The matter of more...

...the merrier? In terms of population growth, it may not be so.
Last Updated : 07 July 2018, 19:17 IST
Last Updated : 07 July 2018, 19:17 IST

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As yet another World Population Day approaches this Wednesday, July 11, it’s time to take stock of humanity’s explosive growth. Where are we headed? Will we be able to make progress at all through endless traffic jams, and Himalayan mountain ranges of garbage choking our cities? Will we die of thirst and hunger on the way? Billions of hungry mouths are clamouring for their share in the earth’s limited food, fresh water, fuel and other natural resources. Millions more are being born as we read this, adding to the pressures on our beleaguered planet.

Crowds jostle around us for every inch of space. As more people fight to grab a piece of the same economic and natural resources pie, we seem to be losing the urge to cooperate and extend a helpful hand to those around us. Isn’t it suicidal to think that our earth can continue to sustain the unbridled consumerism of our infinitely expanding numbers? And finally, after the dust settles on the workshops, debates, speeches and seminars to mobilise public opinion, and everyone moves on to some other issue, what impact will unbridled population explosion have on ordinary people like us?

Will billions and millions more of us be hell-bent on destroying this planet, and ourselves, along with it? Or will our leaders and policymakers successfully draw a roadmap for a better and more sustainable tomorrow? July 11, 1987, was observed as the Day of Five Billion people on earth. That gigantic five billion has already skyrocketed by another 50% as we read this. In just 31 years since 1987, the total number of people living on this earth has grown to a mind-boggling 7.6 billion in June 2018, according to the most recent United Nations estimates.

Interest in numbers

The Day of Five Billion generated great interest worldwide. By a resolution passed in 1990, the United Nations General Assembly decided to continue the observance of World Population Day. The aim was to draw public attention to pressing population-related concerns. Over 90 countries observed the first World Population Day on July 11, 1990. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) country offices continue the observance in collaboration with various other institutions, governments, and the general public. According to recent estimates by the UNFPA, the world’s population is swelling by around 83 million more people each year. Even if fertility levels continue to decline, we can expect to see 8.6 billion people on our planet by 2030. By the end of this century, there are likely to be a whopping 11.2 people struggling for toeholds on this beleaguered planet. The UNFPA collaborates with many agencies worldwide to deal with the challenges involved. United Nations agencies, governments of various nations, NGOs, religious leaders, faith-oriented organisations and members of the local citizenry are mobilised to spread awareness, influence government policies, and work towards change at the grassroots level.

Improvement in women’s reproductive health and more effective family-planning are a major area of focus for World Population Day and related activities. The challenges are stupendous. While strong progress is being made, around 214 million women in developing countries are unable to avail of safe and effective means of family planning. A large number of such women live in the world’s 69 poorest countries. Countless such women die due to childbirth and related complications. With voluntary family planning, such women would benefit from healthier lives for themselves and their children.

World Population Day also draws attention to related issues such as reproductive health of youngsters, reducing child marriages and teenage pregnancies, right to health, sex education, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and the human right to health and gender equality.

In the words of Al Gore, population growth is straining the earth’s resources to breaking point, and educating girls is the single most important factor in stabilising that. It’s equally vital to help women gain political and economic power and help safeguard their reproductive rights.

We can see and feel firsthand the effects of overpopulation at our doorsteps. Overpopulation is manifest when too many people are crowded into a habitat and straining for their share in the limited resources. There are several factors that lead to overpopulation. An increase in birth rate or fertility rate, and lower mortality rate result in more people and bigger crowds. Influx of migrants also increases the population.

Depletion of resources makes a habitat less able to support people. Anyone who has lived in the Bengaluru of the 90s will recognise the drastic changes. In those good old days, Bengaluru was a pensioner’s paradise. People lived in 40x60 houses on tree-lined, well-planned streets with moderate traffic. The air was much fresher, and sparrows and other birds chirped in the neighbourhood parks where mothers brought their children to play. But, too many things have changed since then. Overpopulation is surely a major trigger for these changes.

In the 90s, municipal water supply came daily. The Thippagondanahalli reservoir on Magadi Road supplied water to our part of town, and occasional tankers and water supply cuts happened only in peak dry season. Every home didn’t have a borewell, and those who did had to dig only a few hundred feet to strike potable water. Today, the Thippagondanahalli reservoir is often dry. Despite pipelines supplying Cauvery water, municipal water supply is only once in several days. Borewells are a must these days, and the water table has plummeted thousands of feet to rock bottom due to overexploitation for meeting the needs of more and more people. Long queues for water are common in slum areas, and too many people waiting too long for too little water sometimes results in quarrels and fisticuffs.

Trees are being cut to widen Bengaluru’s broad avenues, yet this cannot keep up with the ever-growing swarms of cars on the streets. The surviving trees are covered in layers of dust and toxic particles. Many of today’s urban children have never seen sparrows, which are highly sensitive to air pollution. Roads now take ages to cross, and you’re choked by exhaust fumes by the time you make it to the other side.

Friendly communities of independent houses around namma Bengaluru’s quiet parks are shrinking. Large and crowded apartment complexes are taking their place. Once, we knew the families living in the handful of neighbouring houses.

Now, we don’t know all our neighbours on the other floors or blocks in our apartments. I’ve observed this happening in smaller cities like Mysuru and Bhubaneswar as well.

More people are generating more waste. Bengaluru’s rising hills of garbage stand as stinking testimony. In the 90s, a single dustbin could contain the garbage from the handful of households in a lane. Now, huge heaps are visible on many roads. Our unbridled consumerism is causing even more waste. Our greed for polluting motor vehicles and fancy merchandise packed in tons and miles of plastic is creating waste which will not decompose in thousands of years. Bigger carbon footprints are being created by more and more of us. The effects stare us in the face everywhere. The growing demands of more people have already created islands of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Where are we headed at this rate?

Impact much

According to the World Resources Institute, conversion of land to croplands and pastures for grazing cattle has affected around 26% of the earth’s land area. Less than one-fourth of the world’s land area, mainly in the arctic regions and deserts, remains undisturbed. The arable land is becoming less useful due to salinisation, destruction of forests, desertification, soil erosion and encroachment by growing cities. Global warming is likely to flood many of the world’s most fertile farmlands. Meanwhile, as the rural population increases, more people are seeking sustenance from the existing land and water resources. No wonder farmers’ suicides have become a regular affair now. Rural poverty is driving more people to the cities, only to end up as poorly paid labourers surviving on the footpaths and slums. Developing energy sources such as dams to meet the increasing demands will further eat into the finite land resources. Where and how on earth will we grow more food for more people? Where will more people live?

Human behaviour and social dynamics are changing as a result of overpopulation. The word ‘apartment’ is loaded with significance. They create little cocoons to keep people apart in overcrowded spaces. It’s impossible to know hundreds of families living in the same apartment complex, even if you wish to. I also notice how people are wary of new neighbours. They fear encroachment on their time and privacy. Once upon a time, our few immediate neighbours often became family. Today, we prefer to keep to ourselves because we just cannot spread our attention over too many people. Researchers have noted how people, forced to face many strangers in everyday life, are more likely to withdraw and be less involved with the community in order to protect themselves from overload. Other scientific studies indicate that this social withdrawal of city dwellers due to overpopulation explains higher crime rates in cities compared to suburban and rural communities.

Aggression and anti-social behaviour are becoming more visible around us. Incidents of road rage erupt too often these days. People are beaten and manhandled over minor brushes in traffic. While going through airport security recently, I faced rough shouting from an irate fellow-traveller. My crime? While placing my bag on the conveyor belt, I had touched her arm. It would seem that in order to make our way through crowds of strangers, we are forgetting to consider others as fellow human beings.

Disputes over sharing of natural resources have always been at the heart of conflicts. As more people push and claw to get a piece of finite resources, we can expect such conflicts to escalate into wars. Oil and natural gas have already caused wars for control of highly profitable oil fields. Diamonds have fuelled wars in producing countries, and a growing demand for this luxury gemstone will only increase the strife. Demands of an exploding population are putting severe pressure on available freshwater resources. Sharing of Cauvery water has been a bone of contention between neighbouring states for many years now.

We hope our leaders and policy-makers will take steps to address all these concerns. Meanwhile, people like us can help spread the word about the benefits of planned families. We can curb wasteful consumption ourselves, and persuade others to follow our example. Simple steps like closing water taps and switching off lights help conserve resources. Do we really need that second car? How about carpooling, using public transport or walking to our destination? Let’s be conscientious and remember that little drops make the ocean.

Count on Quotes

“We are Earth’s parasites. We multiply and eat Mother Earth away. If Mother dies, parasites die with her. That is why we must save the Earth.” - Billy Connolly, Comedian

“In 1974, I led the Indian delegation to the World Population Conference in Bucharest, where my statement that ‘development is the best contraceptive’ became widely known and oft- quoted. I must admit that 20 years later, I am inclined to reverse this, and my position now is that ‘contraception is the best development’.” - Karan Singh, Politician

"One thing you can say is that in places where women are in charge of their bodies, where they have the vote, where they are allowed to dictate what they do and what they want, whether it’s proper medical facilities for birth control, the birth rate falls.” - David Attenborough, Naturalist

“…democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies. The more people there are, the less one individual matters.” - Isaac Asimov, Author

Published 07 July 2018, 10:46 IST

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