government | History

Geography

Slightly smaller than Texas, Myanmar occupies the Thailand/Cambodia portion of the Indochinese peninsula. India lies to the northwest and China to the northeast. Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand are also neighbors. The Bay of Bengal touches the southwest coast. The fertile delta of the Irrawaddy River in the south contains a network of interconnecting canals and nine principal river mouths.

Government

Military regime.

History

The ethnic origins of modern Myanmar (known historically as Burma) are a mixture of Indo-Aryans, who began pushing into the area around 700 B.C., and the Mongolian invaders under Kublai Khan who penetrated the region in the 13th century. Anawrahta (1044–1077) was the first great unifier of Myanmar.

In 1612, the British East India Company sent agents to Burma, but the Burmese doggedly resisted efforts of British, Dutch, and Portuguese traders to establish posts along the Bay of Bengal. Through the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824–1826 and two subsequent wars, the British East India Company expanded to the whole of Burma. By 1886, Burma was annexed to India, then became a separate colony in 1937.

WWII Leads to Independence

During World War II, Burma was a key battleground; the 800-mile Burma Road was the Allies’ vital supply line to China. The Japanese invaded the country in Dec. 1941, and by May 1942, had occupied most of it, cutting off the Burma Road. After one of the most difficult campaigns of the war, Allied forces liberated most of Burma prior to the Japanese surrender in Aug. 1945.

Burma became independent on Jan. 4, 1948. In 1962, left-wing general Ne Win staged a coup, banned political opposition, suspended the constitution, and introduced the “Burmese way of socialism.” After 25 years of economic hardship and repression, the Burmese people held massive demonstrations in 1987 and 1988. These were brutally quashed by the State Law and Order Council (SLORC). In 1989, the military government officially changed the name of the country to Myanmar. (The U.S. State Department does not recognize the name Myanmar or the military regime that represents it.)

The Military Maintains a Tight Grip on Myanmar

In May 1990 elections, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. But the military, or SLORC, refused to recognize the election results. The leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which focused world attention on SLORC’s repressive policies. Daughter of the assassinated general Aung San, who was revered as the father of Burmese independence, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest from 1989 until 1995. Suu Kyi continued to protest against the government, but almost every move she made was answered with a counterblow from SLORC.

Although the ruling junta has maintained a tight grip on Myanmar since 1988, it has not been able to subdue an insurgency in the country’s south that has gone on for decades. The ethnic Karen movement has sought an independent homeland along Myanmar’s southern border with Thailand. In Jan. 2004, the military government and the insurgents from the Karen National Union agreed to end the fighting, but they stopped short of signing a cease-fire.

The economy has been in a state of collapse except for the junta-controlled heroin trade, the universities have remained closed, and the AIDS epidemic, unrecognized by the junta, has gripped the country.

The Junta Crack Down on Democracy

From 2000 to 2002, Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest. In spring 2003, the government cracked down once again on the democracy movement, detaining Suu Kyi and shuttering NLD headquarters. The regime opened a constitutional convention in May 2004, but many observers doubted its legitimacy.

In Oct. 2004, the government arrested Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt and charged him with corruption. He had angered the leadership of the junta with his recent experiments on reform, first by freeing Suu Kyi from house arrest and later for proposing a seven-step “road map to democracy.”

A series of coordinated bomb attacks in May 2005 killed about a dozen people and wounded more than 100 in Rangoon. The military junta blamed the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army. The ethnic rebel groups, however, denied any involvement.

Moving Toward a Modern Nation

On Nov. 13, 2005, the military junta—in a massive and secretive move—relocated the seat of government from the capital Rangoon to a mountain compound called Pyinmanaa in Naypyidaw. The move perplexed many, and the junta was vague in its explanation, saying, “Due to changed circumstances, where Myanmar is trying to develop a modern nation, a more centrally located government seat has become a necessity.”

More than 1,000 delegates gathered in December to begin drafting a constitution, which the junta said was a step toward democracy. The convention adjourned in late Jan. 2006 with little progress. In Sept. 2007, representatives to the convention, which has met on and off since 1993, released a draft constitution that ensures that the military will continue to control the ministries and legislature and have the right to declare a state of emergency. The document also limits the rights of political parties. Opposition parties were excluded from the convention.

Military Crackdowns Receive World Criticism

In a stunning show of defiance, widespread pro-democracy protests, prompted by a sharp increase in fuel prices, erupted throughout the country in Aug. 2007. Participation in the peaceful protests ballooned over several weeks, and Buddhist monks joined the throngs of protesters when government troops used force against demonstrators in early September. The monks emerged as the leaders of the protest movement and gained international sympathy and support. On Sept. 26, the military cracked down on the protesters, firing into crowds, raiding pagodas, and arresting monks. At least nine people were killed. The protests were by far the largest in the country in 20 years, with as many as 100,000 people marching. In a statement, the United Nations Security Council condemned the crackdown, saying it “strongly deplores” the violence unleashed on the protesters.

On May 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis ravaged the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon, killing 22,500 people and leaving up to a million homeless. Another 41,000 people were reported missing and feared dead. Most of the death and destruction were caused by a 12-foot high tidal wave that formed during the storm. The isolated military junta accepted international aid, a tacit acknowledgement that it is ill-equipped to handle a disaster of such enormous scope. But once the aid began to arrive, the government limited distribution of the supplies, accepting only about 10% of what was needed. In addition, it denied entry visas to relief workers, leaving the country crippled and vulnerable to widespread disease. The junta faced further criticism when it went ahead with a constitutional referendum on May 10 intended to cement its grip on power.

In September, the military government released just over 9,000 prisoners, including the longest-serving political prisoner, Win Tin. Most of those released, however, were not political prisoners. By most estimates, as many as 2,000 political prisoners remain in detention. These releases were followed in November by the sentencing of 30 activists to up to 65 years in jail. The activists include veterans of the 1988 students’ movement and other democracy advocates who participated in the thwarted monk-led protests in Aug. and Sept. 2007.

Suu Kyi Freed Shortly After Elections

Days after elections in Oct. 2010–the country’s first elections in 20 years–opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed after nearly 20 years in detention. Thousands of supporters gathered outside her home, where she gave a speech calling for a “peaceful revolution.” The elections, which the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won in a landslide, were widely criticized as rigged and an attempt to further empower the military government. Nevertheless, the junta presented the elections as evidence that the country had completed the transition from military government to a democracy. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the elections, thus further diminishing the legitimacy of the results.

Dramatic Shift Away from Authoritarian Rule Brings Diplomatic Opportunities

The country’s first Parliament in 20 years convened in Jan. 2011 and elected Prime Minister Thein Sein as president. The military junta officially disbanded in March 2011. However, Parliament is civilian largely in name only. The military won about 60% of the seats in October 2010 elections, and another 25% are reserved for members of the military. In addition, the cabinet is largely comprised of former members of the junta. The National League for Democracy dismissed the transition to a civilian government, calling it a futile gesture that will introduce no real change in power.

The NLD’s predictions proved false, however. In his first year as president, Thein Sein initiated stunning changes in political and economic philosophy that saw a loosening of the tight grip the authoritarian junta held on the country. He initiated talks with opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; allowed her and her party, the NLD, to run in upcoming parliamentary elections; freed about more than 800 political prisoners; signed a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels, who for 60 years have sought an independent homeland along Myanmar’s southern border with Thailand; and suspended work on the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River. In response, the U.S. took dramatic steps to normalize relations with the formerly isolated and repressive regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December 2011—it was the first visit of a senior U.S. official in about 50 years. In Jan. 2012 the U.S. restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar. That was followed by an easing of sanctions that allowed U.S. companies to “responsibly do business” in Myanmar.

Opposition Dominates 2012 Elections

In April 2012 parliamentary elections, the National League of Democracy prevailed in 43 out of 45 districts that held races, including the capital, Naypyidaw. Suu Kyi, who in October 2010 was released after spending nearly 20 years under house arrest, won a seat in parliament and took office in May. It was a stunning victory for the opposition—and an equally symbolic defeat for the military. Observers speculated that the opposition’s victory would either prompt military rulers to respond to the will of the people and enact change or view the victory as a threat to its power. The U.S. rewarded Myanmar for its progress with a thaw in relations, easing a number of sanctions and allowing nongovernmental organizations to resume operations in the country. “The results of the April 1 parliamentary by-elections represent a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government,” U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton said.

Ethnic violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man. Revenge attacks followed, prompting Prime Minister Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency in June. Dozens were killed, hundreds of homes were burned, and about 100,000 people were displaced. Tension between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, called Rohingyas, in Rakhine has been high for years. The government considers the Rohingyas illegal immigrants, discrimination against them is rampant, and they live in horrible conditions. On Aug. 1, 2012, the international organization Human Rights Watch published a 56-page report “The Government Could Have Stopped This” based on eyewitness reports of the acts of violence committed in Myanmar.

Small Steps Toward Democratization

In Aug. 2012 Myanmar’s government did away with the country’s censorship of private publications. While laws enabling the imprisonment of journalists for printing items that the government deems harmful are still in effect, the final two topics (religion and politics) were removed from the pre-publication censorship list on Aug. 20. Prime Minister Thein Sein continued his shift in political philosophy in September, announcing in a speech to the UN that the changes in Myanmar are “irreversible.” In response to the progress, President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in November—the first U.S. president to enter the country. He praised the drift from isolation as a “remarkable journey.”

In answer to two years’ worth of social, political, and economic reform, the European Union lifted the last of its trade, economic and individual sanctions against Myanmar. President Obama lifted the 1996 ban on entry visas to the former Burma’s military rulers, their business partners, and immediate families on May 2, 2013. At the same time, however, the Obama administration approved another year of the National Emergencies Act, which prohibits business transactions with anyone in Myanmar involved in repression of the democracy movement. This give-one, take-one approach was meant to encourage the democratization of Myanmar while simultaneously registering censure of the sectarian violence that erupted in March and has caused more than 40 deaths and has displaced an estimated 13,000. Radical Buddhist monks have been indicted in these attacks between Buddhists and minority (5% of population) Muslims.

See also Encyclopedia: Myanmar.
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Myanmar (Burma)

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Population Growth over Human History

Population Growth 
over Human History“…And Attai begat Nathan, and Nathan begat Zabad, And Zabad begat Ephlal, and Ephlal begat Obed, And Obed begat Jehu, and Jehu begat Azariah, And Azariah begat Helez, and Helez begat Eleasah, And Eleasah begat Sisamai, and Sisamai begat Shallum, And Shallum begat Jakamiah, and Jakamiah begat Elishama…”
– The Bible, Chronicles

01/04/2006 Format for printing

In this lecture period, we wish to learn:

  • How fast has the human population grown in the past?
  • What is the world population likely to be in the future?
  • What forces are responsible for the world’s human population?
  • What is meant by the “Demographic Transition”?
  • What can we learn from models of future human population growth?

[Past Population Growth] [Fertility] [Population-Age Pyramid] [Mortality] [Demographic Transition] [Mortality] [Future Population Growth] [Distribution] [Carrying-Capacity] [Summary]

(from NOVA on-line)

Past Human Population Growth

In previous lectures, we have described how human cultural development was closely tied to changes in the natural environment. Successive cultural revolutions, such as the agricultural revolution, have led to surges in population. Figure 1 summarizes again the historical record, typical of a “J-shaped” growth, with humans filling new niches and (perhaps) not yet reaching a limiting carrying capacity. One feature to note in this plot is the lack of huge fluctuations associated with famines or wars. In fact, the nature of J-shaped (exponential) growth is such that episodic reductions due to such catastrophes usually do not affect the inexorable and overpowering upward acceleration in population size. An exception is the period of the “black death” in Europe, which produced a noticeable but small downward spike in the curve. The wholesale loss of life due to world wars of the 20th century produced only small perturbations to the upward trend.


Figure 1: Human Population Growth over Time

The human population growth of the last century has been truly phenomenal. It required only 40 years after 1950 for the population to double from 2.5 billion to 5 billion. This doubling time is less than the average human lifetime. The world population passed 6 billion just before the end of the 20th century.  Present estimates are for the population to reach 8-12 billion before the end of the 21st century. During each lecture hour, more than 10,000 new people enter the world, a rate of ~3 per second!

Of the 6 billion people, about half live in poverty and at least one fifth are severely undernourished. The rest live out their lives in comparative comfort and health.

The factors affecting global human population are very simple. They are fertility, mortality, initial population, and time. The current growth rate of ~1.3% per year is smaller than the peak which occurred a few decades ago (~2.1% per year in 1965-1970), but since this rate acts on a much larger population base, the absolute number of new people per year (~90 million) is at an all time high. The stabilization of population will require a reduction in fertility globally. In the most optimistic view, this will take some time.

Fertility

The current growth of population is driven by fertility.  Figure 2 shows how total fertility rate is a strong function of region. It can be readily seen that the more developed countries (“the North”) have lower fertility rates than the less developed countries (“the South”). The fertility rates in the developed world are close to replacement levels (i.e., the population is roughly stable), while the rates in the developing world are much higher. Thus, population growth and level of development are clearly linked.


Figure 2: Global Total Fertility Rates, 1990-1995

Fertility is largely controlled by economics and by human aspirations. The high fertility of the developing world can be partially explained by the large number of hands needed to perform low-technology agricultural tasks. In these areas, families with large numbers of children realize an enhanced economic status. As technology improves, parents realize that having more children decreases rather than increases their standard of living. A dramatic example of this effect occurred in Thailand, where, as soon as parents realized that future economic status was linked to the secondary schooling (which is expensive in Thailand), the fertility rate dropped from about 6 to 2 in a decade!

Population-Age Pyramids

While fertility rates are obviously useful, the demographics of the existing population are also important and can provide key information to predict future growth rates. An example of two such population-age pyramids is shown in Figure 3.


Figure 3: Population/Age Pyramids of the Developed and Developing World

The top figure shows the population-age pyramid for the developed world and the bottom figure is for the developing world. The figure illustrates the pyramids for the years 1975 (pink) and 2000 (blue). The population/age structure of the developed world represents that of a stable (or nearly stable) population. Here, the pyramid is more rectangular than for a rapidly growing population (bottom) where there is a much larger number of young people. The bottom figure (typical for countries like Mexico, Malaysia, India, etc.) is more triangular and shows how a rapidly growing population is dominated by young people. The female side of the diagram is particularly important in understanding future growth. This is because fertility is largely controlled by the number of females in their reproductive years (roughly ages 15 – 40). 

In the developing world, not only are there many females capable of reproduction, but there are many more young females who are of potential mothers. Thus, the shape of the population-age pyramid for the developing world indicates that the population will continue to grow aggressively for the near future as the cohort of fertile females gets larger each year, fed from the lower parts of the pyramid. It takes many tens (perhaps hundreds) of years to steepen the slopes of the population-age pyramid. Such a steepening is essential before populations can become stable. Intensive efforts to control population have been implemented in various countries.  In China, aggressive population control via a one-child family policy is bringing remarkable change to age structure and population size. Click here for a short case study and dynamic graphic representation of China’s future population and food security.

As can be seen, the aggressive population planning policies in India (discussed further in the next lecture) have served to steepen the pyramid – but only marginally so. The pyramid for 1991 has a long way to go before it resembles the stable structure seen in the developed world.

Figure 4: Comparitive Population Pyramids for India

Clearly, population control is a challenging task for which both persistence and patience will be needed.

Mortality

Mortality, or the death rate per individual, is another determining factor of population growth. In the developing world, the death rate has dropped, more or less continuously, since the start of the industrial revolution. The following figure shows the slow, hard won, reduction in death rate in various European countries. Personal hygiene and improved methods of sanitation have played a major role and preceded the impact of modern medicine and, in particular, the development of antibiotics capable of reducing death due to infection. The downward trend of the death rate is common to most countries, although there are some countries (for example, Russia) where the death rate remains high and refuses to move appreciably.


Figure 5: Death Rates per 1000 over Time

The combination of decreasing death rate due to the march of progress in sanitation and medicine, coupled with the decrease in birth rate due to changes in the economies, has led to a profound change in the population growth curve in the developed world. This change is called the Demographic Transition.

The Demographic Transition

This is the name given to the process that has occurred during the past century, leading to a stabilization of population growth in the more highly developed countries. The Demographic Transition is shown schematically in Figure 6. It is generally characterized as having four separate phases or stages.


Figure 6: The Demographic Transition

Stage 1. In this early stage of the demographic transition in Europe, birth rates and death rates are both high. Modern medicine had not yet developed techniques to lengthen life substantially and standards of personal hygiene were comparatively low. Both rates fluctuated depending on circumstances.No demographic transition has occured.

Stage 2. In this stage, standards of hygiene and more modern medical techniques began to drive the death rate down, leading to a significant upward trend in population size. The birth rate remained high, as much of the economy was based on agriculture. Mexico is currently between this and the following stage.Stage 2 and 3 are indicative of a partial or first demographic transition.

Stage 3. Urbanization  decreases the economic incentives for large families. The cost of supporting an urban family grew and parents were more actively discouraged from having large families. In response to these economic pressures, the birth rate started to drop, ultimately coming close to the death rate. In the meantime, however, the increased population in Europe led to tremendous societal pressures that caused large scale migration (e.g., to the USA) and extensive global colonialization.

Stage 4. The last stage of the demographic transition in Europe was characterized by a higher, but stable, population size. Birth and death rates were both relatively low and the standard of living became much higher than during the earlier periods. The developed world remains in the fourth stage of its demographic transition. A good example of a country in this stage is Sweden. At stage 4, we speak of countries having completed the second or a full demographic transition.

The demographic transition did not occur overnight in Europe. It is anticipated that a transition like this will occur in all countries as they become further developed. However, time (many decades) will be needed for the birth and death rates to equilibrate – during which time the population will continue to grow rapidly.

The demographic data from the various countries of the world has been analyzed by many separate entities, including the United Nations. Figure 7 shows the expected future growth curve. Most of the future growth will occur in the developing world as each country struggles to go through a demographic transition of their own. This particular projection shows a total population approaching 9 billion by the year 2050. The projected curve more closely resembles a sigmoidal (logistic) or “S-shaped” curve.

Click on image to enlarge

Figure 7: Projected World Population Growth

Because most developed countries have undergone a complete demographic transition, and have low population growth rate, their numbers increase little over the present.  In contrast, developing countries with their high population growth rate will comprise a larger and larger fraction of the world populations.

Future Global Population Growth

Anyone who examines world population growth over the past two centuries certainly must be astounded, and quite possibly alarmed.  The global population reached one billion in 1804. In 1927, some 123 years later, it passed two billion.  Sixty years later, in 1987, the world population was five billion, and 12 years later, in October 1999, it is estimated to have passed six billion.  Small wonder that many are concerned about what this bodes for our future.  Due to the momentum represented by steeply pyramidal age distributions, population growth surely will continue for one to several generations.  Most of that growth will occur in developing nations.  An eventual world population of 8-12 billion is expected by the end of the century.  But estimates change frequently.

According to a report from the United Nations Population Fund, based on 1998 analyses (see The State of World Population 1999), projections for the future global population are being revised downward.  The projection for 2050 now is 8.9 billion (medium variant), substantially lower than the 1996 projection of 9.4 billion. 

The major reason for the lower projection is good news: global fertility rates have declined more rapidly than expected, as health care, including reproductive health, has improved faster than anticipated, and men and women have chosen to have smaller families.  About one-third of the reduction in long-range population projections, however, is due to increasing mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent. The most important factor is HIV/AIDS, which is spreading much faster than previously anticipated.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is having a devastating effect on Africa. Estimates released in 1998 by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization indicate that global HIV infections increased 10 per cent in 1998 to 33.4 million people worldwide. In 1999 alone, an estimated 5.8 million people contracted the virus that causes AIDS. Fig. 8  shows the likely impact of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, comparing population projections with and without AIDS in the 29 most-affected countries, 1980-2050.

Figure 8.

Changing Distribution of World Population 

Populations in certain regions will grow; elsewhere, human numbers will stabilize or even decline. Within countries, populations will continue to shift from rural to urban areas, while becoming increasingly older and better educated. Migration between countries will be an increasingly important factor in international relations and the composition of national populations. 

Fig 7 shows the regional make-up of the world population, 1950-2050.  Clearly, the fraction that lives in less-developed regions will dominate, continuing a trend that already is well underway.   In 1960, 70 per cent of the global  population lived in less-developed regions. By late 1999, the less-developed regions had grown to comprise 80 per cent.  Of the projected growth of the world population by 2025, 98 per cent will occur in these regions. 

Africa, with an average fertility rate exceeding five children per woman during the entire period, has grown the fastest among regions. There are almost three times as many Africans alive today (767 million) as there were in 1960. Asia, by far the most populous region, has more than doubled in size (to over 3.6 billion), as has Latin America and the Caribbean. In contrast, the population of Northern America has grown by only 50 per cent, and Europe’s has increased by only 20 per cent and is now roughly stable. 

 A global trend towards urbanization also is taking place.  The world’s urban population is growing by 60 million a year, about three times the increase in the rural population (Fig. 9). The movement of people towards cities has accelerated in the past 40 years, particularly in the less-developed regions, and the share of the global population living in urban areas has increased from one third in 1960 to 47 per cent (2.8 billion people) in 1999.  Increasing urbanization results about equally from births in urban areas and from the continued movement of people from rural regions.  By 2030, it is expected that nearly 5 billion (61 per cent) of the world’s 8.1 billion people will live in cities.  (see Lecture on Migration and Urbanization

Globally, the number of cities with 10 million or more inhabitants is increasing rapidly, and most of these new “megacities” are in the less-developed regions. In 1960, only New York and Tokyo had more than 10 million people. By 1999, the number of megacities was 17, 13 in less-developed regions. It is projected that there will be 26 megacities by 2015, 22 in less-developed regions (18 will be in Asia); more than 10 per cent of the world’s population will live in these cities, up from just 1.7 per cent in megacities in 1950. 

Is there a Carrying Capacity for Homo sapiens?

As we have seen, the human population growth curve is currently following an exponential curve or a “J-shape” (fig. 1). Common sense tells us that such growth cannot continue – otherwise within a few hundred years every square foot of the Earth’s surface would be taken up by a human. Furthermore, experience with other species tells us that, ultimately, resource limitations and/or habitat degradation will force the human population curves to approach an upper limit or asymptote – the carrying capacity, often symbolized as ” K” by ecologists. It is very natural to ask the linked questions – does humanity have a carrying capacity and, if so, what is it – and when will we reach or overshoot this limit?

Joel Cohen’s recent book on human carrying capacity summarizes the continuing lack of scientific consensus on the subject. Estimates of the number still vary widely according to the specific assumptions used. In fact, the estimates are more scattered than before – indicating a quantitative field still very much in its infancy. One strand of thought, represented by the author Julian Simon discards the notion of a human carrying capacity altogether, claiming that the additional people will provide sufficient creativity and innovation to break through any possible natural barriers to human population growth. Most of the serious estimates of K for humans, however, lie in the range 10 -20 billion people.

There are no easy answers to the questions:  “How many people can the earth support?”, and “At what level of well-being?”.  Cohen suggests we think in terms of three possible (and non-exclusive) solutions:

  1. Make a bigger pie: Increase human productive capacities through technology and innovation
  2. Put fewer forks on the table: Reduce numbers and expectations of people through such means as family planning and vegetarian diets
  3. Teach better manners: Change the terms of people’s interactions through improved planning and government to enhance social justice.

What do you think of each of these approaches, and what is your reasoning?

Summary

  • Human population exhibits an J-shaped growth curve, and is accelerating. 
  • Age pyramids are important descriptors of a population’s recent history and medium-term future. Population growth rates are highly dependent upon level of development.
  • A decline in both death and birth rates is referred to as a complete demographic transition.
  • Most current and future  growth is taking place in developing countries, which have experienced only a partial demographic transition.

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