31 October 2011

7 billion and counting

Today the world reached 7 billion. It is quite fitting that the 7 billionth baby was born in India, in a place called Lucknow and is a girl - there seems to be a poetic coincidence in all this. Beyond the celebration of a new life, there is a darker reality of how the world is going to support 7 billion people.

Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb recently gave an interview that emphasized how population growth is adding to many ecological problems. Population growth is leading to rising food prices, loss of biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystem services, water shortages, contributing towards epidemics, and scores of other problems. By 2050, it is projected that the Earth will support an additional 2 billion people.

These 2 billion people will not enjoy the same comfort of life as the last 2 billion. In order to support the excess population, we have to start farming poorer land, mine from even-poorer ores, drill deeper for water -- all of these will be exponentially more energy intensive.

Talking about population control means talking about sex education, women's empowerment, education of the girl child and scores of other social issues. I believe in India there is a cultural pressure to reproduce - this needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, although birth rates do seem to be falling, it is falling in the urban middle-class. Birth rates have remained the same in rural areas which means that poverty is also on the rise and the rich/poor divide continues to grow larger.

Enforcing a one child policy in India would be disastrous as it would further skew sex ratios. The solution therefore, needs to be the old one of education and awareness. Availability of contraception and birth control measures is one option. Adoption needs to be encouraged, especially in India as an alternative to IVF. The craze for IVF needs to be discouraged - maybe falling fertility rates is Nature's way of telling us that we need to slow down.

Although reproduction is a personal choice - it is not something that can be taken lightly. Bringing children into a world with increasing socio-enviro-economic problems, more diseases, less biodiversity, less natural resources would be selfish on our part.

There are theories that suggest that population will level off, mid-century and then there will a gradual decline. In this case, economic productivity will also decline, but it would be good for the environment. However, if we take care to ensure that we keep our numbers in check, we might be able to have both. Wishful thinking?

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