Last night, during a talk on his new book Raising the Floor, longtime labor leader and current senior fellow at Columbia University Andy Stern told the story of a king and a chessmaster engaged in pitched battle. “If you win,” said the overconfident king, “you may have anything you desire.” Lo, the chessmaster wins the game, but being a humble man asks the king only to provide him with some rice. The king smugly agrees to his eccentric conditions: he must place a grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, then double the amount of each successive square. Once he reaches the middle, the king stops and has the chessmaster executed. The request would have cost him his entire kingdom and more.
Stern used the story to illustrate the exponential growth of technology, which now advances at a rate we can neither confidently predict nor control. Something very similar has happened to the human population in the past two-hundred years, as you can see illustrated in the video above from the American Museum of Natural History.
Evolving some 200,000 years ago in Sub-Saharan Africa, and migrating across the globe some 100,000 years ago, modern humans remained relatively few in number for several thousand years. That is, until the technological breakthrough of agriculture. “By AD 1,” the video text tells us, “world population reached approximately 170 million people.”
After a very rapid expansion, the numbers rose and fell slowly in the ensuing centuries as wars, disease, and famines decimated populations. World population reached only 180 million by the year 200 AD, then dwindled through the Middle Ages, only picking up again slowly around 700. Throughout this historiographic model of population growth, the video infographic provides helpful symbols and legends that chart historic centers like the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty, and show major world events like the Bubonic plague.
Then we reach the world-shaking disruptions that were the birth of Capitalism, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, when “modern technology and medicine bring faster growth.”
That’s quite the understatement. The growth, like the grains of rice on the chessboard, proceeded exponentially, reaching 1 billion people around 1800, then exploding to over 7 billion today. As the yellow dots---each representing a node of 1 million people---take over the map, the video quickly becomes an alarming call to action. While the numbers are leveling off, and fertility has dropped, “if current trends continue,” we’re told, “global population will peak at 11 billion around 2100.” Peak numbers could be lower, or substantially higher, depending on the predictive value of the models and any number of unknowable variables.
Andy Stern’s research has focused on how we build economies that support our massive global population—as machines stand poised in the next decade or so to edge millions of blue and white collar workers out of an already precarious labor market. The American Museum of Natural History asks some different, but no less urgent questions that take us even farther into the future. How can the planet’s finite, and dwindling, resources, with our current abuse and misuse of them, support such large and growing numbers of people?
It may take another technological breakthrough to mitigate the damage caused by previous technological breakthroughs. Or it may take an enormous, revolutionary political shift. In either case, the “choices we make today” about family planning, consumption, environmental regulation, and conservation “affect the future of our species—and all life on Earth.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness