How Many People Can the Earth Sustain?

Let’s start by being kind to each other, and we will welcome being enriched by all kinds of more humans

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

With age we tend to forget things and events, except those that are associated with specific, determining points in our lives. As I was walking with a new acquaintance at Trou-O-Cerfs the other morning, braving the cold, the rain and the wind, we tried to think of when was it that we experienced a similar winter in Curepipe. My companion had a ready reply: 1999, he said, that’s when I moved to Curepipe from Bel Air.

He went on to explain that his children were then attending college here. The family had to be up at 5 am, and have the children ready to take the 6 o’clock bus. And of course they came back home late as well, tired. Thus the decision of the parents. Talk about sacrifices parents never cease to make for their children…

Anyway, to come back to our subject: afterwards I remembered a rather hard winter, with much Curepipian rain (which is found nowhere else in the island), a few years later, probably in 2003. The evenings have been particularly cold for the past couple of days, and as I am lazy to go pull out the heater, I am all emmitouflé once I am in to settle down for the night. I am not a great fan of television, so surfing the internet and reading constitute my two main coping mechanisms during such times. And as usual, I foray into my collection and pick up something from the not too recent past, to feel the warmth of the nostalgic and the familiar.

Thus it was that day before, I retrieved from my bookcase, tucked in a corner beside books bought from FNAC in Marseilles eons ago, a copy of the ‘India International Centre’ Quarterly, a winter 1988/spring 1989 issue. Like all such publications of the IIC, which it is always a pleasure to visit when I am in New Delhi, it invariably contains scholarly articles from international contributors, most often visiting speakers to the Center during workshops or seminars and so on.

That issue was devoted to the challenges that mankind would face in the coming millennium, and I quote from the preface by the editor, Sima Sharma: ‘The tallest among the coming waves, we are told, are those of globalization and modernization, both rising proudly from within the realm of western post-industrial civilization, driven by an overheated techno-economic system. They bring the prospect of increasing alienation and marginalization of the human element. For, the emerging global civilization is neither so global as to include the majority of mankind nor so civilized as to satisfy the deep human needs of its included segments. She concludes, ‘There is hope that the right questions, at least, shall be churned out of the myriad intellectual transactions at the close of the 20th century. To this concourse of questions, we hope, each essay in this volume, makes its own contribution.’

In line with my normal practice on delving into material I have perused earlier, I flipped through the pages, stopping to go over the underlined parts, pondering over the annotations, sometimes remembering the occasions that were associated with such jottings, and the reflections around them, sometimes failing in the effort to recall – but always enjoying the mental trip nevertheless.

On Wednesday morning I had attended the launching of a workshop on the occasion of World Population Day, and as I sat listening to the ministerial intervention prepared for the occasion by the Chief Demographer of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life, and looked at the houseful of participants, a question came to my mind: Are more people a problem for the world? Yes, more people would mean more mouths to feed, more jobs to be created, more housing needed. But surely we human beings, what with our intelligence and resourcefulness, were capable enough to take up the challenge?

And so it was that the essay by historian-demographer Arthur E. Imhof aroused my curiosity. His reflections were about the possible consequences of increased life-expectancy that has resulted from improvements in living conditions and developments in health and medicine, especially in developed countries, especially the impact on social and family structures. He gives an account of the changes that have taken in his own country, Germany, and in Sweden and Japan, and presents them so that developing countries such as India, could draw lessons for the future.

One of the main factors that has allowed people to lead longer lives, with death no more a certainty due to ‘pestilence, war, famine’, has been the conquest of several infectious killer diseases through sanitation, vaccination and treatments, and their successful control in developed countries, especially those where political and social stability prevail. As a result, in developed countries, there is a growing proportion of older people living with more of the man-made diseases known today as the non-communicable diseases. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the term ‘epidemiologic transition’ (from communicable or infectious to non-communicable diseases) was coined not by doctors – as I had always thought – but by historians and demographers.

I recall reading late Arthur Koestler, famous novelist, essayist and journalist, who had affirmed that we have enough scientific knowledge and technological know-how to feed twice the then population of the world, about 6 billion. I am sure this view is still valid, but it is projected that the world population will stabilize to around 9 billion by 2050. So if we play our cards well, essentially stop killing each other because of our hate for ‘The Other’ or our megalomania for power grab, and concentrate on encouraging and supporting further research in science, technology, the humanities, and the host of other fields that have sustained us so far, I do not see any reason why we cannot cope with increasing numbers of humankind.

Let’s start by being kind to each other, and we will welcome being enriched by all kinds of more humans. What a warm prospect for the future…

* Published in print edition on 13 July 2012

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