Sunday, 23 January 2011

Can the planet cope with the growing population?

This year the global population will reach seven billion people and it is predicted that by 2045 it could reach nine billion. However, can the planet take the cope?
This month I have read two very interesting articles in two different magazines which have both discussed this very issue. I am sure your Geography teachers have mentioned the article in this month’s National Geographic and if you haven’t had the chance to read it yet, I would as it is truly a great article and it manages to link together practically the whole population module (there is a link to the article and a video on the Facebook page).  As I am sure you all know; population theorists are split into two categories – pessimists or optimists. Malthus (pessimist) created his general law on population growth which stated that ‘it necessarily grows faster than the food supply, until war, disease, and famine arrive to reduce the number of people’ in 1798. It is hard to determine whether or not he is right as there has been a population explosion but, even after repeated famines, droughts and wars in Africa for example, historians believe that the world population has not fallen considerably since the Black Death. Instead the  global population has continued to grow most impart due to technological and scientific improvements which have meant that the average life expectancy has risen from 35 years to 77 years. Ehrlich, another pessimist, predicted (in the 1970’s) that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death”. However this too did not occur on the scale Ehrlich predicted due to the green revolution (introduction of high-yield seeds, irrigation and pesticides and fertilizers meant grain production doubled) and although many people are undernourished mass starvation is rare. Ehrlich was right though in terms of his prediction that the global population would explode as, improvements in medicine, saved many people from dying which suggests that population growth is an inevitable side effect of development.

India is a great example of a country which is trying to develop whilst wrestling with the problems associated with a rapidly growing population. Since 1960, India has gained 782 million people and by 2030 its population is expected to exceed China’s. Like Ehrlich, I too, have visited India and can totally support his statement that explained how, in India, there are people everywhere. Clean water, along with food, is one of the main issues in India and this is likely to only get worse as there is growing concerns in India over the country’s water security as all of India’s important rivers originate in Tibet. Tibet is controlled by China who also has issues with water due to falling water tables and the draining of the Yellow River. Threat to India's water security article
 During my time in India I spent 5 days in a school in Chennai that was run as almost a charity and so was free (to a certain extent). From talking to many of the girls at the school I gained the understanding that education totally altered the way they viewed themselves and their futures. Instead of wanting to settle down and have children they now wanted to further their education and have careers first. Children in India, unlike many in more developed countries, don’t take education for granted as they realise that it is the key to the future. They even have a famous saying, which was written in every classroom, in which they ranked teachers just below God. Personally I agree that education is the key to a better future and, from my knowledge of the DTM, I also think that it is key to development. The fertility rate in India is falling, which could be linked to the development of sterilization schemes, but I personally think that it is partly due to the fact that children in India, on average, are a lot better educated than their parents. This has changed attitudes and so, slowly, the idea that the number of children determines social status is being replaced by other ideas. Kerala, which has a literacy rate of 96.6%, is an example of a region in India that supports my belief that education is vital as improvements in education have allowed Kerala to have similar basic human development indices to countries in the developed world.
Space for 7 billion people is not an issue as it is believed that you could fit seven billion people standing shoulder to shoulder in the city of Los Angeles. Even if by 2045 there are 9 billion people on the planet, living on the six habitable continents, demographers believe that the world population density will be just over half of what population density is in France today. Space, therefore, is clearly not an issue but can the world feed 9 billion mouths…….

An article in last week’s New Scientist outlined the findings of the five year modelling exercise performed by INRA and CIRAD (French national agricultural and development research agencies) which suggested that ‘we don’t need to starve in order to preserve the environment’. The results of this model suggested that ‘realistic yield increases could feed everyone, even as farms take measures to protect the environment, such as preserving forests or cutting down on the use of fossil fuels’. To be able to feed 9 billion people the INRA said that waste needs to be prevented as on average, the model calculated that the rich waste up to 800 calories worth of food a day.
 The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers also released a report this week that sided with a more optimistic view of how we can solve the issues created by population growth. The report says that ‘to sustain our future Earth, even as the population hits 9 billion, we already have all the technical fixes we need’. The report claims that the only things preventing this are politics and economics. The report uses the examples of how “market failures” are preventing low carbon energy technologies being used and how, they believe, we produce enough food already to feed 9 billion people but that 2/3 fails to reach mouths, to support their report. In terms of providing water the report says “Forget large dams: increased water storage should come from recharging aquifers with treated waste water and floodwaters”. The report recognises that, as population grows, urbanisation will increase and so slums will become more of an issue but instead of demolishing them the report says that they need help to improve as otherwise they will just return.

Personally I am undecided on whether or I would class myself as a population pessimist or optimist as I agree with parts of both Malthus’ and Boserup’s argument as GM crops and renewable energy sources are examples of how we are developing solutions to problems caused by population growth but, on the other hand, what would the size of global population be if countries had not experienced loss through famines, droughts, wars and natural disasters?
On a totally different note, I think the A2 students are about to start a climate module and in the same edition of the New Scientist there was an interesting article on climate predictions and how they are formed. It also explains why predictions differ so much and change frequently. I was surprised to discover how much bearing clouds have on whether or not countries will face warming or cooling as some clouds (high, thin ones) tend to stop more outgoing radiations (low thins ones would have the opposite effect and cool the climate). Also that both the size of a clouds water droplets and the holes within the cloud greatly affect a clouds ability to reflect incoming radiation. Even if you are not studying climate I think it is an interesting read for anyone doing Geography (to view the article online go to this link , click on the first article and then you have to register to see it but it’s free to do so).
I am really sorry about the length but I didn’t realise quite how much I had written until I had finished it.  I promise I will try and make them shorter in the future…..

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