As far back as 1798, Thomas Malthus had published a book called an Essay on the Principle of Population. The book was certainly ahead of its time as it explored the delicate relation between human population and its environment. Malthus argued rather convincingly that while human population increased geometrically the available resources to sustain it expanded arithmetically. The theory that population growth would eventually lead to scarcity, sickness and conflict seemed unbelievable at that time and in all probability faces some skepticism even today. But reality is that Malthus saw beyond the optimism to realize that the environment was not limitless and the earth could not eternally sustain population growth. His theory is as much relevant today as it was over 200 years ago. Overwhelmed by concerns of global warming, diminishing water tables and other critical environmental problems, population growth has remained in most part marginalized in the fringes of our environmental consciousness.
Although some are skeptical even today, it is hard to overlook the reality that the environment is not limitless and the earth cannot eternally sustain population growth. In the last 40 years we have seen the world population become almost double as improved sanitation and the miracle of modern medicine has led to a longer life expectancy. In the 20th century alone it has been estimated that the human population has increased from 1.6 billion to an astounding 6.1 billion people. As the demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, Nicholas Eberstadt put it simply: “It’s not because people started breeding like rabbits. It’s that they stopped dying like flies.”
Each year as more people are added to the planet there is a substantial pressure on already depleting resources as a fragile environment struggles to combat the onslaught. Experts estimate that in spite of a low expected growth rate of 1% there will almost be 7 billion people on the planet by 2015. In another 30 years the number will drastically increase to as much as 10 billion people. Evidently, the growth pattern will lead to weaker services and infrastructure particularly in the sector of education, health and food.
The experience of demographic transition in Europe and the U.S has been very different from that of the third world, due to the inconsistent impact of the industrial revolution. On one hand, Europe and the U.S saw steady decline in population with people choosing to have fewer children. Industrialization had brought with it materialism, development of cities and education. The need for better standard of living perhaps meant smaller families and greater economic opportunities. But on the other hand, third world countries were seeing a population boom as development brought improved medical facilities and standard of living. It has taken time for third world nations to realize that population growth has an impact on the scope of development and therefore only in the last few years there is a visible decline in birth rates. For instance, in Asia, the birth rate declined from an average of 5.7 children to about 2.6 at present.
While most developing nations have been able to curb its fertility rate, some nations have been sluggish in their response to implement measures to reduce birth rates.
In recent years we have seen cities in general growing at an alarming rate to accommodate growing population but the existing resources have remained the same. Evidently, the number of people requiring access to basic education and medical care is increasing considerably.. Competition for resources has led to a disproportion of wealth distribution whereby the poor keep getting poorer. Thus, many people across the globe are still vulnerable to the negative impact of population growth
The government strives to narrow the gap while the economy falters. As a result, almost 800 million people worldwide are malnourished. This number is predicted to grow significantly in the coming years as soil erosion and desertification affect agricultural lands and reduced food production. Already overgrazing of rangelands and pastures has led to a decline of productivity by approximately 22%. Croplands are being expanded to sustain the growing population at the cost of environment degradation and even then falling short of the targeted requirement. Though modern technology can assist to slow the impact of population growth, in reality it cannot be treated as a solution to deal with the problems that it brings.
We need to understand that there is an inextricable link between population, consumption patterns and the environment. A high population growth rate is bound to affect the earth’s climate and disturb the fragile eco-system with greater than before human activities and needs. Areas once home to endangered species of plants and animals are slowly yielding to human infringement for land and resources. Conversationists face an uphill task to save several bird and animal species from becoming extinct, alive only in myths and legends. We remain silent bystanders as some of the foremost fishing areas of the world deteriorate due to poor fisheries management and overexploitation. The landscape of our forests is changing rapidly as deforestation combined with population growth creates depressing barren lands. Carbon dioxide emissions have multiplied with dangerous fumes from industrial sectors poisoning the air we breathe. We are already witnessing water scarcity in many nations and water tables are dropping dangerously low worldwide.
These are just some of the problems that are intensifying due to population growth. These are a small number of people skeptical as to the extent population growth impacts human condition and the environment. There are also those that delude themselves that everything is well and that grim statistics and futuristic concerns are simply an over exaggeration. However, we need to break away from that rose tinted world and realize the reality that population growth is a global phenomenon that needs to be controlled. We can still make a difference and change the detrimental course by recognizing the problem rather than pretending of its non-existence.
Several governments have begun to take greater initiative to address population growth within the context of environmental concerns. The various seminars and organizations are leading to greater social awareness as ideas and opinions are exchanged beyond borders. New laws and programmes are being shaped and evidently subtle changes are taking place to birth rates. The discovery of modern contraceptives has gone a long way in being part of that change combined with the marriageable age increasing and wish for fewer children. The population momentum can be eased with greater funding of family planning and reproductive health. We need to empower women with education and the opportunity to make better choices world over.
Realistically, population growth is a progression that cannot be fully halted but definitely restricted through determination and commitment to reduce birth rates. Many nations have begun addressing the issue both on a national as well as on global level. However, we must move from the sphere of exchanging ideas and shaping laws to effective implementation. The question is not whether we are doing something about population growth but are the efforts being made enough to change the momentum. Recent statistics state that birth rates are declining although this does not translate into population growth diminishing but simply slowing down. The perception of population growth is gradually shifting and initiatives are being made as we enter another phase in the demographic transition. We have one planet and once chance to do our bit and make a difference.
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By arrangement with Global Times Magazine