Saving the planet and limiting population

We never got down to talk on the topic of population at length. As a tribute to Earth Day observed yesterday, let me propose this topic! We all agree that too much population leading to overcrowding is bad. Too thin? Bad too! How do we determine what the optimum population should be? Clearly there are places on earth which could see less people. And even David Attenborough has thrown his weight behind the importance of limiting population! I personally feel that the problem is intricately related to (and mostly caused by) many other factors, but let us not digress and focus more on effects of overpopulation on environment and ecology.

There is this recent article/interview linked below, which tells us how skewed per capita consumption is worldwide. For example, an average person in the US consumes 250 times as much resources as someone in Ethiopia, and 20 times as much an Indian. Talking resource-wise, it is impossible to give a US lifestyle to everyone in India or in Ethiopia. Indian rate of overpopulating the world is disconcerting, but so is the American rate of consumption. At this point, do we have any ethical/moral, or a scientific approach telling us, that having a population of 4 billion consuming at such-and-such rate is more welcome than 8 billion people consuming at half the rate? Which rate of consumption is ‘better’? Which way of f**king up the planet is more acceptable to us?

Naïvely, I feel this is more a problem of distribution, than the absolute number. I will point out three things: one, reducing population by no way ensures that the distribution among the remaining few will be achieved in a just manner: look at most of the first-world countries with their share of disparities for example. The logic runs like: there are few rich people and many poor people, hence the world will be an awesome place if we just get rid of this bulk of the poor people! Secondly, too thin a population would make many sustainable practices, such as public transport, more difficult to implement. Thirdly, I wonder how people think about the ‘crowding’ due to population. It often is a matter of habit, since I remember being quite comfortable back in India in the highly populated cities there, and was nearly freaked out by lack of people on roads when I first came to the US. When I visit home nowadays, I wonder if I can ever be as comfortable with the population density unless I stay there for a prolonged period of time!

All in all, I do agree that we should not go for a birthrate over the replacement levels of children. But unless the problems of distribution of resources and overconsumption are addressed, which are significantly harder problems to deal with I believe, limiting population is not going to save the world any more than organic okra farmed-in-California-flown-to-NJ does!

Now that you have made it through my rambling, you get your promised article from Salon.

By the way, George Monbiot talked on similar issues here.

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2 Responses to Saving the planet and limiting population

  1. Aatish says:

    There’s an interesting Attenborough documentary on this subject that we could get together and watch, called ‘How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?’.

    I think a substantial decrease in the rate of population growth is absolutely essential. A step in that direction could be something like incentives for one child families, perhaps? You could also spend more time in schools teaching about the problems of overpopulation, in the hope that you would be educating people to have fewer kids. I remember being extremely alarmed in the 6th grade when my geography teacher taught us about Malthus’s argument of exponential growth. The image I always have in my mind is a colony of bacteria that doubles every couple of hours, and eventually starvation keeps them from covering our planet in a matter of days. However, as we have it in our power to eliminate starvation, disease and probably push back aging by a substantial amount, I wonder what kind of weird swarming colony we’re going to become if we keep trying to grow. Actually, come to think of it, sometimes I worry about what human life would be like if we could conquer aging. I think it would be a really horrific world to live in, because no one would want to split, but we’d keep adding more people.

  2. Purba says:

    The base population is so high that even with a lower growth rate and fertility rate, that we have today, the population will grow quite a lot… but, it will stabilize, it’s a matter of time. This is not to say that population control measures are not important, they definitely are immensely important…. more so in some regions of the world than others. I guess, what Anindya is pointing at is that distribution and consumption are very important issues and just focusing on population control without giving enough consideration to distribution is not going to get the desired effect.

    on a slightly different note, Louise Fresco’s talk at TED that i was talking about the other day:

    some good discussions in the comment section also…

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