The time to act was yesterday, but today might just do the trick!
The world has existed for 4 billion years and sustained life for 3-bn of those. Man came on the scene a mere 200,000 years ago, but his impact has been so disproportionate that scientists are already calling our era the Anthropocene age — that is the Age of Humans.
Presently the world population stands at 7.6bn. Already 800m people do not have enough to eat, and we are adding another 85m mouths ever year! The Earth simply cannot sustain these numbers. The signs and symptoms of Earthly Dis-Ease are everywhere — from long droughts to gushing murderous floods, from extreme cold spells to sweltering high temperatures, from destructive typhoons to all-engulfing tsunamis, from devastating earthquakes to rising sea levels, and more. But rather than tackle the main cause — overpopulation — we concentrate our best efforts on the effects, the symptoms.
Thus we have the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) programmes to reduce CFC emissions, reduce plastics, reduce pollution, increase renewable energy sources, ad infinitum. But no one speaks of population reduction. Why over here in Mauritius, we even have some clever Government members extolling couples to make more babies… as a solution to the greying population. However nobody says how to ensure that these children grow up to become responsible, productive citizens and not malingering delinquents who scrounge on the rest of society!
For 190,000 years of his existence on Earth, Man fed himself by hunting animals and fish and gathering fruits and insects which had minimal effect on the environment. Then 10,000 years ago began the Neolithic Revolution. He discovered how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. From this, he progressed to primitive agriculture and breeding animals.
But in order to access land for farming, he had to resort to the slash-and-burn (SAB) method that involves the hacking and burning of primal forests. And because the fertility of such land tends to decline with time, deforestation became a recurring activity. Thus more and more forests were lost with time. Even today Brazil loses 1.25m (yes million!) acres of rain-forest every year to SAB.
However SAB can only sustain relatively small populations. In order to feed a burgeoning world population of billions, it has become necessary for many decades now to adopt intensive farming techniques. Thus vast swathes of the Earth’s surface have been razed of all endemic vegetation and massive amounts of inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used to increase the production of crops and animal protein. With the result that today agriculture and farming occupy 65% of global land. But the farmer’s gain is Nature’s loss.
A rich source of protein, the oceans have not been spared. To quell Man’s hunger — some would say greed — parts of the oceans have been overexploited whilst others have been rendered completely barren.
We know that primitive Man lived in caves. But as he became civilized, he began to develop a taste for houses which are usually far too big for him — with rooms reserved for all manner of uses including one for the occasional guest. Today urban sprawl has replaced large tracts of the natural habitat, with residential and commercial buildings, roads and decorative spaces.
Consequently 25% of global land is today occupied by buildings and connecting infrastructure. In Mauritius we have gone one better. To paraphrase Tevye — the main character from the play ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ — we have built “One road going up, one road coming down and one more leading nowhere just for show.” Island-wide, a proliferation of heat-generating concrete jungles is daily replacing cooling green fields and trees. Artificial lighting and heating of man-made artefacts have lead to incremental changes in atmospheric temperatures. The buzzword today is global warming, and this is already affecting the flowering of certain fruit trees like the litchi.
As science and technology have advanced, Man has gone into the production — of the useful and useless — that would frighten his pre-Neolithic ancestor. From disposable nappies to throw-away razor blades, from aspirins to artificial fruits, from toy drones to supersonic jets; and of course the ubiquitous plastic bag! The range of modern invention and manufacture seems limitless.
But in order to produce these, he needs to dig the raw material out of the ground and put it through production lines. Apart from defacing the Earth’s surface and depleting natural resources, manufacturing processes are a major cause of pollution. The American Society of Landscape Architects enumerates six ways in which Man is geo-engineering the Earth, whereby “many geologically significant conditions and processes have been profoundly altered by human activities.” The six problematics are CO2 emissions, draining rivers (and lakes), black carbon, industrial agriculture, reef destruction and plastic production. Can any of these be reversed? Unlikely! At best we can reduce them by reducing the demand from ever-growing populations.
Man already occupies 90% of global land, leaving only 10% for wilderness and wild life. Much of primal rainforest has disappeared forever. The Earth’s finite resources are dwindling fast and the environment is becoming more polluted with each SAB/manufacturing/motoring/flying/shipping day. This has left some major cities like Delhi and Beijing gasping, with air that is toxic to breathe. Others are bound to follow soon.
Against this background, palliative measures are doomed to failure. Laudable as they may be, the 3Rs – Reduce, reuse, recycle – will not be effective in saving the world; we are consuming resources faster than the Earth can replace them. What is needed to avoid the Armageddon that is staring us in the face is action on population growth. Failure to act will result in catastrophes on the Malthusian scale. Natural disasters, wars, famine, global warming and rising sea levels are but the trailers of a much more frightening scenario.
Stop Now: It is high time the UN — the world representative body — convinced its members to get their acts together and pass a resolution to reduce fertility with immediate effect. If Man is to save the world and continue enjoying life on Earth, it is imperative that he reduces population in the shortest possible time.
As a matter of fact, the time to act was yesterday, but today might just do the trick!
* Published in print edition on 16 February 2018