Population paralysis

Saleem H Ali May 17, 2010

Earth Day was celebrated with much gusto all over the world this year. There was anger about the failures of the Copenhagen Summit and much consternation about coal mining, oil rigs and human impacts on the planet. The Pakistani environmentalists may have felt a particular aplomb as well regarding their accomplishments from last year. Over 300 volunteers planted half a million mangrove saplings in a day, thereby blazing them into the Guinness Book of World Records. Well done! But let’s hold the applause.

Notably absent from any dominant conversation was the issue of population growth — an issue which had galvanised a generation of environmentalists 40 years ago when Earth Day was first celebrated. So what happened to the high priests of population growth that animated environmentalism in yesteryears? Many of them have been overcome by guilt about consumption of wealthy countries and feel embarrassed to talk about population growth. Others have become sanguine about population because the oracles at the United Nations have ordained that the world’s population will stabilise around nine billion by 2050 or because countries like Spain and Italy are actually seeing a decline in population.

Still others have started to use simplistic measures of environmental impact such as carbon footprints as a measure of our projected wellbeing in years to come. Indeed, if carbon footprints are your dominant measure then western countries will no doubt wear a badge of shame. But wait a minute. In terms of measures of human suffering we cannot neglect the very local impacts of conflict and access to livelihoods. Population growth remains an enormous challenge in countries like Pakistan, where we are expected to double our population within the next 50 years. Burgeoning birth dates are the single most consequential cause for our woes from load shedding to fanaticism.

Furthermore, the largest population growth that is still persistent worldwide is in some of the highest per capita consumption countries as well — namely the Gulf states of the Middle East. To make matters worse, the largest family sizes for cultural reasons is among the most ideologically radical populations. Note that fanatical elements in Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the ones who want the most kids. The moderates are thus being outnumbered by the procreative power of the fanatics.

Another unknown variable is how science and technology will raise human life expectancy. Researchers such as Aubrey De Grey in Cambridge, England are working hard to reverse the aging process itself! Even if population is controlled globally, those who are so poor certainly deserve a slightly better standard of living — even if they don’t end up in mansions. Gone are the days when scholars like Garrett Hardin were proposing “Life Boat Ethics” that advocated apathy toward the poor and the elderly or condoned a demise of populations to sustain “spaceship earth.” For ethical reasons, we do want to extend life where possible and environmentalism has been more universally humanised.

However, this has also led to a conundrum of finding ways to best address our fundamental resource constraints. Educating communities through secular and religious means about population growth and consumption is part of the solution. This will need to be coupled with regulatory incentives for smaller family size. If people still want more children or end up living longer, technology will also be an essential ingredient in our strategy to deal with these challenges of balancing pluralism and planetary carrying capacity.

So as we reminisce on last month’s celebrations of Earth Day, let’s resolve that population, consumption and technology remain essential components of our ecological trinity. Pakistan needs to refocus efforts on population control through a more deliberate campaign of family planning while also seeking technologies to grapple with our existing resource needs. No longer can we use religion as an excuse in this regard. Other Muslim states such as Bangladesh and Iran have dramatically reduced their population growth. Surely we can accomplish the same if we can shift our focus from quantity to quality in our national psyche.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 18th, 2010.


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