Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Population: Elephant in the Room

Population – Elephant in the Room

We have only one planet and its resources are limited. Global population quadrupled during the 20th century.
Such is the dynamics of exponential growth that even if the population increases half as fast (doubles in 100 years), in about 1300 years each of us will only have a patch of 5ft x 5ft on dry land with no room for plants, animals or anything else.  Overcrowding will be felt much before that.  In fact mother Earth might get fed up at some stage and do something about her childrens' behaviour.



Consumption and the number of domesticated animals increases in line with population growth. We are depleting non-renewable resources and polluting the environment at a rate that the Earth cannot cope with.
Just now we are using resources 1.5 times faster than the Earth can regenerate. If everybody consumes as much as the Americans do, then we require resources of fifteen Earths.


Our planet responds to the stresses we create.
Bio-diversity is diminished.
Global climate is impacted by the burning of fossil fuels.
Oceans, where 60% of all photosynthesis happens, become polluted, more acidic and less able to sustain aquatic life.
Overgrazing is a major cause of desertification, irreversible loss of topsoil with consequent impact on the fertility of agricultural land.
Aquifer depletion due to over-pumping & retreat of mountain glaciers in response to rising temperatures create serious concerns about future fresh water supplies for human use and for agriculture.
Higher global temperatures are causing sea levels to rise, threatening many highly populated coastal areas.
Some of the above global parameters have already passed the tipping point and further changes can happen uncontrolled, quickly and irreversibly.


Various estimates put the carrying capacity of the Earth from 500 million (at US level of consumption) to 10 billion (at an unacceptably low level of consumption).
Nobody wants to talk about managing population growth.
Population is an elephant in the room.  It has been more convenient to ignore the problem.
The fundamental issue is the growth in population and that must be addressed urgently.  Education, empowerment of women, birth control can make a difference.


We have to ensure that the carrying capacity of the Earth is not further damaged by our excessive consumption habits.
Energy has been too cheap, at least four times cheaper than its true cost and must be priced correctly. A rapid transition from non-renewable fossil fuels to the plentiful supply of renewable solar and wind energy is essential to manage our climate and pollution.
There is enormous potential for efficiency gains by innovative designs and good practices.
For example, plug-in hybrid cars can potentially solve the storage problems for electricity, reducing the need to provide extra power generation capacity at peak demand times.
Smart grids and smart metering will go some way in alleviating the peak load problems. Regenerating our forests will help in stabilising the climate.
Food and water security can be helped by consuming more plant proteins in preference to animal protein which is up to ten times more water and energy intensive. Demand for animal protein is rapidly increasing in the BRIC countries and others.
Bio-fuels are joker in the pack.


It may not be too late to act, but the geo-political situation does not inspire confidence.
Nano- and digital- technologies will help to alleviate many of the problems but only if the population stabilises. The US population is projected to increase by one hundred million by 2050. Imagine the extra resources required to accommodate such numbers at the current US consumption levels. Over 2500 million people in China and India would like to consume four times more than they do now!


There are those who talk about space colonisation and people living on asteroids etc.
Technologically it might be possible sometime in the future but the question one needs to ask is: “What are the 7 billion humans on the Earth for? Why are they here?”
Surely human race is not here just to increase their numbers but consideration has to be given for the quality and fulfilment of life.


We have the choice of managing the population and what we consume and saving our civilisation by acting now, or let nature do it in her own way – that will not be pleasant for sure.
What do I tell my daughter when she asks “What type of world shall I inherit, daddy?”


ScienceforAll, a Community Education Initiative, will look at the issues and their potential solutions in a series of six 90-minute talks this autumn. Further announcements about the free talks will be made at the end of August 2012.                                                        ... Ravi Singhal (17/07/2012)
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