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By Tom Leger

The human population of Planet Earth has doubled since mankind visited the Moon some fifty years ago. It now stands at 7.5bn. Photo: NASA

When Sir David Attenborough’s well publicised documentary about the future of life on this planet was aired on the BBC a month or two ago, it in many respects lived up to its promised aim of bringing us all a stark warning about our continued refusal to face up to the realities of global. However, it seemed not to address a number of very large elephants in the room, preferring instead to focus on asking people in the West to avoid some of the worst offences when it comes to profligate environmental abuses (such as not buying items that are flown around the world to their markets, as air-travel is reckoned to be 100 times more polluting than ship-freight).

Sir David urged us to make the best use of food, given that so much is wasted in the developed world – some studies suggest between a third and a half is thrown away after being bought either by restaurants or for home consumption. How many times do you see plates loaded with uneaten food being cleared away in American movies? Fairly frequently has to be the answer. On the other hand, approximately half of all food is wasted in parts of the third-world after it is harvested, but before it reaches the markets, as a result of poor transport infrastructures and lack of proper storage facilities.

(According to the documentary, if we, in this country, were to significantly reduce our food waste and buy fewer plastic-coated products, it is reckoned we might each reduce our carbon-footprint by up to two tonnes out of the 13 tonnes of CO2 we produce as individuals each year.)

The TV programme made much of the potential rise in global temperatures, which some scientists now believe might be as much as 5 degrees by the end of the century (as opposed to the 1.5 degree-target currently being considered).  However, it seemed to downplay the actual consequences of the rise in sea levels – one of the most obvious results of the temperature increase.

According to current studies of the Greenland icecap, which is melting at far greater rates than had previously been thought, the loss of that ice alone would raise sea-levels by some 7m – that’s almost 23ft in proper measurement. What is more, forecasts produced in the 1990s, which predicted this might happen over tens of thousands of years unless “something extraordinary happened to speed things up”, have been proven to be ominously prescient: something extraordinary has happened and the rate of ice-loss has quadrupled since 2003, and continues to increase year on year. In fact, for the first time ever, rain is falling as water in the middle of Greenland’s winter, leading to increased melting of the ice on which it lands.

(A very recently published study now shows that some glaciers in the region are melting 100-times faster than had been previously estimated.)

But what of those elephants mentioned above? They are going to be painful to acknowledge and will lead to much debate as to how we address them – for they cut to the heart of what many on this planet take to be fundamental truths and not up for negotiation. Sir David briefly mentioned one of these in the very first part of the programme – the human population explosion. He pointed out that since the first image of the Earth rising above the Moon was taken by the Apollo astronauts, (fifty years ago last week), the human population has doubled and stands at some 7.5 billion. However, that overall figure hides some harsh facts.


“It took over 200,000 years of human history for the world’s population to reach 1 billion, but only 200 years more to reach 7 billion.”

Today, the world’s two most populated countries, China and India, contain 36% of the world’s population. Africa is the second most populated continent, with around 1.28 billion people, or 16% of the world’s population. But delve into that number and another stark prediction emerges.

According to UN population projections issued in 2012, those 1.3 billion people in Africa are going to multiply to a staggering 4.2 billion by 2100, an increase of 2.9bn people. This compares with a predicted growth for the whole of rest of the world of about 0.45bn in the same period (including predicted reductions in the population of Europe).

Given the historic tendency for division into local groupings in Africa, and the resultant conflicts stirred-up on the grounds of religion, wealth (as in exploitation of oil and mineral resources) or territorial interests, it is seen as being unlikely that artificial famines caused by those local conflicts are going to lessen, and indeed will probably considerably worsen as pressure on land increases. Throw in the fact that increasingly large areas of Africa are likely to be lost to desertification and the picture looks decidedly grim.

Desertification of Sub-Saharan Africa is now occurring at a rate of 20,000 hectares of land each year: that’s about 50,000 acres. In 2016, a prediction was made by the UN that some 50m people would have to migrate to avoid the spread desertification by a specific year; that year was 2020.  The drying-out of Africa continues apace. For example, it is reckoned that 70% of Ethiopia and 80% of Kenya are now at risk and some 320 million hectares, or 788 million acres, are vulnerable to desertification in Africa as a whole. Just to put that in context, that’s an area five and a half times the size of the UK. It is about 8% of the whole of the African land mass but, more importantly, is equivalent to over 36% of Africa’s currently available agricultural land.

So how do we even begin to reconcile such huge population increases with the equally vast losses of farming land needed to feed those people? (Even after assuming that the current huge exports of food and produce from Africa to China will be moderated.) Something will have to give, and we now have to face facts and accept that it is we, the Human Race, that will have to adjust. This is not going to be easy, and so we come to another elephant: religion and cultural beliefs.

Many religions today strongly oppose the concept of population control by way of contraception. In a recent conference about birth control in Africa, a woman’s group argued in favour of providing contraception on the grounds that it would free more women to continue their education, pursue careers and, at the same time, help reduce population growth.   They were supported by UN agencies as well as international health organisations. They were opposed by senior members of the Catholic Church who argued it is a sin against nature and God. Similarly, Islam also regards it as wrong, as children are a gift from Allah.

And so the average recorded number of children born to Sub-Saharan African families is over 5. A woman in Niger bears over 7 children on average, and the DR Congo and Mali just under 6. Elsewhere on the continent figures can be just as high: in Somalia it is over 6.

By comparison, the UK figure is 1.87 and in Germany its only 1.5;  the Chinese rate is a comparable 1.6. However, the figures for European countries, for example, are increasingly hiding the fact that as the main, local-ethnic groups are having fewer children, the birth rates for women born outside those countries, or who come from ethnic groups that have migrated to Europe, are usually higher.  It is a simple statistical fact that, as the local ethnic populations decline, and unless “migrant birth-rates” also fall to the same levels, then at some point the birth rates for the “incoming populations” will start to represent the “norm”, and birth rates will again start to climb.

In fact, there are signs that cultural norms for migrant populations are influenced by local practises. In the UK, for example, birth rates for ethnic minority groups are declining faster than local ethnic rates, albeit they are starting from a higher initial level.

In many cases the notion of having many children is also rooted in practical considerations such as having young people around to look after parents in their old age. But modern lifestyles and medicines increasingly bring those beliefs in question.

Many of us will have watched programmes on the TV about the huge efforts made to eliminate diseases such as Malaria or the often lethal viruses found in the tropics. Teams of UN-sponsored medics are sent into the most inaccessible settlements, carrying expensive and fragile antidotes and vaccines. On the plus side, local children are no longer subjected to the horror of those diseases. However, in a culture where less than 50% of children traditionally might have lived to adulthood, that figure might now be 90% or more. In which case, will traditional farming methods be capable of supporting the rapid increase in local populations? And if not, where do those young people go for food and work? And who in the UN is going back into those areas to explain the new facts of life?

Of course, the same argument could be levelled at the efforts to provide cures for so called “Western” diseases such as cancer or type-2 diabetes, the latter increasingly reckoned to be the result of over-consumption of some sort.  The absolute requirement for doctors to save and preserve life, both at the start and ending of that life-cycle, is another area of growing debate. Why do we in the West seem so intent upon keeping people alive regardless of the quality of their existence?  Why do so few countries allow for the possibility of ending your life at a time and place of your own choosing?

Given all of the above, how do we, as a world community, start to address the issue of over-population? How do we, in the West, tell someone in a desperately poor backwater without adequate food or shelter – let alone healthcare, that they must not have any more children? How do we, as a world community, start to unpick the teachings of many of the world’s major religions on the topic of birth-control?

In the West, 40% of food is wasted after leaving the shops. In the developing world, almost half is wasted after harvesting and before being processed. Photo: UK gov

How do we respond to appeals for famine relief, when we know that the that the conditions that cause it are so often mad-made? Is it not time to start to forcibly impose conditions on the often ruthless and criminal militias and armies who so frequently drive people from the land and then steal the aid that arrives? For if we cannot get the message across to those groups that this is a global problem and that food aid might indeed not even be physically available at some point in the near future, then we will continue to encourage short-term, violent and selfish interests to override the survival of our planet. And, in the meantime, how do we look after the pitiful victims of that self-serving violence, other than to try to feed them?  

Attenborough’s report made it clear that we in the West continue to behave as if little is at stake. Young people regularly get “wasted” relying upon the health and emergency services to be there. Clothes are bought, worn once and the thrown away. People go on holiday five or more times a year. So many of us think nothing about throwing waste into the streets – just think of the trail of rubbish that seems to be the hallmark of modern fast-food outlets. And, in connection with that last point, we continue to increase in bodyweight as most of us simply consume far too much food.

So how can we expect someone who thinks nothing of emptying an ash-tray of poisonous waste out of a car window, or who seems to think it is OK to fly-tip a van-load of toxic waste into a field-entrance, to take a long term view of the crisis facing our species? How do we get someone to decide not to “make-over” their kitchen in the interests of saving humankind? If it is difficult for us in the developed world to make those sacrifices, then how much more problematic is it for someone with almost nothing in comparison?  

And let us be in no doubt about the true potential costs of not making these changes in the long run. Whether this involves a conscious decision not to have another child, not go on that third holiday, or to keep a perfectly decent car for a few more years: in the end we are going to have to bite the bullet and stop ducking the issue.

We, as a species, are also going to have to face the fact that we cannot leave local groups or communities to sort out some of the major questions of religion, beliefs and culture. We are going to have to be very clear about this and to be brave enough to say to various organisations “your beliefs do not trump scientific fact”.

Sadly, as has been so graphically demonstrated in recent years, even apparently rational groups of people can be led up the garden path to a state of blissful ignorance. And so we now have the most powerful, and one of the most polluting countries in the world, being turned away from efforts to address the future of the planet by a hard-nosed businessman-turned-president. Luckily his views might be overturned within a few years as the US electoral process votes on his record.

But even that might be too late, as many experts, who had previously said we had ten years to start to turn things around, are now revising their views. They now reckon the deadline is two years or less. Which should make us all think very hard about what we can do, as individuals, to help ensure the Earth as we know it, and our species, is going to be around for the foreseeable future. Above all we need to start making those changes today – not tomorrow or next week: today.

The brighter of the two white dots below the rings of Saturn is the Earth. All the hatred, fighting, exploitation and self-advancement so typical of our species is contained in that little spec. It is all we have and, regardless of brave statements about “colonising space”, it is all we are likely to ever have if we continue to treat it as we do today. NASA Photo.

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