Population, pollution and poverty—or the 3 Ps, as I would like to call them—are topics that greatly concern planners and administrators today, and they are closely linked. British economist and philosopher, TR Malthus, wrote Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798 and created shockwaves around the world saying that population would grow in a geometric progression (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64…) while food production would increase in arithmetic progression (like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…). Malthus had said that it is biologically inherent in all living organisms to multiply fast. Richard Cantillon (an Irish-French economist) reinforced this reasoning by stating that all human beings multiply like mice in a barn.
Later, in 1968, an American economist, Paul Ehrlich, stressed the same through his now famous book, The Population Bomb. Regarding food production, Malthus said that it is subject to the law of diminishing return. On the basis of these premises, Malthus concluded that population would outstrip food supply which would create pollution and poverty.
Now, after about more than 200 years of Malthus’s theory, we see that the world population has increased from about 1 billion to about 7.6 billion, but at a much slower rate than predicted by Malthus. This is because of various contraceptive methods adopted in many countries and also adoption of policies regulating birth in many jurisdictions; Malthus, though, had left some hints about this.
World food production has increased from about 500-600 million tonnes (mt) in 1960-61 to 2,600 mt in 2017-18. This is because of (a) increase in yield from 1.45 tonnes to 3.6 tonnes per hectare, (b) increase in cultivated area from 400 million hectare (ha) to 700 million ha and (c) innovations in agricultural technology, manifested in Green Revolution. This revolution happened much earlier in the Western countries than it did in developing countries like China and India.
My intent is not to prove Malthus wrong. Rather, it was his alarming postulate that created an awakening worldwide (more so in Western countries) regarding adoption of family planning programmes. China’s ‘one child policy’ and adoption of birth control measures in India and other ASEAN countries are some examples. Having said so, one must realise that even an increase from 1 billion (in 1804) to about 7.6 billion today is playing havoc with the planet, which will definitely not be able to sustain larger populations. Imagine, what it would be like if the world population increases to 11 billions by 2100, as has been predicted under some models.
Let me now discuss how this population explosion has given rise to environmental pollution. There are three main reasons: First, the larger the population, the larger is the demand for food and, thus, the higher the requirement for cultivable land. Second, changing lifestyles has led to evolving consumption patterns (what Mahatma Gandhi would have probably termed ‘greed’); more and bigger cars, greater number of TVs, ACs, refrigerators, mobile phones, packaged foods, furniture items, electrical gadgets of several types are being consumed widely and in greater numbers each passing day.
This first started, a long time back, in rich Western countries, and now, it is percolating to the developing nations. To produce all these and other goods, we need more factories (which marks the advent of industrial revolution in 1860s in rich Western nations) with commensurate increase in usage of energy and fuel, and wider roads to move large populations and goods produced to every nook and corner of the country.
Third, we need to create housing for ever increasing populations. All this puts a pressure on the environment and land/space. Thus, forests and water bodies are being destroyed to meet requirement of land, more so in poor countries. As a consequence, species of wild flora and fauna are getting extinct as their habitats do not exist any more or radically altered, resulting in the ecological balance getting disturbed. Not only this, given forests act as carbon-sinks, their destruction is exacerbating global warming. Thus, when it comes to pollution, ever-increasing global population is the culprit.
Further, due to the above human activities, our energy consumption is increasing, which is largely fossil-fuel-based today. This is causing massive emission of greenhouse gases that is responsible for climate change. Heavy vehicular traffic, besides creating noise pollution, is further contributing to these emissions. The carbon emissions in the atmosphere presently stand at about 380 ppm compared 280 ppm about a decade back and, at the current rate of emissions, the threshold limit of 550 ppm may be breached very soon.
Today, we are facing several types of pollution, viz., air, water, solid waste and extremely harmful e-waste/medical/plastic waste, etc. I am not discussing them in details as the issues are well known. However, I would like to talk about the hazards of plastic waste as India is the global host for the upcoming UN World Environment Day—June 5—and the theme this year is ‘beat plastic pollution’. Global plastic production is more than 330 million tonnes per year, while India produces about 8-10 mt, despite comprising 16% of the world population.
Most of the world’s plastic waste ends up in landfills and oceans as recovery and recycling efforts remain insufficient. The oceans are clogged with plastic waste—and e-waste; in fact, enough plastic waste is generated to place one grocery bag full of trash every 6 cm of every nation’s coastline. This is creating marine pollution and is disastrous for marine life. Can one say that this is not due to exploding population?
Poor people are more vulnerable to both increasing population and pollution. Further, poverty itself is the worst kind of pollution, as former prime minister Indira Gandhi had said at the ‘ UN Conference on Human Environment’ at Stockholm in 1972. Thus, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between environmental pollution and poverty. Climate change is adversely affecting agri-production, and the degradation of forests and oceans is reducing the availability of forest produce and marine products on which about 35% of the global population depends.
It is all leading to price rise, affecting the poor the most and on multiple fronts. The loss of fertile land to construction also enhances poverty. Thus, poverty gets aggravated due to increase in population and pollution. To conclude, the world is in urgent need of stabilisation of the population to combat both pollution and poverty.
The Writer is Former ISS officer, former director, CSO, and UN consultant