On Monday, the world’s seven billionth person was born. A ceremonial child in India was chosen to be human #7,000,000,000, based largely on that country’s staggering birthrate of nearly 50 children an hour. India is already the world’s second most populous nation, with more than a billion people. China, of course, is the most populous nation, with 1.3 billion people. The United States comes in at a distant third with not even 400 million people. Here’s the funny thing, though: experts believe that China’s population will level off and perhaps even decline in coming years, so that by 2030, India will become the world’s most populous nation, at some 1.6 billion people.
Such population figures are hard for Americans to imagine. I live in New Jersey, which has a population density greater than Japan, believe it or not, and even at our most crowded summertime season, we cannot hold a candle to the population density to be found throughout much of India. But then you take a look at a global population density map, the writing is clearly on the wall: even though our many, many strengths allow us as a nation to be abundant in the natural resource that is people, Asis in general and Pacific Asia in particular is where it’s at.
There are huge downsides that come with this, of course. China is already learning that the hard way, since 90% of its people are living in about 10% of its total landmass, which also happens to be its most arable land. Unless China successfully ships off millions upon millions of people to live in cities in the desert, it will eventually run into problems just feeding itself, let alone making all of the stuff the rest of us like to buy. And it is troubling indeed that those countries that are growing the fastest relative to their ability to accomodate more people –namely, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Brazil — are also countries that are already showing some serious internal economic, political and security stresses.
Science fiction author John Brunner predicted this with creepy accuracy more than 40 years ago, when he wrote the dystopian novel, Stand on Zanzibar. It won the Hugo award and is generally hailed as a great piece of literature, but to be honest, I would never have read it if I did not go on a kick some years ago to read every novel that had won a Hugo or Nebula award. (Basically, the Oscars for the best fantasy or science fiction written in any given year.) But give Stand on Zanzibar a read. The story is in 2010, and there are – you guessed it – seven billion people on the planet. If every person on the planet would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, they would cover the entire land mass – all 2,600 square miles of it – of the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. Hence, Stand on Zanzibar.
The comparison is derived from a poulation estimate at the end of World War II that the world’s population would cover the Isle of Wight. Since then, the islands that could hold all of the world’s population keep getting larger, and pretty soon, Zanzibar will no longer be the point of reference. Some other island – Manitoulin Island in Canada, perhaps – will soon have to be the new imaginary corral.