Ted Turner’s Math Problem

For the past few years I’ve seen a particular quote attributed to Ted Turner – media mogul who founded CNN & major promoter and financial supporter of the United Nations – with a myriad of sources cited for the statement.  Most of the quotes reference a 95% population reduction.  However, I wondered if it were really true.  So began (about six months or so ago), in earnest, a search for the true source of the purported quote.

After a few days of internet searching I deduced that if there really was a quote with this sort of verbiage, it was likely in an edition of Audubon magazine.  After a few false starts, I finally found a very helpful new and used magazine collector/retailer who was willing to indulge me in my quest by checking the tables of contents of issues I thought may contain the statement.  At last, it was found!  However, the quote does not specifically state the words “…95% decline from present levels…”, but the wording clearly amounts to same.

The quote in question is from the November-December 1991 (Vol. 93, No. 6) Audubon in a piece by Bruce Stutz titled “Ted Turner Turns it On” [pp 110-116].   Here’s a portion of the page [113] from which the offending quote is taken with a bit more context provided:

Here’s the applicable selection:

…If we had a much smaller population, and over time we could have an ethic where we had only one child, and over maybe 300 or 400 years we could cut back to 250 million – 350 million people… [p 113]

That’s quite staggering when one considers that the current US population is 315 million!  To illustrate that Turner wasn’t somehow confused with his depopulation suggestion, he states quite clearly that the then current world population was 5.3 billion (currently just under 7 billion) with a US population of 250 million [p 112].

With all the necessary figures, let’s do a bit of math.  To make this much simpler, we’ll round off to 5 billion (as Turner does himself in the selection above), assume a zero population growth (i.e. as many die “naturally” will be born) during the relevant time period, and assume the rate of population decrease would remain constant throughout the applicable time period.  First, we’ll take the ‘worst case scenario’ – the shortest timespan (300 years) to achieve the smallest ‘ideal’ population (250 million):

5,000,000,000 – 250,000,000 = 4,750,000,000

OK, so that’s a net reduction of 4.75 billion people or exactly 95%.  Now let’s take the total and divide by the number of years to see how many will be reduced per year (using 365 days to keep it simple):

4,750,000,000 / 300 = 15,833,333 annually

…which breaks down to a mere:

43,379 per day

Now, let’s take the ‘best case scenario’ (400 years to achieve a population of 350 million):

5,000,000,000 – 350,000,000 = 4,650,000,000

That’s a net reduction of 4.65 billion people or exactly 93%.  That’s MUCH better, right?  Now let’s take that total and divide by 400 to arrive at quantity to reduce per year:

4,650,000,000 / 400 = 11,625,000 annually

…or:

31,849 per day

OK, now we can all sleep a bit better.

Oh, but wait!  There’s been another twenty years since Turner spoke these words and an increase of (rounding) 1.5 billion more people.  Oh well…

Of interest is that Turner himself has 5 children.  Perhaps he arrived at this revelation of the need for such a drastic population reduction after he’d already sired his children.  Darn the luck.   Surely though, he’s willing to sacrifice 4 of his children for the ‘greater good’, for Gaia, isn’t he?  Oh, but what about the grandchildren?

Decisions, decisions…. What’s a man to do?

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