The Population Problem and Inter-Relatedness of Things

If Thanos were to succeed, would we be thanking him in 2050?

The ever increasing world population has been putting a strain on our limited resources. But this isn’t really news: we’ve all studied this in high school geography. Even though the earth’s surface is 70% water, only 2.5% of it is freshwater. Agricultural land is limited and, thanks to rising sea level and rapid urbanisation, quickly decreasing. Petroleum products are also being mined to capacity at great cost to our environment and structural integrity. Do we dare imagine a future when overpopulation reaches a tipping point?

Some days, it is easy to empathise with Thanos or Dr. Zobrist (from Inferno, by Dan Brown). As much as their arguments hold weight, their means are a bit drastic, and we think their actions are unconscionable. But, what is the alternative? Are we willing to do everything it takes (short of genocide, of course) to survive on a planet which can no longer sustain us? 

(Over)Population and Indian Society

Our last census in 2011, indicated that India’s population had crossed the 1.2 billion mark. It is expected that the census in 2021 will reveal a much dire situation, with a population of over 1.6 billion people. The population distribution in India is, however, uneven. We have cities like Mumbai with populations of over 24 million persons, and we have rural areas with a sparse 1500 people. The uneven distribution further puts a strain on resources within the specific areas. Cities are developing at a rapid pace, with more and more agricultural and green cover land being annexed in the name of development. Rural areas are left with vast lands, but due to migration in search of better income opportunities, less people are working within the agricultural or rural MSME sectors. The cities must then have infrastructure to contain and provide for all its inhabitants. So what must be done?

Source: Local Press

Is the solution to decreasing agricultural land area, investment in R&D of genetically modified organisms, which can artificially increase the per capita yield of crops (even if it causes a bit of cancer)? GME crops were a solution to famine once upon a time, but when and why did we decide to feed an ever increasing population with something that is slowly killing us all? Humanity is cornered, stuck in a vicious circle. To understand the population problem, we must venture to understand the inter-relatedness of things. 

Population and Economic Growth

Roti, Kapda aur Makan’, the famous Indian adage, highlights the basic needs of every being – food, clothing and shelter. The economic and commercial activities that go into providing these basic amenities must match pace with the booming population. One thing is certain: the earth has limited resources, which are being exploited to satisfy the unlimited wants of humanity. This also means there are people competing for the same limited resources, such as oil and minerals.

Post-industrialisation, we live in a world where mass production is imperative to satisfy the demands of the mass consumers. In a bid for economic growth, we have encountered issues such as rapid urbanisation encroaching on agricultural land or green cover areas. Activities such as mining have eroded the soil quality, making it further difficult to cultivate crops in certain areas, and also exhausting groundwater for mining activities.

These issues further strain already depleting natural resources in the face of a growing population. There is a food crisis in Venezuela, and water crisis has started descending in India with over 21 cities set to have no groundwater left by 2020. That’s 6 months away. For years, theorists have maintained that World War III would be for water, and it’s seeming more and more likely.

Population and Healthcare 

Overpopulation occurs when the birth rate increases but death rate decreases. Thanks to modern medicine, that is how the situation currently stands, not that we are complaining. A few generations ago, families used to have 7-10 children per household, out of which only 2 or 3 would survive through to adulthood. Now, families with even more children, live a long and comfortable life thanks to advancement in medicines, development of vaccines and fertility treatments. The government family planning campaign ‘Hum Do Humare Do‘ educated masses on the benefits of a smaller family unit has been praised as a success in terms of messaging and reach. Yet the Indian population is on the continuous rise, set to overtake China in the coveted position as the world’s largest population (a.k.a. consumer market). Clearly, the campaign has failed somewhere.

In India the population problem is complexed with a skewed sex ratio. Since the news coverage on the female foeticide issue and the several campaigns to encourage families to have girls, such as ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ Yojana and the ‘Sukanya Samriddhi Yojayana’, the numbers have abated, but the practice still continues. Those who want male heirs to carry their family name forward often forget that it would be impossible to do so without a woman and her womb. 

In the wake of a population problem, if we cannot curb the birth rate, do we stop providing treatment to people over a certain age to dent the death rates? Or maybe thanks to female foeticide, we will eventually reach a point, where there will be no women of birthing age to carry forward our population? Forgive my cynicism, but our generation has been burdened with the most pertinent problem for humanity and the responsibility has been shouldered on to the educated few. Scientists believe that the world population will decrease in the long run, after peaking around the year 2070.

Population and the ‘Environment’

To accommodate an increasing population, we have had to increase production and development at an ‘opportunity cost’ of environment. This has contributed to an increasing pollution, decreasing green cover around the planet, over-mining of natural resources, and exhausting of others. One of the major pollutants and common by-product of all industrial processes is CO2, which has been linked to global warming and climate change.

Climate change and its impacts are only set to hit world populations, specifically it will make a bad problem worse for already vulnerable sections (those that live in poverty, in low-lying areas, etc.). Rising sea levels, melting ice-caps and glaciers, increasing CO2 levels in the environment, and increasing numbers of weather calamities across the world (which again threatens human population in affected areas) are all attributable to climate change. Several cities with high population density, including London, Mumbai, Chennai, and Venice, will be submerged underwater with a mere 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, and we are already at 0.8 degree Celsius temperature rise.

To a large extent this issue is of our own making. Movies like ‘Downsizing’ show us that where humans have caused the problems, we can be part of the solution too: if we just downsize our carbon consumption and footprint. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t need mass consumerism to survive. Humanity, in its selfish bid for “survival” forgets that we belong to the planet, the planet does not belong to us. Remember the asteroid that ended the dinosaur era? Well, this time around, the explosion that ends life on earth will be internal.

Waiting on Mr. Musk to give us a space lift

Conspiracy theorists will have you believe that the planet Earth instinctively knows how to cure its overpopulation problem, and perhaps that was true for a time. Plagues, calamities, and wars are means by which the earth maintains its average population, getting rid of the excess. Does that mean, we do nothing, now when it is of utmost importance? Do we abandon the planet and settle on a spaceship as in Wall-E? Or hope that sentient robots find us in space and return humanity to their home planet when it is restored? (of course assuming that we do not split into factions and engage in space wars as in Star Wars). Is the situation hopeless? Should we have been cheering for Thanos? Should we have prevented Robert Langdon from foiling the effective, efficient and silent plan by biochemical scientist Dr. Bertard Zobrist?

According to Malthus, population growth could be limited either by preventive checks, which lowered the birth rate, or positive checks, which raised the death rate. Preventive checks included such measures as postponement of marriage, celibacy, or contraception, whereas positive checks involved war, disease, or starvation. While positive checks are disparaged as atrocities against humanity, we can start by educating ourselves, friends, family, acquaintances and anyone we encounter. Education initiatives and conversations must include sex education, family planning, contraception, carbon footprint, and climate compliance, to be thorough. Recognise that the growing population is a problem and make conscious decisions to do your part in not making a bad problem, worse. The time to do something was decades ago, but now, if we decide to sit idle and let nature take its course, we could be as extinct in a century as dinosaurs are today.

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