Why We Won’t Acknowledge The Mammoth In The Room
Why are we not taking this dire population crisis more seriously, and addressing it dedicatedly? Why is it not talked about as much as its more famous and closely related cousin, climate change? Is it because, it is simply too inconvenient a truth to admit to? asks Purva Variyar, conservationist and Assistant Editor with Sanctuary Asia, as she makes her case about the deadly onslaught of overpopulation that plagues the planet and us.
Photo: James Cridland/Public Domain.
Recently, popular Bollywood producer-director Karan Johar became a single father to twins born using IVF technology and surrogacy. One of my friends too gave birth to a healthy baby girl just a few weeks ago. Though I am overjoyed for my friend and respect Mr. Johar’s decision to be a single-father, the planet-lover in me cringes at the news of every new human birth. I cannot help but think, “Why couldn’t they just adopt?”(There are an estimated 30 million orphans in India alone, though all don’t fall under the legal adoption umbrella).; “Why did they not think twice about the planet folding like a flimsy sheet of paper under the exploding human population?” I wonder if these thoughts ever cross the minds of the millions around the world who had and have chosen to get pregnant? I must specify that I’m not talking about the men and women who do not have access to contraceptives and education. I am speaking of the men and women who have the luxury of choice to conceive children or not, access to education and money to invest in contraceptives and practice family planning.
I for one have decided never to have a biological child of my own. Many would say I am crazy to go against my natural urges and even against evolution by choosing not to propagate my genes. My friends look at me incredulously when I voice my decision and are unable to understand my reasoning. More so, because I am a young woman, and this idea goes against every cultural, traditional and religious ideal that we have been taught to conform to. Some even say my decision is unnatural. But, didn’t we Homo sapiens, cut the symbiotic cord with nature, long ago? We left all of our natural ways behind around the time we decided to adopt agriculture, renouncing our more natural and sustainable hunter-forager way of life. The next blow after the Agricultural Revolution came in the form of the Scientific Revolution 8,000 years later, and then came the Industrial Revolution. There was no turning back from there.
We are more than seven billion of us here. In my view, overpopulation is easily the single most imminent problem, at the root of almost every conceivable issue we face – be it diseases, pollution, deforestation, food and water security, climate change and mass extinction. Not to mention our largely stressful, overcrowded and strained quality of living. India has already crossed the grizzly 1.2 billion mark and it is projected that it will out compete China in the population race by 2022. This is quite plausible considering we have the highest rate of births per minute in the world. Africa, it is foretold, will harbour more than half of the world’s population in a little more than three decades’ time while the population will continue to rise exponentially in other parts of the world too.
As per UNICEF estimates, every second, 4.3 children are born in the world. That is, every second, there are more than four new mouths to feed. Four new mouths to assign a part of the planet’s resources to such as space, water, raw materials and fuel, all of which are quite limited, I assure you. More feet, larger the carbon footprints, it is as straightforward as that. A little more than 200 years ago humans on the planet numbered in mere millions. We reached our first 1 billion mark only at the very start of the 19th century. And by 2011, we had managed to procreate exponentially, and how! In just the past 50 years, we have already lost more than 50 per cent of our wildlife to our destructive, cruel and unsustainable activities. No wonder then that scientists have termed the present time period as the Anthropocene epoch. Human actions are impacting the planet at a scale so large that they have changed the shape of the planet, ecologically and we are irreversibly affecting the biosphere in a very short span of time, the way geologic changes did over millions of years.
Photo: El T/Public Domain.
Before the advent of the Agricultural Revolution about 12,000 years ago, the tentative human population on the planet was less than what the 600 sq. km. city of Mumbai holds today which is over 20 million. It was sustainable for a few million humans to be spread across the 155 million square kilometers of the Earth’s entire land area. But, by the end of this century, global population is set to rise to 10 billion! I.e. ‘1’ followed by ten ‘zeroes’ – 10,000,000,000 !
In An Essay on the Principle of Population published in 1798 by Thomas Malthus, the English scholar and expert on demography states, “…[I] say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second. By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence.”
Nature has always exercised its powers of population control if the population of any species shows signs of exceeding the subsistence capacity of its habitat, and humans are no exceptions. Disease, famine, premature deaths and even misery as Malthus puts it, have been forms of population checks throughout history. The best known example would be that of the deadly plague, termed as the ‘Black Death’, that gripped Europe in the mid 14th century and claimed more than 20 million people, wiping out more than one-third of Europe’s entire population. Though it may sound harsh, such checks are necessary for the progress and survival of species, and are the norm in nature. Natural selection is a merciless taskmaster. In our case, unfortunately, even preventive checks such as contraceptives and the progressive delay in the age of women conceiving with every generation haven’t really helped. The power of geometrical progression of population is unmatchable. And also in Thomas Malthus’ opinion and frankly mine too, we humans are not pragmatic enough as a species to exercise moral restraint and undo our destructive ways of living. If we really are pragmatic, why are we not taking this dire population crisis issue more seriously, and addressing it dedicatedly? Why is it not talked about as much as its more famous and closely related cousin, climate change? Clearly the two are closely and irrevocably linked. Then is it because, it is simply too inconvenient a truth to admit to?
Natural selection lost its hold on us when we got an interfering grip on biology. We invented vaccines to eradicate diseases and medical strides were made to increase our longevity. Every quantum leap in scientific and medical spheres has been accompanied by an exponential growth in population. This interesting timeline video carried in a Scientific American article will give you a real idea about the explosion of human population on the planet through 1 A.D. all the way to the year 2050. The way it depicts population burgeoning especially over the past two centuries since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, through our advancements in science and technology, is quite a revelation! We basically countered almost every one of nature’s population checking methods. Except one that is beyond our control: Climate.
Though there is a direct connection between the man-made climate change and overpopulation, the two are never talked about in the same breath, as they should be. Talking about population control is tragically still a taboo subject that people, especially those in positions of authority, hesitate to address for fear of a backlash. And when someone in a position of authority does talk about it, like Hillary Clinton did in 2009, as the then U.S. Secretary of State, the fear is validated. Unfortunately, human population control and family planning is not even on the agenda of most conservation organisations across the world. This, despite the fact that unsustainable rise in population renders even the best conservation efforts weak. As per the statistics based on a study suggest that the impending carbon footprint that one child will eventually leave behind in his lifetime is 20 times more how much a person will save by resorting to an eco-friendly lifestyle. Human carbon emissions rose fifteen fold, with less than fourfold rise in human population between year 1900 and 2000.
Let’s face it, no one likes to have anyone tell them whether they should or shouldn’t have kids. In many cultures, a decision to not have a child could put the woman or the couple in question in a dangerous position. As it is not the woman’s choice to make in any orthodox patriarchal society. It is almost inconceivable to most because more often than not, it is bound to hurt religious and cultural sentiments.
Now what we have on our hands is a very serious population crisis. On World Population Day on July 11, 2015, renowned wildlife conservationist and award-winning journalist Prerna Bindra wrote in her article Why I decided not to have a child for Daily O, an online news and opinions platform, “It's widely acknowledged, even if in hushed tones, that not having children may well be the biggest contribution to limit your environmental footprint. I think too, of the world we bring our kids into. We prefer not to face the inconvenient truth, but there is no escaping the fact that resources crucial to our survival are shrinking, getting dirtier. Water wars are already occurring, they will only get more frequent, murkier. Our food is frankly, filth. I do not want my child gasping for air, her lungs function far below capacity, as is the fate of Delhi's children.”
Amen to that.
I respect a woman’s natural urge and maternal instincts that goad her into wanting to bring her own child into this world. It is beautiful and to go against it, difficult. But, however hard it is, I am not going to ever decide to add one more person to the billions already here.
We have a long way to go before we as a species are mature enough to own up to the devastation of the planet that we are causing and to take certain ‘unselfish’ decisions. More than loyalty to your country and land, it’s loyalty to your planet that I think is important, loyalty to your own species and other species too. This is our only home. And it is up to us.
Author: Purva Variyar