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Airplanes and Shooting Stars

Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars? I could really use a wish right now.

“Airplanes” (the second single by B.o.B featuring the amazingly talented Haley Williams of Paramore) went triple-platinum in the United States after its release in 2010. The song gained popularity due to its hitting many significant social themes, but it was timely for another reason as well. For the first time in history, a person really may be more likely to see an airplane in the sky than an actual shooting star.

The world population recently moved into a new age where over half of the population of the world now lives in urban areas. The urban population in the United States also recently broke 80 percent. The effect of urban light pollution combined with the more than 93,000 flights starting from approximately 9,000 airports daily, make it very probably that a listener will look up and see the streak of an airplane rather than that of a meteorite.

Plane Trails over Dallas, Texas

Sociologists are still trying to decipher the implications of the centralization of the world’s population. Is it a positive trend, or a negative one? What are the benefits and what are the problems that will arise?

Fears about urbanization focus around poverty populations being concentrated in slums and the inherent sanitation issues. There seems to be caution about creating a world like that of Soylent Green. Many, including Al Gore, are calling for drastic measures to curb population growth in developing countries where most of the world’s population growth and urbanization are occurring.

“You have to lift child survival rates so that parents feel comfortable having small families and most important — you have to educate girls and empower women,” Gore said. “And that’s the most powerful leveraging factor, and when that happens, then the population begins to stabilize and societies begin to make better choices and more balanced choices.”

Those who have been working against overpopulation for longer than Al Gore have been leery to jump on the birth-control bandwagon. Paul Ehrlich, leading doomsday believer and author of The Population Bomb which famously predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s, has said,

“I think it gives the wrong impression. Overpopulation is a huge problem. But most people think of it as just being too many people. It’s when you add up the numbers of people, how much they consume, and what kind of technologies they use, that it’s an accurate statement.”

Matthew Connelly, a professor of history at Columbia University and critic of population controls, actually came together with Ehrlich on this issue saying, “When people live in smaller households they tend to consume more of everything. That’s why it’s terribly deceptive to think that we can address the environmental problems of overconsumption just by getting people to have fewer kids.”

Not that this has stopped international efforts to increase access to birth control in the name of population control. Nor has it done much to soothe the fears of urbanization. But if we have learned anything from history, we should be optimistic about the future. Those heralding Malthusian-style mass starvations due to over-population have been silenced as food production continues to out-pace population growth. In fact, history has shown that urbanization increases access to food, medicine, and education. The United Nations Population Fund has even said,

“Cities offer a more favourable setting for the resolution of social and environmental problems than rural areas. Cities generate jobs and income. With good governance, they can deliver education, health care and other services more efficiently than less densely settled areas simply because of their advantages of scale and proximity.”

Now, the purpose of this article is not to argue that urban life is morally superior to that of rural environments. (Two Cents blogger Joy Pullman might have rejected that argument.) Nor is the purpose to be overly critical of anyone with well-intentioned concerns about population growth and urbanization. The purpose of this article is to offer an optimistic remind to the reader that the future does in fact look bright.

Urbanization leads to more wealth and education. More education leads to better health and more innovation. More innovation in turn leads to cleaner energy, more food, and more jobs. So take a deep breath, and look up. Though you will probably see an airplane. And my apologies to those who now have the song stuck in your head.