The human being is the most successful species that ever inhabited this planet and there seems to be no end to our expansion policy. We have built in the desert, on the ice, on the sea, on mountains and everywhere else. We have tamed animals, the environment and energy, but have been unable to tame our appetite. Although nothing seems to be able to stop our never-ending success, we are discounting two factors: Mother Nature and our own impetuous growth.
As such tragic events as the Chinese earthquake, the Myanmar cyclone and the Asian tsunami demonstrate, there is a real and present threat to our non-stop growth. Those among us born in the baby boom era of the 1940s and 1950s are the first, and probably the last, generation to witness a doubling of the human population from three to six billion within their lifetimes.
Scientists predict that we will continue to grow to nine billion in the next 50 years or so, at which point we will reach a plateau and the process will start to reverse due to a number of elements.
In some countries – Japan and Italy, for example – this reversal is already under way because the younger generation is not as sexually productive as preceding ones. Their citizens are slowly greying, with studies indicating that both nations will lose about a third of their populations by 2050 if the current trend continues.
In the world today, every third person is either an Indian or a Chinese, and we are witnessing continuing high growth in the first as it adds the equivalent of the population of Australia every year, a process that will put a lot of strain on the country to make sure that these new Indians are adequately provided for in terms of health, education and employment.
India being the democracy it is cannot adopt such programmes as the one-child only policy that its neighbour China has followed for the last 30 years. Within the next decade, because of the advent of the sonogram and due to the general bias of having a son rather than a daughter, there will be 40 to 60 million additional men than women in China. To put things into context, imagine France or the United Kingdom without a single female.
The result will be an army of men who cannot marry; men who cannot find a partner because she does not exist; men who will be young, frustrated, and who will probably blame the system and the government that denied them a mate. The scenario could not be more alarming for the emerging superpower and one that is not being addressed adequately by its government. Ultimately, the result of this gender discrepancy could have serious implications such as social unrest, human trafficking and forced prostitution.
Mother Nature aside, no other species other than humans has the power (and sometimes the willingness) to hurt this planet within a few hours, as the American and Russian theory of nuclear mutual annihilation exemplifies. Both nations stockpile thousands of weapons powerful enough to destroy this planet several times over with a turn of a key or push of a button.
We are also the only species to create diseases, microbes and toxins with malicious intent; from the Holocaust to Agent Orange, Halabja to the mystery chemicals of the three Gulf wars. Things could look uglier still if we so choose. Two hundred years after the predictions of the English political economist Thomas Malthus in The Principle of Population we see his forecasts coming true.
In addition to natural occurrences he argues that "the vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation". Natural causes such as earthquakes and human vices such as war will conspire to keep humanity in check. Earth cannot provide for several thousand million people who all want to consume equally, democratically and with a ferocious appetite.
We can only continue to pollute, squander resources, waste water, buy houses and cars, cut down trees and forests, wipe out animal and plant species, and mismanage our population growth for, at best, a few more decades before either Mother Nature or our gross reckless negligence steps in to keep us in check. One way or the other, sooner or later, something has to give. Indeed, we do reap what we sow.
The column first appeared in The National on May 25th 2008