Wednesday, October 18, 2006

300,000,000 and Counting

According to estimates, the US population reached 300 million. The predictions of 400 million by 2043 prompted this posting. My automatic reaction is “not-so-fast.” Current population levels still require serious lifestyle alterations, and already some people are looking ahead to the next milestone.

Where will we put everyone? How can everyone be fed? Those questions could seem to be major obstacles to sustaining current and future population growth. In my view, natural resources, lifestyle modification, and social services could prove more problematic. Migration to cities has placed extreme pressure to accommodate the rapid growth. Annexing surrounding green-areas will be an adjustment to man and beast. Water-restrictions, sanitation, healthcare facilities, and school systems seem unable to expand equally paced to meet developmental demands.

Our public health system is almost literally bursting at the seams. An increasingly older and unhealthy populace seems a daunting task for an already overburdened healthcare system. What new innovations will stretch healthcare dollars and facilities to accommodate the bloating patient-base of the next several decades? In my view, wellness lifestyle changes will be one essential component to meeting the demands of our gradually aging and obese population. Public health crises requiring inoculation for protection has proven to be troublesome at current population levels. Routine annual influenza vaccines are challenging enough. What happens when we need rapid wide-scale protection of the population from an unexpected pathogen?

The notion of the cities with the elastic borders, capable of accommodating infinite influx of migrating Americans, has been exploded. Hurricane Katrina has given us a glimpse of just how unprepared state and local governments are for the flood of new residents. Infrastructure such as schools, public transportation, emergency facilities seemed unable to permanently accommodate their relocating neighbors on a short-term basis…let alone long-term. Majority growth is projected in the west and southern states in the coming decades. Simply broadening urban centers may not adequately address escalating population densities to that scale.

People today save less than any other generation in American history. Bankruptcy and spending habits continue to rise. Even our government seems unable to reign-in spending, leaving a ballooning national debt as our gift to generations unborn. If these trends continue, we could witness a glut of people unable to afford medical services, prescription medicines, food, and other life essentials. Individuals are saving less for retirement, and corporate retirement accounts are doing their best to relieve themselves of that obligation as well. Will the governments supplement, or intervene when its citizens are unable to meet their own needs? With a shrinking manufacturing base, governments themselves might be under pressure to meet their own revenue requirements. In my view, we have already seen the shape of things to come. Increasingly businesses and governments are making their citizens aware of their obligation to prepare for their own needs in retirement. Increasingly, benefit packages to workers simply include salary.

Peeking into a future with 400 million might be entertaining to some. Without appearing overly pessimistic, living with the present challenges of the estimated 300 million is sobering enough for me.