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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Seven Billion and Counting

When I was in 5th grade, I remember reading a story during class in My Weekly Reader that stated there were now three billion people on earth. It was passed over quickly as it was just about time for recess. The concept of a billion kept gnawing at me. As recess was ending, I approached a nun who taught at the school and asked her to explain what a billion was. She struggled and could not do it. I said that I did not understand, and she called me impudent and told me to rejoin my class, which was lining up to re-enter the school. She then told my homeroom teacher how disrespectful I was and the rest of the school day was quite unpleasant for me.

When I got home that afternoon, I kept thinking about a billion. As dinner was ending, I asked my parents. The reception that I received was a lot different than that at school. Both parents pulled out a pad and pencil (no calculators in those days!) and patiently took me through the math until I knew it cold. I remember asking them if there were anyone with a billion dollars and my dad thought there was an American oilman living in England who was definitely worth that much. My oldest sibling ran upstairs and returned with a copy of TIME magazine containing a story about J. Paul Getty.

This past week, the memories of the mean spirited and ignorant nun and the kindness and patience of my family came flooding back to me. The United Nations is projecting that by Halloween (October 31st) the world population will pass seven billion. It was only 11 years ago that we hit six billion. Almost all futurists agree that 14 years from now we will add an additional billion to the world’s population. Beyond that things get a little fuzzy. In past years the U.N. and some think tanks felt that with the growth of family planning the world’s population would level off at somewhere around nine billion. Now virtually every organization forecasting population size has revised that calculation and says that by 2100 we will be at least 10 billion. With a huge base of seven billion a modest change in birth rates can have a dramatic increase in population estimates. For example, were the average woman to have simply a half a child more, the population will be at least 16 billion by 2100. Most of us would agree that the planet’s resources would be strained to the breaking point were that to occur.

Let us look at the next fourteen years as we march toward eight billion. Some obvious things are going to occur:

1) India will pass China as the most populous place on earth (remember the Chinese one child policy in many locales).
2) On a relative basis, Africa will increase and Europe will decrease.
3) Most of Western Europe as well as China and Japan are below Zero Population Growth (ZPG) meaning they will not be able to replace the current indigenous populations.
4) Much of the population growth will come from poorer countries where most of the newborns will live on less than $2 per day.

What does this mean to us? All gloom and doom? No, there is some obvious growth out there. Right now, approximately half of the people hospitalized around the world are there as a result of drinking impure water. So, a huge growth industry will be developing systems to get water to arid areas and purifying it everywhere. Right now, there is a huge effort going on in China to purify water that gets very little attention.

We also have to find a way to feed all these new people. Agriculture should boom as should companies providing fertilizers although some argue that our dependence on phosphorus rich fertilizers could deplete reserves and cause a bigger squeeze than possible energy shortfalls in the years ahead. Machinery used in agriculture should also see a nice run.

For agriculture you need a lot of water and the lack of that most precious commodity is already a big problem around the world. Also, if you are like me and think that there is something to global warming, rising temperatures in recent years have depressed global corn, soybean, and wheat production. That is great for American agriculture that will profit mightily from global production shortages but we still will have a billion more mouths to feed.

As marketers, do not despair. In Asian and Latin America some 50-60 million people per year will be entering the middle class and will buy high levels of package goods, appliances and automobiles. This bodes well for multi-national marketers, ad agency holding companies and selected media. Consider ESPN. If you watch them closely, they are constantly expanding their international footprint. Sports mania should continue to expand and an increasing global middle class should only fuel their continued growth.

Lack of water and especially clean water, pressure on energy and food production, and the global warming threat are all huge problems. But, think of the growth when we solve some of them. As we move toward eight billion people over the next decade and a half, stay positive. Technology will continue to move forward. The world will look different and economic power will do some shifting. If you are prepared and see what is coming, you may actually improve your situation.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may contact him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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