Can resources meet challenges?

Population Growth

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Population growth continues to be a cause of concern globally with different predictions. On the one hand, the UN estimates that population is expected to peak to 11 billion by 2100 and only then will stabilise, and on the other many demographers are of the opinion that it will peak much earlier, may be by 2050 at about 9 billion and start shrinking after that. In such a scenario, the problem will accentuate in third world countries, including India.
In these countries the high density of population and increasing growth has come as a burden and resulted in failure to assure the lower segments of the population a dignified standard of living. Obviously, this is due to the fact that their resources are inadequate to match the necessities.
Let us refer here to famous scientist Robert Malthus prediction, way back in 1798 (in his book ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’) where he stated that population may grow exponentially while resources would grow arithmetically. As more people entered the workforce, wages would fall and goods would become scare. Then there are experts of the last century who had talked of a crisis situation emerging due to high levels of population growth and it cannot be denied that during the middle part of that century there were innumerable starvation deaths in many countries of Asia and Africa.
A follower of Malthus, Paul Ehrich in his famous book ‘The Population Bomb’ in 1968 warned that “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programme embarked upon now”. Ehrich was a big supporter of India’s family planning programme as he considered it would become impossible for this planet to feed the ever-increasing population. Though a section of economists, mostly from the Western world, feel that population growth has no relation to poverty, it is a fact that in the backward countries of Asia and Africa, where population growth and its density are high poverty, under nutrition and squalor has been on the rise.
At the same time, while it is acknowledged that human beings are the best and finest resource, the pressure of population growth on natural resource has been rising. An example could be countries such as India, which is primarily agro-based. Apart from the fact that productivity is quite low, land holdings have become smaller due to divisions with an increase in family members over passage of time, further aggravating the situation. This has resulted in migration from rural to urban areas, where infrastructure is poor and people have been forced to take shelter in unauthorised slums, squatter settlements, railway tracks etc. where living conditions are undoubtedly degraded and inhuman.
On the question of food, while innovative methods have been successful in improving yields of essential commodities and negating the Malthusian warning, there are certain concerns which need to be addressed. Though food production has increased and the conspicuous consumption of the rich is a reality, there are still starvation deaths, even in India as also deaths due to under-nutrition, both of adults and children. This is clear indication that availability of food in Third World countries like India is not quite sufficient. Can anyone say when the whole population of the developing economies will get a nutritious diet and whether this at all is achievable in the next two decades or so?
Regarding technological innovations in increasing food productivity, it has to be admitted that pollution has emerged as a big challenge, whether it is the case of water pollution, soil pollution etc. Degrading of land due to excessive use of chemicals and fertilizers is well known as also the over use of groundwater resources. While soil pollution is destroying large tracts of soil, arsenic, fluoride and iron contamination of water has become manifest, specially in various parts of India as water levels become lower.
The point that is sometimes missed is that water contamination has little or no effect on the upper and middle income sections; it mostly affects the poorer sections of society. Thus it would not be judicious to say that science and technology has worked wonders in feeding the population without the resultant effects, which are indeed quite disastrous for the economically weaker sections.
Adding to all this is the contamination of whatever we eat and the air we breathe. Scholars, who mostly come from the upper echelons of society, are not much exposed to problems suffered by the poor, specially those living in backward areas of the country or living by the side of railway tracks. They simply cannot imagine that the toxicity the common man on the street has been exposed to has resulted in a virtual jump of diseases like cancer, which were a rare occurrence some 40 years ago. There is little possibility of the disease burden on the poor receding in spite of best scientific interventions. Is not the high population growth responsible for it?
Another interesting finding is that most of the rich and the upper middle classes have small families, whereas the number of members in poor families is much higher. However, in recent times, with the spread of massive awareness campaign, birth control has been brought down though population growth still remains a problem. And this problem primarily affects the poorer sections of society due to lack of education and exposure to socio-economic problems.
One may mention here the observation of Ted Nordhaus, co-founder of Breakthrough Institute, a California-based energy and environment think tank, who aptly pointed out: “For decades, each increment of economic growth in developed economies has brought lower resource and energy use than the last.” This trend of severing the tie between GDP and energy/materials throughput is called ‘decoupling’.”
Many economists make big claims for past decoupling and promise much more of it in the future. But a careful analysis of decoupling to date shows that most is attributable to accounting error. And to get the developing world up to the level of an average American’s energy usage would require nearly quadrupling global energy consumption, even assuming advances in efficiency, which, however, appears unrealistic. Thus, unless we find ways to make decoupling actually happen in the future more reliably and at higher rates, growing the global economy will require us to use more of the Earth’s depleted resources.
The Global Footprint Network calculated that humanity is currently exceeding Earth’s sustainable productivity by 60 per cent. We do this by drawing down resources that future generations and other species would otherwise use. As a result of our actions, Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans is actually declining. Environmentalists like Nordhaus are right that it’s not a fixed quantity; the problem is that we are reducing it rather than adding to it in a way that can be maintained.
Thus, it has been rightly identified that nine planetary boundaries that have been transgressed at our peril are: climate change, ocean acidification, biosphere integrity, biochemical flows, land-system change, freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading and the introduction of novel entities into environments.
In sum, the population growth will put severe pressure on resources and the common people and though many would hope for some positive effect, these face the risk of being negated unless countries are successful in doing a balancing act.—INFA