Overpopulation and the consequent strain on the natural resources impacts the quality of peoples’ lives, especially for the people in developing nations.
Olden days of civilisation experienced famines and natural disasters that caused human misery. While human population was limited, natural habitats were undisturbed and abundant; so calamities of nature were absorbed without any serious consequences. However, this no longer holds true in the current era, now that population has exploded, while the resources stand limited. Overpopulation and the consequent strain on the natural resources impacts the quality of peoples’ lives, especially for the people in developing nations. This deterioration has been a result of our own doing. Today, while breathing toxic polluted air through masks, we seek satisfaction and solitude, a chance to be closer to nature, escape from our reality to another world, another earth perhaps.
Population dynamics are very closely linked to economic and social development. A high rate of population growth entails a negative impact, referred to as the Cost of Population Growth. It leads to a slowdown in economic development, and contributes to income inequalities, all the while putting immense pressure on natural resources and the environment.
The population bomb exploded with the global population alarmingly increasing from 1.5 billion people to over 7 billion in a span of just two centuries. The global population growth rates peaked at 2.1% per annum in the 1960s. The period up until the 1960s was characterised by high birth and death rates, reflecting a high population growth rate. Thereafter, the onset of the 1970s brought about another twist in our population tale. Various factors like education, longevity, family planning and decline in fertility rates led to the consequent decline in birth rates.
Research by the Foreign Policy Research Institute indicates that over the years, developed economies like Japan, United Kingdom and the Netherlands, among others, have achieved sub-par fertility rates and many developing economies are following suit. On the other hand, strides in health care, an increase in average income levels worldwide, eradication of epidemics, scientific research and improved nutritional standards have brought down the death rates. Low birth rates and low death rates were a significant feature of this period. Therefore, owing to the decline in birth rates, this period saw a gradual long-term slowdown in the population growth rates. However, since the death rates also declined, growth of population in absolute terms continues to display an increasing trend. In fact, the United Nations Population Fund expects the world population to increase by 1 billion in the next decade or so, and reach 9.6 billion by 2050.
Research published in the Nature Sustainability Paper shows that the planet’s holding capacity is 7 billion at subsistence levels of consumption. While we currently stand at 7.6 billion, it is well documented that the majority in developed economies consume exponentially more than the basic subsistence level, thereby, exerting excessive strain on natural resources. For instance, a cross-country comparison of developing and developed nations and the corresponding resource burden in terms of CO2 emissions that they have exerted over the years shows that developed nations have exploited relatively much higher resources. The planet’s carrying capacity stands limited. However, critics of this view might argue that this capacity has increased since the beginning of mankind. What is called ‘an increase in capacity’ simply translates as resource exploitation and colonising natural habitats through deforestation, mining and allied activities. They argue that these activities would enable us to overcome capacity constraints in the future as well. Blinded by our self-interested motives, we have failed to realise that the earth with all its resources is meant for all its species in totality, and not exclusively for human beings. As Darwin aptly states in his book, ‘On the Origin of Species’, “Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends.” Thus, every time human beings have expanded the earth’s capacity, it has not been expansion in the truest sense. What may seem as an expansion has been the result of contraction of resources for other species as we have encroached upon areas not meant for us, and colonised resources beyond our share.
This brings us to the questions like ‘Who will pay the price of overpopulation?’, ‘What will be the consequences of the reckless expansion of human population in the last two centuries?’
Reverend Joseph Townsend, an 18th century physician and geologist, reflects on the current state of world affairs when he says, “The weakest of both species were among the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.” Thus, it is the rich and the powerful that gain the most by developing means to protect themselves from the pitfalls of their natural resource exploitation, manmade calamities. However, it is the poor and the vulnerable that suffer the most and become the collateral damage in this process. Even today, 10.7 percent of the world lives in conditions of acute poverty as per World Bank estimates, exposed to vagaries of nature and disease. Without access or affordability, they do not have the means to shield themselves from the consequent calamities. In fact, when it comes to the bottom financial rung of the world, a staggering percentage still have no protection against health shocks and receive virtually no medical attention in sickness.
Studies show that reckless human activity with overexploitation of resources, loss of natural habitat and climatic change have triggered what is called the sixth mass extinction. This time, it is not a massive meteorite strike, destructive volcanic explosion or the Ice Age but the human race and anthropogenic forces that stand to be blamed. The catastrophic rate of loss of species and biodiversity is seriously alarming and unlike a mass extinction that the planet has ever witnessed before. Natural extinctions are associated with majorly altering habitats, wiping out species, creating conditions for new species of fauna and flora to evolve. No such evolution is likely to proceed from this manmade extinction, leading to permanent damage to our environment. Like the other species, human beings too stand to face equally devastating effects.
In response to this manmade extinction and overpopulation, nature may have triggered a process of sluggish depopulation on the earth to restore the balance. Depopulation is defined as a process of steady decline in population density over time. Malthus, an 18th century philosopher, was the first to put forth the potential dangers of high population growth. He postulated that while population growth increases exponentially, the agricultural food production increases arithmetically owing to the law of diminishing returns. Accordingly, he proposed a theory of depopulation, predicting that if allowed to grow unchecked, the population growth would outgrow resources. This would result in a catastrophe, which would force population back to subsistence levels, within the earth’s capacity, restoring a natural equilibrium. To elaborate, in his ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, Malthus wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” While this theory may have been based on the inaccurate premise of inadequate agricultural production being the end of all, it does hold some truth in today’s day and age. We are ushering in an era of environmental degradation and extreme climatic changes, taking a toll on human life or in Malthus’s words leading to “premature death in some shape or other.”
In line with this theory, this mass extinction which has been initiated by humans is likely to have grave consequences for our own survival. Given our dependence on natural eco-system for food, water, air and a liveable climate for survival, we have given rise to the reasons for our own potential demise by disturbing the delicate balance of nature. Human induced climatic extremities, global warming and unchecked industrialisation have become the cause of numerous health hazards and taken a heavy toll on human life. The floods in Kerala and elsewhere in India, or the forest fires in Spain and California are the most recent events wreaking havoc in life and natural resources alike. Rising sea levels have led to the inundation of the Sundarbans and the toxic pollution levels has made cities like Beijing and Delhi inhabitable. The death toll and destruction caused thereof provide some evidence of the impending doom, thus supporting Malthus’s claim that, “The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.” This is evidenced by the global warnings specified with respect to climatic change in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (UN IPCC).
The human quest for longevity has helped us become successful in substantially lowering mortality rates through developments in pharmaceuticals and medicine. Technologies worth billions of dollars are being developed and applied toward prolonging human life, toward finding a cure for every disease or illness that we are faced with. Indisputably, we have come a very long way in health care, farther than our ancestors could have ever even imagined. However, we must respect the fact that nature has to maintain an equilibrium of different species, including humans. If this balance gets severely tipped off by anthropogenic reasons, then our own survival would become endangered. No extent of technological and medical advancement can enable us to prolong life indefinitely. This means that we must accept the limits on our capacities to prolong life beyond a certain point.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection advocated a natural process of selection of species. On the contrary, the human species is striving to achieve its supremacy over nature by trying to artificially ensure survival for humans through manmade selection.
This process of artificial selection has given rise to many lifestyle diseases, addictions and health hazards. Illnesses and epidemics like AIDS, cancer, Ebola, Nipah and SARS outbreaks, to name a few, are wiping out human lives rapidly. On the other hand, anti-microbial resistance has been plaguing humankind, making standard treatments for common flu, viral infections ineffective. It poses the threat of making otherwise curable infectious diseases untreatable, rendering an absolute loss of medical breakthroughs and drugs that have been developed over the past centuries.
The greater question that confronts us today is: How long can human beings shield themselves from depopulation? Will we triumph or will we all become victims of our own doing?
Nagpal is a young professional with the Economic Advisory Council to PM. Views expressed here are personal.
(The article appears in November 15, 2018 edition)