Tuesday, May 12, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: The Population Conundrum

I hope that those who are following the MUSINGS would by now realise that sustainability of a particular lifestyle is decided by the number of people trying to live the lifestyle. So, what is the best route - Should we change our lifestyle to suit the population size, or should we try to limit the size of the population to suit the lifestyle that everyone desires? 


The size of the population has been a matter of concern for the last century or so. There is a generally held belief (particularly in the western world) that the main cause of the poverty in the so-called 'third world' is due to the high population density in the developing and under-developed countries. In fact this is a very convenient line of thinking as it allows everyone to ignore the various adverse social, economical and environmental impacts of the western imperialism that the 'third world' is paying for even today! However, for this post, let's focus on the issue of population.    

The human population was about 10 million people in 10,000 BC, and rose very slowly to cross 1 billion in 1800 AD. However, addition of the next 1 billion happened in just about a century, and another billion got added in the next just about 60 years! The population of the world was about 3 billion people in 1960s. In the next fifty years it shot to 7 billion people! Looked from this perspective, the population 'explosion' indeed seems scary. Where are we headed from here? 

Assuming that the current trend will continue, it shows that by the end of this century the population of the world will reach about 10-11 billion and then level off. In other words, current trend shows that population growth rate has started coming down, which is why further increase will happen at a relatives lower pace, and ultimately as the birth rate and death rate match, the number will stabilise. 

Till 1800s, every couple had many children but only a couple of them survived to reach reproductive age. By the time these children started having their own children, their parents were most probably dead. This kept the population increase minimal. As quality of life started improving after the industrial revolution, the infant mortality rate dropped, but people still continued to have many children. At the same time, better quality of life increased overall life expectancy, and the death rate also dropped. This combination lead to a population 'explosion'. However, in this century the 'cost' of having many children is impacting families everywhere. At the same time, contraceptives are now widely available. As the women are getting access to education, they are increasingly opting for lesser number of children, for a variety of reasons. Contrary to popular belief, even poor and uneducated people across the world are showing a strong preference to limiting family size, provided the means of doing so are available to them. 

What has been described above is the 'business as usual' scenario, which assumes that no catastrophic events are going to happen, and no resource limits are going to come into play. If these assumptions are factored in, significantly different projections appear, but for now, let's stick to this 'business as usual' scenario. 

Right now, about a billion people in the world live an opulently wealthy lifestyle, while about a billion people are still struggling to meet their daily needs. But there is the vast majority between these two extremes, which strive to join the top billion while struggling to not fall back into the bottom billion. 

The birth rates have dropped to very low levels in prosperous societies. The death rates are still very high in the poorest populations. These factors limit the population growth rates in both these segments. Most of the increase in numbers is actually going to happen in the "middle" class. How will the increasing numbers impact them? How do the opulent view the increasing competition for the finite resources that are mostly hoarded and controlled by them? How would the poorest of the poor cope with further shrinkage of the already meager opportunities that they have. 

Furthermore, the population trends are not identical everywhere in the world. Right now about 1 billion people each live in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and 4 billion in Asia (including Australia). By the end of the century, it is believed that the population in the Americas, and Europe will remain more or less the same (however the average age will be higher), but there will be about 5 billion people in Asia and 4 billion in Africa, and the average age will be quite low in these regions. The 'drivers' of the world will be in Asia and Africa rather than in Europe and the Americas. What implications does this have for a globalised world?

Pondering on all of this, you can see that even the so-called "business as usual" is going to be quite turbulent! It is quite obvious that the more one can do with whatever resources that are easily and cheaply available, that is, the more sustainably one can live, the easier it will be to climb up the social and economic ladder! 

More importantly, you can see that the size of the global population is not something that can be 'made to order'! The population growth rate has dropped at the start of this century, but this will lead to stabilisation of the size of the population only by the end of the century. So, limiting the size of the population to suit the lifestyle that everyone aspires for is not a realistic proposition. We have to find a lifestyle option that fits with the size of the population, now and in the near future.  

It also therefore follows, that if we are to envision the entire humanity living sustainably, we need to be fairly certain about what trend the population size is going to follow in the foreseeable future. I have described the trend predicted by the so-called 'business as usual' scenario. But how realistic is this? Are there any other possible scenarios? More about this, next week. 

Priyadarshini Karve
Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech





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