WORLD POPULATION: SEVEN BILLION CHALLENGES
At the beginning of the Christian era the world population was just around 200 million. It took nearly 1700 years for the population to double. In 1970 the world population was 3.5 billion and in just four decades it has touched 7billion. The picture that unfolds seems dark and bleak, but it has a silver lining which has prompted the UN to describe it as an “opportunity” to promote “seven billion actions” for environmental sustainability. Is it really an opportunity, and if so how we can make the best out of it is something we would have to ponder. But before we discuss that; let us scan the growth of population over time.
World population before the development of agriculture was never more than 15 million, but during the heyday of the Roman Empire it reached 55 million. The growth was slow in the early period, but increased rapidly subsequently, as can been seen from the figures shown below
1st billion 1804
2nd billion 1924 after 123 years
3rd billion 1960 after 33 years
4th billion 1974 after 14 years
5th billion 1987 after 13 years
6th billion 1999 after 12 years
7th billion 2011 after 13years
In ancient times and during the middle ages, there were events which decimated population, like the Plague of Justinian in the 8th century which killed nearly 50 percent of the European population followed by the Black Death in the 14th century. Other countries too experienced decline in population. For example the population of China in the 13 the century was around 123 million which declined to just 65 million by end of the 14th century. Demographers and historians believe that it was largely on account of the bubonic plague and Mongol invasions. The toll of pestilence and disease was most obvious in the New World. It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of the Native American population succumbed to small pox, measles and influenza which were brought by the migrant European population, who had over time developed immunity, which the natives did not have. Whatever modest increase there was in the size of the population was on account of the introduction of new food crops by Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. Maize for example was a staple diet of the people around this time.
World population increased dramatically only after the onset of Industrial revolution and the ascendance of science. The pioneering work of Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur in developing vaccines, improvement in sanitation and path breaking discoveries in medicine improved the longevity and quality of life. UK is an excellent example of this. The population which was just 8.3 million in 1801 jumped to 30.5 million in 1901.
Much before population explosion became a reality, the English classical economist Reverend Thomas Malthus, wrote a controversial book entitled, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. Contrary to the notion of limitless improvement of society popularized by thinkers like Godwin and Rousseau, Malthus struck a discordant note. He believed that population is dependent by the means of subsistence. As the means of subsistence increases so does population. The superior power of population is repressed and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice. He described the scenario in a very memorable way, he wrote that as population increases by geometric progression (1,2,4,26,32…) food supply increases only arithmetically ( 1,2,3,4…).According to him two kinds of checks keeps the population in control. The positive checks are pestilence, war etc. and negative checks like abortion, birth control, celibacy and postponement of marriage. His unconventional ideas created a stir in the intellectual world. Evolutionary biologists like Darwin were greatly influenced by him but there were also critics like Godwin and Marx. In fact for quite some time, Economics was looked upon as a ‘dismal science’ until the dawn of great scientific discoveries in medicine and agriculture.
Population increase was on account of many factors of which decrease in death rate was a major one. This was largely on account of
· Awareness of personal hygiene
· Improvement in sanitation
· Modern medicine and development of antibiotics.
The other major factor which helped in sustaining an increasing population was advances in the field of agriculture. The development of high yielding variety crops and the resultant green revolution greatly improved food production. Genetically modified crop, though a controversial issue, shows promise of increasing food supply. All these were developments which Malthus did not anticipate.
Increase in population when viewed positively is beneficial. With more hands available, theoretically there is scope to produce more. But there are problems lurking beneath and one such is the case of aging population. For example those above 80 constitute just 1% of the total human population, but it is estimated to increase to 4.1% in 2050. This is going to be enduring because we will not return to the young populations that our ancestors knew. This implies reduced productivity and demand for a productive labor force. As labor force comprises of the young, shortages in manpower are bound to arise in many parts of the world, which is an anomalous situation.
Even more daunting would be aspect on the impact on environment. As more people clamor for living space the pressure on arable land, potable water, forests is bound to increase. In fact according to a Rand Corporation report (Lori Hunter, Environmental Implications of Population Dynamics) global water consumption increased six fold between 1900 and 1995, which was more than double the rate of population growth. Population migration is also bound to increase which would result in crowded cities and complex urban management problems.
The need for energy is bound to increase, particularly in developing economies. With fossil fuels diminishing at an alarming rate, the temptation to switch over to bio-fuels is strong. This means more and more forests and arable lands are going to be used and less lands available for agriculture .This is what prompted UN to describe population explosion as an “opportunity” to promote “seven billion actions” for environmental sustainability. Can we succeed in this mission…….let us hope we do.