Planet Earth is facing a multitude of problems. They are: water shortage, climate change, melting ice- caps and global warming to name a few. The root of all her problems can be traced to the injury caused to her by the enormous population of the human species. The problem has arisen because Man is successfully defeating her efforts to reduce the population. Till the nineteenth century, she had a huge mortality of infants and children with hardly a few of them surviving to become adults. Adults faced epidemic diseases and famines which killed millions of them. She occasionally caused natural calamities like floods to wipe out hundreds of villages. She created illnesses that caused most of the people to die at an early age. This effectively limited the population on the planet. The consumption of her resources by the small population did not challenge her in any way.
US Census estimates that the population of the World in 1 AD was about 170 million and after 1804 years it had grown to about 1 billion. The second billion was added in about 123 years and the population had grown to 2 billion in 1927. The next billion was added in only 32 years and the population had grown to 3 billion in 1959. Thereafter its growth accelerated and the planet added a billion people in each of the 3 periods of 15, 13 and 12 years. Thus by 1999 the population had grown to 6 billion people. We are now 6.8 billion in 2009, projected to grow to 9.4 billion by 2050. As against average yearly addition of less than half a million prior to 1804 AD, the World population is now growing at an alarming rate of 80 million per year!
As you can see from the above figures, planet Earth was doing a pretty good job at controlling the population growth until Man began to defeat her in her efforts in the twentieth century. He built dams to control floods, developed medical science and produced medicines to reduce infant and child mortality and to cure diseases. This resulted in more infants becoming adults and in more adults living a long life. Life expectancy thereby increased rapidly and has gone over 75 years in most of the countries of the World. Japan leads with a life expectancy of 82 years! That means the children born 82 years ago are still alive as grandparents!
World population, with its present growth rate, will more than double to reach 14 billion people by 2100. At that level of population, the resources of the planet, particularly rain water and arable land area would have to be worked twice as efficiently. If we do not succeed, the quality of life would be compromised.
Let’s look at it in another way. There is a popular belief that if a couple produces 2 children, there will not be any growth in population. But this is a fallacy as before the parents are dead; their children are producing grand-children for them! Thus 2 have produced 4! Now with further increase in life span, most couples will see their great-grand-children which mean that 2 parents have produced 6 offspring in all! The population of 2 has now gone up to 8! The truth is that increasing lifespan results in increasing the number of generations that are alive and thereby the population size increases steeply.
Some scientists believe that the population will stop growing with increased literacy and prosperity and will stabilize at about 10 billion. But this reminds me of the Ostrich who buried his head in the sand and believed that the storm had gone away. Population size will stabilize only when the number of births during the year equals the number of deaths in that year. It is true that the number of births per thousand people from year 2000 has reduced from 22 to 20 in year 2009, but on the other hand, the death rate has gone down from 9 to 8.2 per thousand within the same period. Death rate includes infant and child deaths which are bound to go down rapidly thanks to Government efforts. As the numbers of death reduce, the numbers of birth may not match their reduction. There is a limit to reduction births as every year about 40 million marriages take place and there are at least 200 million couples within the population who are potential baby makers. In 2009 the number of babies born would probably end up above 140 million.
There were several remarkable advances in medicine in the last century that has resulted in increasing the length of life from 30 years to 80 years. It seems now that life expectancy is beginning to level off. But the next phase of Man’s efforts for increasing longevity has begun. Rapid scientific progress is taking place in growing new organs and body parts from stem cell culture biotechnology which will lead to quantum jump in the length of life span of people. It is said that the generation which will live for 200 years is already born on the planet. But even though a woman may live 200 years, her child bearing age cannot change significantly and she will probably be having her first child around 30 years of age. Therefore when the lifespan increases to 200 years, there will be at least 7 generations alive at any one time leading to vast increase in the number of people surviving on the Earth! We have to concede that a steady state situation where the number of deaths matches the number of births is a long way off, much beyond this century. Till such steady state is achieved, the population will continue to grow.
The short and bitter truth is that the population problem is far bigger than one would like to face. Governments do not appear to have any effective legal measures to control population growth as enacting harsh laws is not politically possible. On the citizen’s level, however, “Green Earth” consciousness does exist and there are voluntary organizations devoted to reducing consumption of fossil fuels and planting trees. Whether population control will come up on their agenda is anybody’s guess. For all we know we might have a Green Movement advocating abortion liberation, one-child family, same-sex marriages and childless co-habitation! These efforts must continue to be made to create awareness about family planning which eventually and hopefully stabilize the population sometime in the distant future.
But is the increasing number of people a bane or a boon? Is it a problem or an advantage? Economists tell us that we will face an economic disaster if the numbers of births reduce drastically! Demand would fall and profits will disappear in the industry. We need to produce babies to keep our economies going. We need a growing population for sound financial health of any country. But on the other hand food production may not be enough to feed the increased population and people may starve. Therefore, “to grow or not to grow”, is the question for the population.
The answer to this enigma is for us to surrender and accept the fact that growth of population is unavoidable and inevitable for the next hundred years. We should look at it positively as a boon and gear up our efforts to manage the supply of food and water for the ever expanding future population. We have to simultaneously control and reduce the effect of this increasing population on the functioning of planet Earth. We must not disturb the delicate balance of the planet which may trigger drastic changes in rainfall and climate which in turn will affect the life on Earth. Governments must work on war footing to support, subsidize and promote non-fossil-fuel energy generation, augment water supply by rainwater harvesting and seawater desalination, and fund research to find innovative ways to increase our food production. Many of these basic infrastructure projects may take several years and some of them perhaps several decades to become productive and the earlier our Governments initiate focused attention on them the better are the chances of avoiding shortages in future years and prevent food prices from sky-rocketing. Let us all hope that they are successful to increase the food production and we do not face famine as the population grows. And at our individual and collective level, we must make every effort to heal the injury caused to planet Earth by Global warming and help her to cope with her inundation with us human beings.