Population – A Human problem

Last month I quoted an article by Michael Backman writing about population and emissions. Backman assets that population is the major contributor to emissions growth.

Two commentators on the article did not agree with Backman.  John Brisbin comments that  “The only obvious thing about sustainability is the per capita resource usage”. He wants to believe in a world where “20 billion living in peaceful resonance with the planet and requiring only the simplest of material inputs?”

I think that is next to impossible. The past has shown that people cannot be expected to behave like that.
It is tough, I know that from personal experience.

The consumer culture is all fine to moan about however, we need to remember that it is the present culture. There is a limit to what you can expect people to change. We need to work with what we have…and what we have is an increasing consumer culture all around the world.

Also, we need to remember that population as such creates problems in other areas – public health, infrastructure, provision of other services, standard of living etc.

And the second comment from Dani where he angrily writes that “Getting rid of all americans will drop carbon emissions far more quickly than all the population control in South Asia.”

What we need to think about is the future. I think we should not take Backman’s analysis personal. I am an Indian and I do know where you would come from.

We cannot change the past. Can we rid of all the Americans? Totally not possible and not ethical. We need to work with what is possible. Controlling population in South Asia is a very good thing in many ways.

Atanu helped me understand the consequences of population growth many years back. Lets read what Atanu Dey has to say on this:

In 1965, about 40 years ago, there were less than 500 million of us. By 2004, the population of India has more than doubled. The effect of this incredible increase has been a falling standard of living in general, shortages, untold misery and conflict. It is foolish to expect that we can provide a decent standard of living to so many in such a short time. The vast majority of us do not have adequate drinking water, sanitation, health care, education and job opportunities. The preceding statement does not even begin to indicate the amount of human misery and sorrow which it implies. It hides within it the teeming millions who suffer without the slightest hope of ever seeing a future remotely human.

Read the entire article. Atanu talks about the limited time available to create a standard of living for a huge population. In another post he quotes Joel Cohen’s book How Many People Can the Earth Support? (1995). Here Cohen explains the finiteness of time.

The finiteness of time, the second thread in the book, limit’s the abilities of individuals and of societies to solve problems. For each human being, time is finite. I want to eat and drink today. As a privileged inhabitant of a wealthy country, I can postpone buying a new car for several years, but the requirements of poor people for subsistence are not so elastic in time. Those who want firewood to cook a meal today will break branches from the last tree standing if they believe that otherwise their children may not surive to lament the absence of trees 20 years hence. In the American legal system, the finiteness of time to satisfy basic human wants is recognized in a phrase: justice delayed is justice denied.

Efforts to satisfy human wants require time, and the time required may be longer than the finite time available to individuals. There is a race between the complexity of the problems that are generated by increasing human numbers and the ability of humans to comprehend and solve those problems. Educating people to solve problems takes time. Developing traditions of stable, productive cooperation takes time. Building institutions with the resources to make educated people into productive problem-solvers takes time. Even with educated, cooperative people and appropriate institutions at hand, understanding and solving problems take still more time.

Re-read the paragraph above twice. The difference between the commentators and Cohen’s and Atanu’s arguments  is that they accept human wants as a given. And secondly, they work with current statistics and situation in many parts of the world. This is not a Malthusian type of argument for sure. It is far bigger than that.


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