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Are we destroying ourselves?

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( August 5, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) During the weekend, I read a fascinating book – the latest thriller by the celebrated and popular author Dan Brown entitled “ Inferno” which is as much a page-turner as his earlier works – “ The Da Vinci Code”, “ Angels and Demons” and “ Digital Fortress” to name a few. Brown’s writing skills are many, among which are the skill and ability to weave a tight plot which connects smoothly, keeping to short chapters which make the book eminently readable and reader-friendly and above all, his relentless capacity for impeccable research. In this sense “ Inferno” is second to none of his earlier works and made me want to revisit Florence and Venice and run off to Istanbul – the three cities which feature prominently in the book.

The theme of the book is the Devine Comedy by famous poet Dante Alighieri and his journey through the three stages of inferno (hell), purgotorio (purgatory) and paradiso (heaven) A genius scientist who is infatuated with Dante’s Inferno and is intent on solving the world's unmanageable population problem releases a virus. Bertrand Zobrist, - the scientist – was convinced that the world would only survive with its resources for another century if the population kept increasing exponentially and he used the exponential growth of viruses which he made airborne to get into people and make them sterile by altering their DNA, to combat the exponential growth of people.

It has been said that a good writer not only makes you think but also makes you wonder. After reading the book, I began to wonder whether the hypothesis of the mad scientist was credible and whether we are actually destroying ourselves. My curiosity was aroused and I began to read more on what the intelligentsia had to say about this issue, and whether the theory in this work of fiction could be validated.

Brown mentions in passing the fundamental principle on the subject, enunciated in 1798 by Thomas Robert Malthus who wrote: “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, but subsistence increases only in a arithmetical ratio.” this is what ecologists call “overshoot.” Overshoot is when a species reproduces to a number that its environment can’t sustain. In other words, as Andrew R B. Ferguson in a journal called “Balanced View” (July 2008) writes: if people are to continue to have enough food to eat, then increase in production must match increase in population. For example, if population changes by a factor of 10 (ten fold) then food supply must change by the same factor of 10. Initially, this can be achieved, in part, by taking more land into cultivation, but today that opportunity is no longer significantly available”.

Let us now see what other intellectuals have said. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader and Nobel laureate said about the population explosion: “ Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim”. Roger Bengston, founding board member, World Population Balance has said: “the point of population stabilization is to reduce or minimize misery”. Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall said: “If we don't halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity- and will leave a ravaged world”. Lester Milbrath, professor emeritus and author, Learning to Think Environmentally (While there is Still Time) said: “We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning”.

Now let us take the data.

In 2011 World Population in reached 7 billion. It has doubled in the past 45 years. Earth's population is increasing by over 140 people every minute. For several years population has been increasing faster than many vital non-renewable and renewable resources. This means the amount of these resources per person is declining, in spite of modern technology. Population explosion is linked to other compelling social and environmental problems ... political instability, loss of freedoms, vanishing species, rain forest destruction, desertification, garbage, urban sprawl, water shortages, traffic jams, toxic waste, oil spills, air and water pollution, increasing violence and crime. These continue to worsen as our numbers increase by more than 70 million more people every year. Solving these problems will be much less difficult when we stop increasing the number of people affected by them.

Life expectancy has greatly increased in the developing world since World War II and is starting to close the gap to the developed world where the improvement has been smaller. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, the least developed region, life expectancy increased from 30 years before World War II to a peak of about 50 years before the HIV pandemic and other diseases started to force it down to the current level of 47 years. Child mortality has decreased in every developing region of the world. The proportion of the world's population living in countries where per-capita food supplies are less than 2,200 calories (9,200 kilojoules) per day decreased from 56% in the mid-1960s to below 10% by the 1990s.

Two billion people live in poverty, more than the population of the entire planet less than 100 years ago. Today there are more people suffering in misery and starvation in the world than ever before in history.

However, population explosion is not just about an increase in the number of people. People consume food, fresh water, wood, minerals, and energy as we go about our daily lives. Producing food, pumping groundwater, harvesting wood, mining minerals, and burning fuel all deplete our resource base and produce pollution.

Here’s my take.

Firstly, population growth has to be managed. For instance, China has a problem that its ageing population is increasing but not in proportion to the increase in births, which means that there will not be a sufficiently large younger generation to look after the aged. Indonesia on the other hand has more than 50 per cent people under the age of 30. Malthus was never proved right, but at the same time never proved wrong. Malthus, as Ferguson writes: “was well aware that Europeans were taking over the lands of Native Americans and thereby introducing more productive agricultural methods. However, taking over other people's lands is a finite process, and when he wrote that “subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio,” he was referring essentially to the potential for increasing the productivity of the land through improved farming methods... Little could Malthus have foreseen the improvements that would occur when full use could be made of fossil fuel energy so as to: make nitrogenous fertilizers, produce pesticides, introduce irrigation schemes, build and use tractors and other agricultural machinery, the latter greatly facilitating farming in areas that otherwise would have been unsuitable. Notwithstanding these unforeseen technological developments, which resulted in changing the arithmetical ratio by which productivity could be increased, his proposition has remained substantially true; and ... this should have been apparent to all about fifty years ago" .

The population explosion problem is real, but one has also to take into consideration that in view of scientific and technological advancement, countries such as Australia and Canada (and even the Russian Federation) where the population is concentrated along the coastline have vast areas of land that could be developed in the future. If science could talk of colonizing outer space, they could certainly start here on Earth. The bottom line is that planning for the deleterious effects of uncontrolled population explosion is a current need. As we all know, the easiest thing for a human to do is to procreate, and procreate they do without control.

Be that as it may, whether we have to selectively sterilize one third of the population as Zobrist tried to do in the book, is another question altogether.