Population’s enormous numbers


Imagine that you are selected for a well-remunerated position as Editor
of a new ONE-BILLION-page Encyclopedia of Theoretical Physics

Today, virtually any appraisals of world population and demographics invoke data sets involving mil-
lions and billions. And yet, although listeners somewhat appreciate that each of these (both a million
and a billion) are large numbers, they nevertheless tend to under-appreciate the TRUE ENORMITY of
EACH of the billions that we are adding to world population every twelve-to-fifteen years.

For example, we have recently been adding one BILLION additional persons to our planet every twelve
years, and just since 1930, we have added FIVE additional billions in less than a single human lifetime.
And now, the U.N.’s most recent world population projections show us to be on a trajectory toward
11, 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16.6 billion by the end of this century, so that the true ENORMITY of each and
every such added billion constitutes foundational biospheric literacy for the times in which we live.

As a thought-experiment, then, imagine that you have won a well-remunerated position as Editor of
a one-billion-page ENCYCLOPEDIA of THEORETICAL PHYSICS but which requires that you must advance
your project by reviewing, editing, and publishing 100 pages of theoretical physics per day, five days
per week, 52 weeks a year (in other words, completion of a 500-page volume each week).

Working at the above rate (500 pages per week, 52 weeks per year), how much
time will be needed to complete publication of all one-billion pages?

At five hundred pages of theoretical physics per week, 52 weeks per year, the answer is 38,461 years
- which means that if one began the project 20,000 years ago (when ice was one-mile thick over
Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin) (and when wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers still roamed
the Earth) and one conscientiously completed each and every 500-page volume for each and every
week for all 20,000 years from then until now, one would only have 18,461 more years to go before
all one-billion pages have been reviewed, edited, and published.

And that is how many additional persons we have
been adding to our planet every twelve years

Let us then use our thought-experiment to better assess the times in which we live. First, suppose that
we take all of those one-billion pages of theoretical physics, 500 pages a week from each and every
week from all 38,461 years, and change each and every one of those pages into a human being. Now
suppose that we add all of those persons as extra individuals to the sustaining ecosystems of our
planet every 12 years.

Next, let us arm members of the above skyrocketing J-curve with AK-47s, sport utility vehicles, chain
saws, Earth-movers, hydroelectric dams, nuclear wastes, greenhouse gases, double-bacon cheese-
burgers, pesticides, and investment portfolios (think of Jeffrey Sach’s memorable description of
“hunter-gatherers with machine-guns”). Given each such multitude, so armed, so numerous, and
consequently so dangerous, it is little wonder that we are dismantling and eradicating the only
planetary life-support machinery so far known to exist anywhere in the universe.

Population’s dangerously-enormous mathematics
How Large is a Billion?
One of the most critical characteristics of the times in which we live is the fact that humankind’s
worldwide population has grown from about one billion in 1830 to two billion in 1930 to more than
seven billion as of late 2011 (notice that we have added FIVE additional billions to our numbers in
less than one human lifetime).

So exactly how ENORMOUS is each of our billions?

Beginning with a world population of three billion in 1960, we reached four billion in 1975, and
twelve years after that (1987) we reached five billion, and twelve years after that (1999) our numbers
reached six billion, and twelve years after that (2011) we reached our seventh billion.

Notice, then, that we have recently been adding an additional one
BILLION extra persons to our planet - repeatedly - every twelve years.

Since each one of us in each of our billions requires food and water, jobs, schools, and health care,
to have any idea whatsoever of our time in history, we need to know exactly how large each one of
our billions is. And since we also inflict damage on our forests and biospheric life-support systems
and empty industrial and societal wastes into Earth’s razor-thin layers of atmosphere and seas, we
must also consider and quantify how much total damage we have been inflicting on Earth’s environ-
ment and life-support machinery.

Despite the above facts and their implications, our traditional schooling can too often leave us with
little appreciation of how UNIMAGINABLY LARGE each of our added billions really is. The truly enor-
mous size of a billion therefore constitutes our principle topic in this article.

For most of us, then, a MILLION and a BILLION are simply two very large numbers. If we could earn
a million dollars, that would be great, and a billion dollars would be even better. And while it is true
that both values are large, the reality is that the two numbers are enormously different. And, since
data involving human population growth typically involves additional millions and billions, we must
be able to distinguish between the two.

Today we add an extra one MILLION people to our planet every five days, but we add an extra one
BILLION people to our planet every twelve years. Between 1975 and 1987, for example, world
population grew from four billion to five billion, and between 1987 and late 1999 it grew from five
billion to six billion, and between 1999 and 2011, we grew from six billion to seven billion (UN-
DESA, 2004; 2011).

Thus, to fully-appreciate the implications of repeatedly adding additional billions of persons to our
population, over and over and over again, we must be fully-cognizant with how enormously immense
a BILLION really is.

To help us picture a "billion" we need an example. If we are working in a college setting, we might
imagine an example involving endless library shelves of Principia Mathematica, or Tolstoy, or a one-
billion-page Encyclopedia of Theoretical Physics.

On the other hand, for general audiences, we might imagine a school district that requires
all of its students to complete one billion homework questions in order to graduate.
Which example one chooses to imagine does not particularly matter,
of course, for in each case the answer will turn out to be the same.

As we shall see, however, because almost all of us have endured homework questions in our years of
schooling, one effective way to comprehend a BILLION is to consider the situation of a student who
must complete ONE BILLION homework questions in order to graduate.


A Million
Suppose that school systems in your state adopt a more rigorous graduation standard that requires
each student to complete ONE MILLION homework questions in order to graduate. Now further
suppose that a conscientious student decides to work toward this requirement by completing one hun-
dred questions each night, five nights per week, 52 weeks a year until all one million questions are
A staggering thought, is it not? Working at this rate, how long………….…………
will the student need in order to finish his or her homework? ....................………..
(The answer is 38.5 years.),,,,,,


A Billion
The Riddle of a Billion Homework Questions

Suppose that one of the school districts decides to adopt a more stringent policy and requires its
students to complete one BILLION homework questions in order to graduate. If our young scholar
decides to tackle this assignment at the same rate (one hundred questions per night, five nights each
week, fifty-two weeks each year), how long will be needed before their homework assignment is
Answer: To complete a BILLION homework questions at
500 per week, 52 weeks per year, would require 38,461

Thus, we see that a billion is not just a large number,
but that it is a truly enormous number.

Wooly Mammoths

Since a billion is of such demographic importance, let us add further clarity to our example and envision a
cave-student who begins to work on this assignment 20,000 years ago, when ice was one-mile thick over
Wisconsin and Ohio, when wooly-mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the Earth, and people still
lived in caves.

Assume further that this student conscientiously completes five hundred questions each and every
week (fifty-two weeks per year), beginning 20,000 years ago - and works from then until now.

Despite the most staggering homework achievement in the history of humanity, our young scholar would
have to continue to work for another 18,461 years into the future in order to finish their assignment. This
riddle thus helps us appreciate that a BILLION is an exceptionally large number.
Every Twelve to Fifteen Years

Now we can use our thought-experiment to better understand the dangers of the times in which we
live. First, suppose that we take all of those homework questions (five hundred questions a week
from each and every week from all 38,461 years), and change each and every one of those questions
into a human being.

Now suppose that we add all of those persons as extra individuals to the surface of our planet every
twelve to fifteen years. Next, let us arm them with bulldozers, AK-47s, sport utility vehicles, chain
saws, hydroelectric dams, nuclear wastes, greenhouse gases, double-bacon cheeseburgers, investment
portfolios, and pesticides. Given each new multitude, so armed and so numerous, and therefore so
dangerous, it is little wonder that our combined impacts might quickly amount to an ecological holo-

Myers (1995), writing in the journal Science, raises the possibility of unexpected environmental
consequences. "First, ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of stress without noticeable effect, but
once a critical level is reached the disruption may be cataclysmic" (see also Gallagher, et al., 1995).
Secondly, it is also possible for two or more environmental processes "...to interact in unforeseen
ways so that the outcome is not additive, but multiplicative" (ibid). Other papers conclude that current
environmental changes are "profoundly altering the functioning of the biosphere" (Chapin et al.,
1997). By helping to quantify the immensity of a billion, our example encourages us to better appraise
the potential severity of our impacts on Earth's ecological, climatic, and waste-cleansing machinery.

Madison Square Garden

To help picture the impacts of our present avalanche, we might also imagine a boxing match in
Madison Square Garden. In one corner stands the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. In the
opposite corner stands a fragile old lady, "Mother Nature." Each fist of the champion is fitted with a
boxing glove labeled "one BILLION additional people."

With the bell, round one begins – it will last for twelve years. As Mother Nature moves to the center
of the ring, the huge right fist of the champion smashes her with a crushing blow. Down she goes,
bruised, bloodied and dazed. Struggling, however, she staggers to her feet as the first round ends.

Round two also lasts twelve to fifteen years, and the same scenario unfolds: A powerful left fist,
featuring the staggering impacts of another billion additional people blasts the old lady. The champion
taunts her to get up. The crowd falls silent. How severe must be her injuries? Will she ever get up
again? She is hemorrhaging and barely functioning. Is the match over? Why don't the officials stop
the fight?

Round three begins. As its twelve to fifteen years proceed, the champion shows no signs of mercy,
no signs of tiring, and no signs of weakening. The world's leaders show no inclination to stop the
assault when the profits are so enormous. It is obvious to everyone watching that the repeated blows
– a staggering one billion followed by another and another and another are too much for the old lady.
The only question is this: Which blow is going to be the last?

After one of these billions, the old lady will fall and will not get up. Today's young people are living
their lives at a time when humanity is crushing Earth's natural, biotic, and climatic systems with the
impacts of one BILLION additional people every twelve to fifteen years. With each such blow, these
systems are injured, bloodied, and staggered. And the very real possibility exists that one of these
billions will be the final blow.
Food May Not Be Our First Worry

Dozens of population analyses have been published that focus on food, nutrition, and agriculture such
as “Can the growing human population feed itself?” (Bongaarts, 1994). Because producing enough
food is important, instinctively-clear, and intuitively obvious, such papers are clearly appropriate and
worthwhile. (For others of this genre, see Revelle, 1974 and 1976; Farrell, et al., 1984; Hudson, 1989,
and Waggoner, 1994.)

In 1995 Joel Cohen nicely surveyed a host of these studies. With the exception of Cohen’s, however,
these papers are flawed because most of them are based on an assumption (that is almost always
unstated) that supplies of food are the primary, or most critical, or most immediate determining factor
affecting or limiting our population.

The above assumption (which is routinely unstated, unquestioned, and unchallenged) diminishes other-
wise useful papers submitted by academics with limited expertise in biology and natural systems.

The most immediate danger to our planet, its natural systems, humankind, and civilization
may not be food, and we may be distracting ourselves if we imagine that it is

It may be, for example, that our ultimate, more immediate, and most serious dangers lie in the endless
and non-stop and ever-growing, ever-widening, and ever-accumulating damage, dismantlements, and
eradications that we have inflicted, are inflicting, and will inflict on Earth's planetary life-support
machinery, as well as the impacts of our ever-accumulating industrial and societal wastes.

Biologists Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell (1999) observe that it is "possible that our population will
eventually be limited by the [environment's limited capacity] to absorb the wastes and other insults
imposed by humans." Vitousek, et al. (1997) make a similar point: "Often it is the waste products and
byproducts of human activity that drive global environmental change." Similarly, "today's rapid
relative and absolute increase in population stretches the...absorptive and recuperative capacities of
the Earth...." (Cohen, 2002).
As a result, we devote several other PDFs
to these alternate likelihoods.

Demographic and Numeric Literacy

The central contention of this PDF is this: There are certain numeric and demographic "basics" that
must be a part of every school curriculum and our universally-shared societal knowledge if we are
to be functionally literate citizens in today's world.

First, we must be demographically literate. Each of us must understand, on an ongoing basis, the
number of births and deaths that take place on an average day, as well as the approximate number
of additional persons that we add to our population as a result. Secondly, we must each recognize
the truly enormous numbers represented by each of our additional billions.

These enormous numbers, and the breathtaking rapidity with which they are arriving, raise challenges
to our civilizations and our planet that may be insurmountable. Soule (1985) observes that "many, if
not all ecological processes have thresholds" (another way of commenting on limits). In the same
paper he observes that "genetic and demographic processes [also] have thresholds...."

Elsewhere (in Wecskaop and other PDF excerpts in this collection) we examine thresholds, tipping
points, and other limits and consider what happens when populations exceed them. If we are to add-
ress our impacts over the decades just ahead, society at large, as well as our policymakers, journalists,
.…and leaders, must be cognizant of the major concepts, data, and principles sets that constitute….
"What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet."

Mathematics texts of the last century targeted student mastery of polynomial expansions, multipli-
cation tables, Euclidean geometry, and quadratic equations. Similarly, in our science curricula, most
of us have probably been taught too much about the muscles of a frog, the sclerenchyma cells of a
plant, and the revolving nosepiece of a microscope.

Our math and science texts of THIS century must ensure that chapter one and its opening pages intro-
duce all students to the numerics, demographics, mathematics and biospheric and whole-systems
science that will shape their lives and the future of our planet.

Births, deaths, net daily increase, and the enormous contrast between a million and a BILLION consti-
tute an appropriate place to start.

A continuation of today’s demographic tidal wave increasingly consti-
tutes the greatest single risk that our species has ever undertaken.

What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet
Used with permission

Copyright 2012. Biospheric Literacy 101.
All rights reserved.

This document is entirely free for use by scientists,
students and educators anywhere in the world.

Expanded implications of this excerpt are also addressed
in additional PDFs in this collection:

Razor-thin Films - Earth's atmosphere and seas (pdf)
Conservation planning - Why Brazil's 10% is not enough
Eight Assumptions that Invite Calamity
Climate - No other animals do this
A Critique of Beyond Six Billion
Delayed feedbacks, limits, and overshoot
Sources and Cited References

Anson, 2009, 2008, 2007. What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet.
Bongaarts, 1994 Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell, 1999 Chapin et al., 1997 Cohen, 1995, 2002 Farrell,
et al., 1984 Gallagher, et al., 1995 Hudson, 1989 Myer, 1995 Revelle, 1974, 1976 UNDESA, 2004
Vitousek, et al., 1997 Waggoner, 1994

This document is entirely free for use by scientists,
students and educators anywhere in the world.

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