Should We Worry About Population Decline?

By Robert Kunzig, ENVIRONMENT Executive Editor, NATGEO
…from their weekly PLANET POSSIBLE newsletter


Yang Bo

Which are you more worried about, population growth or population decline? Or do you prefer to freak out about both at the same time?

The recent Census Bureau report that the U.S. population grew in the last decade at the slowest pace since the Great Depression triggered a slew of concerned stories. China, the world’s most populous country for now, just reported even slower growth than the U.S. All this and more (including decades of low fertility in Europe, South Korea, and Japan) caused the New York Times to make the looming social and economic dangers of population decline its lead story on Sunday—even though global population is likely to keep growing into the second half of this century, maxing out somewhere around 10 billion.

Since you’re reading a newsletter about the environment, chances are you’re more worried about that continued population growth. If so, the story we published this week by Glenn Hodges probably won’t reassure you. Hodges described a new analysis of fossil pollen (pictured above, in China) from more than a thousand sediment cores extracted from lakes and bogs worldwide. The cores record global vegetation changes since the end of the Ice Age 18,000 years ago, when a green wave of forests and grasslands advanced into the spaces vacated by receding ice sheets and glaciers.

What the researchers from Norway found in their pollen record is that a second wave of massive vegetation change began around 4,600 years ago. “We didn’t expect that the change in the last few thousand years would be even larger than what happened as the Ice Age ended,” Suzette Flantua of the University of Bergen told Hodges.

That second wave of species change was almost certainly launched by humans—by the spread of agriculture around the planet, and by the increasing use of fire by Indigenous peoples to manage forests and other landscapes. The change hasn’t abated, far from it, as our numbers and the power of our technology has grown—and with climate change we’re now delivering a “one-two punch” to forests, as Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Michigan told Hodges.

A decade ago, when there were just about to be seven billion humans on Earth—we’re closing in on eight billion now—I argued in National Geographic that global population growth was not a productive thing to worry about. Over the years this attitude has earned me a few letters from irate readers. But if the growth does turn out to be coming to an end sooner than we thought, I plan to celebrate for a while before I start worrying about ghost towns or the social security system. I’m guessing that the rich countries on the front lines of the population bust will find a way to adapt. And there will be more planet to go around for all of us.

Sorry I couldn’t find a proper link. This is the entire article. If you’re interested … here’s where to sign up for any of their newsletters.

Not certain I’d be as glib as Mr.Kunzig about personal conclusions. Not that I disagree. I’ve long felt as he does about halting our never-ending expansion on this Earth. Just might lean towards a tad more diplomacy, Even readers of a science-based magazine [or the blogging of an old geezer who tries to maintain a lifelong science-based education] might feel the need. It’s why I preface discussions on philosophy with “I’ve been a philosophical materialist since I was 18” instead of “I knew sufficient science to become an atheist…when I was 13”. Both statements are true. 🙂

NatGeo Instagram Pic of the Day


Corey Arnold/Nat Geo

A black bear cub strolls gingerly along a backyard porch railing in Asheville, North Carolina. Urban black bears are a fixture of life in the city, scouring neighborhoods for acorns, unattended bird feeders, and unsecured garbage, says Corey Arnold, a photographer and Nat Geo Explorer. His image (above), which got nearly a half-million likes in a week on our Instagram page, is part of an upcoming Nat Geo story about urban wildlife in America.

Modified Drone captures rare view of Mount Everest


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❝ Ever since a British officer in 1903 captured what is believed to be the first image of Mount Everest, photographers have been striving to take iconic pictures of the world’s highest mountain. Everest’s enormity makes it nearly impossible to make a single photograph that highlights both its scale and position within the Himalayan landscape.

❝ This year, Renan Ozturk, a 39-year-old professional mountaineer and filmmaker on assignment for National Geographic, set out to make just such a photograph. His plan was to use a specially modified drone to create a 360-degree panorama that would portray Everest in its full grandeur but also reveal its commanding position in one of the planet’s most colossal landscapes.

RTFA. Enjoy the beauty of this image.

Chimps or Humans…Who Has The Cleaner Bed?


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❝ By swabbing abandoned chimpanzee nests in Tanzania’s Issa Valley, scientists learned that just 3.5 percent of the bacteria species present came from the chimps’ own skin, saliva, or feces. In human beds sampled in a previous study in North Carolina, the number was a whopping 35 percent.

Parasites, such as ticks and fleas, were also scarce in chimp beds.

❝ Now, before you burn your linens and start building a bed out of leaves, there are a few things you need to know.

Here’s where you go to learn the answers

Prize-winning tornado photo

Jim Smart, Simla tornado
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James Smart’s storm-chasing has seen him photograph across America – in states such as Colorado, Texas and South Dakota – as well as his native Australia.

Mr Smart plans to return to the United States at the end of May to shoot more gems for his portfolio.

Last year he won the $10,000USD Grand Prize at the National Geographic 2015 Photo Contest for a powerful swirling tornado that he photographed ripping through Simla, Colorado…

I have been this close to tornados. I did not enjoy being this close to any tornado. I have no interest in repeating the experience. Good Luck, Mr.Smart. 🙂

Fox ate National Geographic

natgeo rupert

Over the last few years the National Geographic Society has been slowly vanishing into the Murdoch family’s Fox media empire like a gazelle being swallowed by a python in one of the former’s famous videos. This month the consummation will be complete and Fox will take full control of NatGeo’s major assets – its stake in the TV network, its flagship magazine, its TV studio – in a $725m deal.

The process has not been easy, or without controversy. In September, when the deal was announced, former staffers and others were incensed. “I told my wife I would rather see National Geographic [magazine] die an honorable death than be swept into something it’s not supposed to be,” said veteran NatGeo marine photographer Brian Skerry at the time. The Society will continue to exist as a separate entity…

❝“Even at the very beginning, the magazine subscription was dropping like a stone,” recalled a former executive. “The dirty secret is that NatGeo needed the money for their endowment. Nothing makes money. Nothing. The only thing holding them together is the channel now, spinning off money so they can be alive…”

In the beginning, the network was the dream of Tim Kelly, then the head of the company’s own television unit, which produced National Geographic Explorer for CBS, among others. The group won scores of Emmys; 138 when Kelly left in 2012. But it was also costly, more interested in prestige than in cash, and times changed dramatically. Kelly had had a death in the family and was not available for comment; he now runs an education technology startup called Planet3…

The network officially launched on 1 January 2001, with Laureen Ong as president and Wilk as head of programming. National Geographic had torn down its museum to build a studio on M Street and 17th in Washington DC to build a TV studio; everyone at National Geographic was excited about the new network’s news show…

By 2007 Ong was out, and David Lyle, fresh off the shuttered Fox Reality channel, was in. With president Howard Owens and Lyle as CEO, Lyle was quick to make changes. Memories of the companies’ history together divide along predictable lines: National Geographic loyalists insist that the company’s valuable brand had been sullied by the barbarians at Fox. The Fox crew contend that National Geographic lived in a fairyland of high-minded ideals funded – eventually exclusively – by Fox. When you’re starving to death in a gingerbread house, you choose between food and shelter…

Last year, both Lyle and Owens left the company, Owens first. “As a senior TV executive, I am supposed to say everybody is replaceable, but in Howard’s case I say without a shadow of a doubt, we couldn’t have done it without him,” wrote Lyle in a memo when Howard’s exit was announced, just a few months before he moved on himself. Courteney Monroe, head of marketing, took over and remains in charge.

This year has seen the “TV guys” finally take over for good: the acquisition of nearly all National Geographic’s assets was announced in September. Fox, for years the dominant partner in the supposedly equal relationship, would no longer be subject to the Society’s eccentric board. National Geographic Television still exists, though people interviewed here speculate that it won’t for much longer.

Funny. Murdoch’s crew still hasn’t learned how to do the Web after wasting 10 figures on MySpace. The NatGeo folks never learned how to do TV. Something that has only been codified in How-To books for a half-century. So much of our media/communications culture – always described as dynamic – can’t get out of its own way.