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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
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Spring 2005
House of Cards

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Illustration of the globe cutting a treeIn his latest book, Collapse, UCLA geography professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond explores the many ways by which human societies contribute to their own success or ruin. Are there signs of hope for our future?

by Jared Diamond
Illustration by Poul Hans Lange

The world’s human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy and other resources. Rates and even the direction of human population change vary greatly around the world, with the highest rates of growth (4 percent per year or higher) in some Third World countries, low rates of growth (1 percent per year or less) in some First World countries such as Italy and Japan, and even population decrease in countries facing major public-health crises, such as Russia and AIDS-affected African countries.

Although everybody agrees that the world population is increasing, they also agree that its annual percentage rate of increase is not as high as it was a decade or two ago. However, there is still disagreement about whether the world’s population will eventually stabilize at some value above its present level (double the present population?), and, if so, how many years (30, 50?) it will take for population to reach that level, or whether population will continue to grow.

What really counts, though, is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment. If most of the world’s 6 billion people today were in cryogenic storage and not eating, breathing or metabolizing, that large population would cause no environmental problems. Instead, our numbers create difficulties insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes. That per capita impact — the resources consumed, and the wastes put out, by each person — varies greatly around the world, being highest in the First World and lowest in the Third World. On average, each citizen of the U.K., Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan consumes 32 times more resources such as fossil fuels, and puts out 32 times more waste, than do inhabitants of the Third World.

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