T. Vijayendra argues that today’s population explosion is essentially a product of cheap oil, and that the end of oil means we will be forced to consider a new approach to population which many would find unpalatable now – but would ultimately help humans strike a balance between population and resource consumption
The twentieth century was unique in history in many ways. Its hall mark was the availability of cheap oil. It has given us air travel, auto mobiles, electronics and other marvels of science and technology. It also gave us the two world wars, the nuclear bombs, global warming and an increase in world population to three times.
The population problem is a complex one, and has been debated since the times of Malthus and Marx. In the past leftists maintained that it is not a real problem, but a creation of capitalism. Some say that if you have one mouth, then you also have two hands. Others point out that every adult can produce food for three people, and so on. However, in the last few decades resource constraints of planet earth have been recognised and meeting the needs of the present population of seven billions appears as a severe challenge.
The Population Problem
Human population has grown because humans can modify the environment to suit themselves – and to a greater degree than any other species. While the invention of fire and stone tools were important, a significant change occurred around 12,000 years ago, when agriculture was introduced. Agriculture provided food security by increasing the shelf life of food (mainly grains), and in turn increased population.
Over time, more and more land came under cultivation, increasing dramatically over the last hundred years. Since 1921, when the green revolution began, food production has increased rapidly and so has population. The green revolution is essentially based on fossil fuels, primarily cheap oil. Farm machinery runs on oil. Both chemical fertilisers and pesticides are derived from oil. Often irrigation pumps run on oil or on electricity, which in turn is often produced by burning coal, another fossil fuel. Food processing and distribution is again based on oil. In fact, we have been eating oil!
Today, oil and petroleum products – the basis of modern agriculture – is depleting. At the same time the land is degraded and due to vanishing of forests, wetlands and grasslands our food and water security is also diminishing. The loss of flora and fauna only adds to this downward spiral.
To arrest the loss of habitat and to achieve food security, it has been proposed that we embrace organic farming. But it’s doubtful that organic farming can feed today’s population. In 1921, when almost all agriculture was more or less organic, it fed a population of 2 billion only. Today, with a degraded land and a 7.1 billion population, it seems highly unlikely. In short, we are facing the prospect of famine on a planetary scale.
Today’s Population Policy
The aim of a sane population policy today ought to be achieve negative growth, reduce population and then stabilize at zero population growth. In nature, all species have a stable population which fluctuates between negative and positive growth in a narrow band. As a rule, a sustainable population is based on high child birth rate and high child mortality and normal/low longevity.
High child mortality occurs because almost all animals have predators, which kill the weak and the slow. High child mortality ensures lower growth rate and more effective genetic selection, and therefore a healthier population. Low longevity occurs because the predators kill the weak and the old. Animals that do not have predators (the top of the species) die due to an inability to hunt or digest. For example, tigers die when they become too weak to hunt, whereas elephants die due to losing their teeth.
However, the mainstay of today’s population policy is the opposite of nature’s way. Its goal is to reduce birth rate and reduce child mortality. Popular goals include the ‘one child policy’ and reducing child mortality below 10 per thousand births. The problem with this is that it will give us a genetically weak population. When many births occur, some are genetically weak and some are strong. Often the genetically weak don’t survive. That gives a healthy population, as is found in nature. With fewer births and reduced child mortality the proportion of the genetically weak will increase. And with longevity increasing, we will have a greater proportion of the aged, increasing the burden of old age care and pension funds.
This is a highly unsustainable policy and so far it has failed to reduce the world population, and that’s mainly because the problem itself is not understood well.
Human species did not have such an unsustainable policy in the nineteenth century. We had high child birth, high child mortality and longevity was below 50 years. In a way, the current policy is also related to cheap oil. It produced healthcare facilities that allowed reduced child mortality and increased longevity. It created a new morality which said that reduction of child mortality and increased longevity is desirable and good. Later on, frightened by the exploding population, planners arrived at the present policy of low birth rate and low child mortality. High longevity also became a desired goal.
Now, with the depletion of oil, this policy is becoming very expensive and unsustainable. New policies will be forced on us by the failure of the present policies. However, it is possible to articulate the new policies, even if it appears a bit unpalatable from the point of view of the new morality that humans have acquired in the twentieth century. In passing, we may observe that the poor of the world did not get the benefit of the new policies and are relatively less affected by this new policy and its accompanying morality.
The New Policies
Abandon all birth control and reduction of child mortality policies. In case of difficult births, always save the mother first – in most cases, she will give birth to a healthier child next time. High birth rate and high child mortality will give us a smaller and healthier population. However, women should have the choice to practise birth control or have medical termination of pregnancy.
Do not encourage longevity. Make all health care above 60 years mainly palliative. Do not do any medical intervention just to increase life unless it improves quality of life also. The slogans should be, ‘Prevent untimely death, but don’t prolong the death of the old’ and ‘Add life to your years and not years to your life’.
Old people are often ready to die. It is the young who find it difficult to accept death. This has enabled the medical profession to introduce expensive and irrational geriatric care and prolong death. It is important for all of us to accept the inevitability of death and prepare us for it and enable the old to have a good life and a good death.
Make euthanasia after 70 liberal and easy and even encourage it by respecting it. Provide good facilities for euthanasia and even help the people to celebrate it by having a positive attitude towards it. We should treat euthanasia as having a conscious option for a good death.
The aim of a sane population policy today ought to be achieve negative growth, reduce population and then stabilize at zero population growth. As a rule, a sustainable population policy is based on high child birth rate and high child mortality and normal/low longevity. Today it should also include a healthy population, which enjoys a good life and a good death too. This will need a healthy attitude to death and euthanasia too.
We may not all agree to it today, but a post carbon society will have to learn to live with reduced resources and a rational policy towards many things we take as given today.