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Saturday, September 7, 2013

7 billion & booming

The last Mogul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar1 had lamented that he was so unfortunate as he didn’t even possess two yards of land for his burial. Well, this is when a person dies, but when alive how much space would he require? Or putting it in a different perspective, how many human beings can this Planet support?  Take a wild guess – did you say ‘sorry’?! That’s not a problem as no one, not even scientists have an accurate answer to this intriguing question.  In fact this has been a very delicate and tricky question to answer; many experts talk about it but avoid a concrete figure. Estimates range from 0.5, 2, and 12 to a whopping 42 billion! With reference to earth supporting 12 billion, calculation is simple – Earth has at present a total of 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres). The 3.5 billion acres would produce approximately 2 billion tons of grains annually. That's enough to feed 10 -12 billion vegetarians, said Wilson2, but would only feed 2.5 billion omnivores, because grains as much as 600 kg/yr has to be dedicated to livestock and poultry as in the United States. But this figure of 1.4 billion hectare is the total land available, one cannot survive only on food, they have many other necessities like air, water and many other things to survive. Thus, it is inappropriate to calculate number of people who can survive on Earth based on 1.4 billion hector of land.
One should remember that in nature, everything has a limit. The size of earth is limited, so is the amount of sun light reaching it. In a plant, size of plant, leaves and the ability of plant to absorb nutrients from environment and produce food for itself and other organisms around is also limited and so there has to be a limit to growth of human population as well as development.  This is not a new concept – it is being said right from the earliest times; we hear about it in Ishavasya Upanishad “"Om Isavasyam idam sarvam yat kin cha jagatyam jagat, tena tyaktena bhunjithah ma gridhah kasyasvid dhanam"”, meaning we should not try to crave and grow beyond limits3. If we do not listen to this advice and act accordingly it is like going against our own selves and committing suicide.
Unfortunately this ambiguity as to the number of people that earth can support prevails among the Scientists, Economists as well as Social workers and Thinkers. Many of them prefer to take shelter under Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quotation,5  “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed”,  – a well-meaning quotation, extrapolated wrongly, stating Earth can support any number of people if they are able to control their needs and of course  greed.  There are other groups, like Earlich2, Club of Rome6, 7, who on the other hand, discussed the subject in detail with the help of computer aided programs and had set a limit to growth as well as population at 6 billion, as early as 1969. But can Earth accommodate  12 billion people ?, or even 6 billion as suggested by Club of Rome6 ?  I am not willing to restrict myself to just a bowl of rice per day (200 kg/year), naturally it is not fair even to think that other humans should confine themselves to 200 kg of grain per year.  Besides, by now we learn the harsh truth that the people of developed countries are not willing to reduce their consumption rate, be it food or energy, so we cannot expect people of other countries to reduce their needs to bare minimum. Besides, living does not mean just food; we need a shelter, water, energy, roads, and entertainment and so on. Which means even at 6 billion as suggested by Club of Rome, we would require resources of three more Earths!

I think the confusion prevails because these calculations refrain from taking environment into consideration. Organisms and their environments are inseparably interrelated8 – and interact to maintain a dynamic balance of material and life cycle.  Without trying to explain the various complicated cycles which involve over 35 elements and their innumerable compounds – it suffices to say that life supporting materials recycle  between Abiotic (physical environment) and Biotic units (living beings). It is a gigantic cycle, involving thousands of tons of these materials.  For example Oxygen - animals’ breathe in and give out CO2, which the plants use to produce food and in the process actually split water using Solar energy to release Oxygen back to Environment. But life cycle is not simply limited to Oxygen and Carbon dioxide; there are other elements and compounds required in right proportion and at right time. Millions of organisms, apart from  plants and animals, help in circulation 35 elements and their innumerable compounds back and forth forming interrelated complex Biogeochemical cycles3. The organisms of this earth, whether microscopic or large, - like Bacteria or diatoms or big animals like Elephants or Whales - join hands to move these gigantic and complex Biogeochemical cycles without which  life will be impossible. Severn Cullis Suzuki9, the girl who silenced the World for 5 minutes, has summarized the idea beautifully by saying that ‘I am 13 million species strong’ . In other words, humans alone cannot live on this plant; they require the help of all the organisms. So we need to take them into consideration as well, in trying to estimate sustainable number of humans that Earth can support. Dr. Doug Hamilton10, person in charge of Astronauts and their requirements on Space Craft, runs lot of experiments to recycle materials. He states that “we find it hard to repeat recycling phenomena of Nature, so appreciate the Mother Nature”. 
(Banner specially created by Author for workshop to Save Western Ghats) 
Dr T V Ramachandra11 of CES, IISc Bangalore estimates that “Eco-services provided by the forests in Gundia river basin (700 hectors) is worth  Rs. 200 billion/year (with food and water security) while aiding the livelihood of ecosystem people”. We compete with other organisms of this planet forgetting that we are totally dependent on them

Environmentalist have been cautioning about these issues,  the concept of Ecological Foot printing (coined by Wackemagel12)  or the more  recent Carbon foot prints,  caution us as to the damage we are causing to the natural systems, and also suggest how to reduce the impact. While the concept of Embodied Energy tries to gauge ecological impact values for artifacts we use like Car, TV or Mobile phone right from resource stage to finished product and use of the same. All these concept need to be deliberated while calculating the size of population that Earth can support.  Phrases like ‘Sustainable growth’ are becoming popular, but growth means demand on resources, bigger the population more the demand, and thus the very concept of Sustainable growth is wrong – the two words are contradictory. The growth is always exponential- just like that for population, and growth cannot be sustained that too with ever growing of population.  Unfortunately the concept of sustainable growth itself is basically wrong – it is an oxymoron13,14. For example, Govt. in India is planning for 8.5% growth rate, which means the demand on resource will double in just 8.25 years. Demographers show that human population took more than 10,000 years to reach a size of 1 billion, but in the recent past it has taken just about 12 years to add a billion. Fortunately, recent UNESCO15 studies show that population growth rate is slowing, and may reach 1.5 % or less, even then by 2050 it is estimated that  population size would be  will  be  9 to 9.5 billion.

The growth is always exponential- just like that for population, and growth cannot be sustained that too with ever growing of population.

We cannot expect people to be satisfied only with 200 kg of food per year, they would all like to enjoy other food, the some modern gadgetry – we cannot deprive our fellow citizens from enjoying fruits of civilizations.  So we need to know how much space is required to provide such devices and then take all these aspects into consideration before we arrive at a sustainable steady state figure of human population.  
One may still argue that science would help us to grow more food as has happened some years ago. Industrialized countries tripled their produce through use of fertilizers and farm machinery.  Fertilizers as well as energy for farm machinery were derived from fossil fuels – but now the fossil fuels are peaking. In fact Albert Barlett13   dubs modern Agriculture as conversion of fossil fuels into food. Dr. Molly Brown16 of NASA scans the agricultural fields of the World through remote sensing techniques.  She states that world has to double the food production, to feed the ever growing population, but there is no more land available.  Besides, the agricultural production is leveling off. Some try to find solace in the fact that modern agricultural practices like Hydroponics  may bailout  the civilization’s food requirement,  forgetting that it is a highly energy intensive method and hence cannot be practiced on an extensive scale and produce food at low cost for the masses.
There are others who look at the fisheries17 for rescue. But the oceans which cover 70% of Earth is also getting polluted, and large trawlers fishing mindlessly in deeper and deeper waters,  fish nets extending several kilometers, cyanide fishing, use of explosives and pollution have upset the food chain of oceans. Aquaculture farming has in fact, worsened the situation further. Monoculture practices of such farms have resulted in diseased fishes and prawns escaping to the sea and spreading the disease to natural populations. In several areas the pollution has resulted in loss of coral reefs. On the other hand, practices like construction of Dams across rivers, have prevented free flow of nutrients from the mountains and forests to the sea. One well studies example is that of Aswan Dam and its effect on decline of fisheries on Mediterranean sea13. Mindless fishing and hunting are so rampant that voluntary organizations like Green peace18 were constrained to launch mega resistance movements to prevent Whales and other large mammals from being hunted.  
Bruce Sundquist’s19 study cautions us about another factor not considered so far. This important parameter is the life supporting top soil, the very foundation of good yield. From his studies extending for over a decade, he estimates that mind boggling 100 billion metric tons of top soil is getting washed down to sea and other sediments and this is about 5 times the amount of top soil nature produces. This loss coupled with excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation practices which increasing water logging and salinity has already resulted in  lowering  crop yield.  It is estimated that at the present rate of depletion, agricultural fields as well as grass lands (on account of over grazing) most of the top soil will be lost, rendering the agricultural fields almost barren in a couple of years.
In fact, the present day agriculture is not in doing well either. Modern agriculture, though displays high yield, has actually a negative energy balance, for we are using fertilizers and farm machinery which are again based on fossil fuels. Packing and transporting food, consume  lot of energy, it is estimated that to process 1 calorie  worth of food 10 calories are used in US10  and at times food is transported over 1500 km, which deprive local soils of their nutrients4.  Moreover,  in the recent past, farm community is attracted by ‘easy’ city life, and many a villages, at least in India, are becoming old age homes – it is estimated that soon 70% of populations will be living in cities. As it is, many villages are experiencing severe shortage of farm labor, constraining the use of farm machinery.  But where will they go for fuel to run them? I feel the electric tractors and other farm machinery will have to be evolved. , and these will be running on electricity generated in the villages from Solar Chimney21.
On more major limiting factor is fresh water. It is said that the water and not the fossil fuel, will be the cause of 3rd world war. Experts like Dr. John Cronin22 feel that our economy is controlled by water and not fossil fuel. Further, he feels that there are many options for Energy source but no option for fresh water. A report in January of 1997 from Stockholm23 indicated that by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world’s people will suffer from water shortages, and the report also noted that the rate of use of fresh water was growing at twice the rate of world population. It is now a common scene to see long Qs before public tap; local governments are spending huge amounts to provide drinking water to its residents, while on the other hand even the sacred rivers are getting polluted.  So much so, many countries and states of USA have already planned to convert sewage water into drinking water.  Most of the rivers are dammed, and yet people in ample rain fed areas, rain water storage is becoming common. But rain water storage will not help in agriculture.  Agriculture uses lion’s share of currently available fresh water. Besides, we tend to forget that processed food also requires huge quantity of fresh water. For example, one cup of Coffee actually needs 120 lit of water, one bottle of bear can be made only after spending 150 lit of water, to grow cotton enough to knit a shit, will require 3000 lit of water. However, over optimistic people like late Julian Simon24, a longtime policy advisor to US Govt., do exist and air ridiculous comments like, “there is no need to worry about shortage Copper, we can make it from other metals”.  We are exploiting every source of fresh water on earth, wells, bore wells, and many other sources, some of which can’t be replenished.  Many say desalination of sea water is the answer, but it is a highly energy intensive and costly process and we cannot hope to get adequate amount of water for our activities especially agriculture. Fortunately, nature provides us with lot of fresh water in the form of rain, but not enough to cleanse the rivers we are polluting. We are yet to learn to make wise use of rain water. Similarly it is becoming clear that first grade ores are getting depleted, and what would be available for our next generation is only second or third grade ores.
There is one more important aspect to be considered, the Exponential growth of population, the root cause of most of the preset problems and the very subject of this essay.  Better living standards, modern medicine and food have increased the life span of us humans.  We have practically eliminated most of the negative population controls. Excessive greed and flare for comfort has resulted in Global Warming which threatens mass extinction of other species on which we are totally dependent.   This exponential growth of human populations has led to steady degradation of living standards as well as environment.  Our numbers have grown from 6 billion to 7 billion in just about 12 years. There are clear indications of over population – like starvation deaths and increase in poverty. It is estimated that there are over 50 million poor people in US too. Added to this, we have several of miseries, social such as congestion, Wars as well as environmental like Global Warming, pollution, threatening not just the humans but the very life on earth.  
Our development strategies are aimed at speedy growth, it looks like our policy makers are totally unaware of mathematical phenomena - the exponential factor - ruling such growth patterns. May be they do but do not wish to abide by it for the fear of losing job. Legend has it that it was an Indian wizard who invented the Chaduranga - the Chess, and   illustrated the power of exponential. Albert Bartlett explains the phenomena taking Bacteria for example. Bacteria divide once an hour. So if we take just two bacteria in a bottle, they will start dividing into 2, then 4 and so on, and one minute before twelve? They would have filled just half a bottle.    Much later Malthus and others applied this concept of exponential, independently of course, to populations and had warned the civilization of the population bomb waiting to explode if the local Governments do not take suitable precautions.  This exponential factor affects other aspects of life as well. For example, in India, the planning commission is chasing a target of 8% growth, which means the growth would be almost double within 8.75 years, that is, India would require double the amount of resources now being used.   Resource crunch is already being felt in several spheres of activities, especially the power sector, clearly indicating that it would be difficult to maintain the activities even at present rate.
Every planner is envisaging  10 billion population by 2050 and planning for it, but I feel the focus should be on  avoid reaching  this unsustainable number  through education and family planning  strategies. All the countries of the World, including India should try and do this.  But many a leading Economists, though prepared to accept  facts like  peaking of fossil fuels, prevalent mal-nutrition and starvation and the like, refrain from commenting on number of people this plant can support and harp on the idea that world can still support many more billions of people.  Though there are many apprehensions regarding multiple  requirements of people, like food, water, shelter, and at least some modern amenities, all of which require space and energy in huge proportion, which at present is being derived from fossil fuels. Many peg their hopes on Biofuels, but huge area of land is required to produce enough biofuel.  For example, to run cars of a city like Hyderabad, entire Telugu Desam land will be required to grow the required crop14. Then there is the use of machines to plough, harvest, crush, distill the fuel; one expert indicates that we may end up spending more energy in production than what we get as final product13. In such a situation, it is heartening to note that many  European countries have resolved to meet all their energy requirements through alternate sources by 20508.  

So I wonder, if the Ladies of the Word, irrespective of creed and caste,  will decide to have only one child in their life time, thinking as to why add another innocent soul to already troubled world, this planet may be a better place to live in couple of years..

Many  prominent economists feel that elevating poverty will automatically reduce population growth; may be, they feel that the poor have no other better work than to engage in the – primordial  entertainment contributing directly to population growth. Interestingly, history25 tells us that 18th century elite French women decided to have just two children, and this model was followed by the people of other strata. Today many celebrities have set a new trend of adopting children. We also note that many a parents wish to have only one child. So I wonder if the Ladies of the World, irrespective of creed and caste,  will decide to have only one child in their life time, thinking as to why add another innocent soul to already troubled world . This strategy would  drastically reduce the population to a sustainable level in  a short time. Over the years, women of various parts of the world have taken the lead in Environmental protection – the Ecofeminism is a movement to reckon with, so if they decide, situation can improve. Such a decision will enable democratic countries to reduce their populations without any difficulties.

 Who is benefited by the population boom? It is the Industries and Trade and of course politicians.  But it is not a sustainable proposition, the divide between rich and poor will widen and this may lead to a severe confrontation when the limit of patience exceeds, in fact the indication to this effect are already there. Naxal movement in India, and revolt against the local Governments in many parts of world,  and even the latest Wall Street March, are some of the glaring and prominent pointers. But “More the merrier” is the patent formula of Industries as they are immensely benefited by increase in populations - more customers -more profits. This is temporary phenomena, they know, but as long as it goes, amass wealth at the cost of gullible. 
Planet Kepler 22b
Many an optimists are dreaming of discovering other habitable planets, and or colonizing the Sea as has been projected in some of the Science fiction films. But there are several odds; migration of people from crowded to less crowded areas on this plant itself has been rendered difficult with so many restrictions, making it difficult even to think about even distribution of people on this earth. So if at all a new planet is discovered, who is to colonize it?  But in the first place how close are these ‘habitable planets’? 

The one which has been discovered recently and lot of hype made about it, the Kepler 22b is 600 light years away, Gliese 581e, is much closer, just about 20 light years away ! but that is an incredible distance to travel at present.
It is fairly a well accepted fact that the population of developed countries is responsible for faster depletion of resources and responsible for aggravating   Ozone hole,  global warming and associated phenomena –because their consumption rate is 30% more than global average. But it does not mean that increase in number of people in less developed countries are not contributing to the problem. Each human being does impact the environment, and the extent, of course depends on development status. More the development higher will be the impact. Thus there is an urgent need to estimate number of humans that earth can support.  Human activities have already caused great change in the global environment.  May26 observes that "..the scale and scope of human activities have, for the first time, grown to rival the natural processes that built the biosphere and that maintain it as a place where life can flourish" . Whether the growth is smart or dumb, the growth destroys the environment13.
(A bang on resources, should we survive like this)

Now you will ask me what could be answer for the question raised in the title itself.  I am surprised that many who have deliberated on issue, for or against, seem to be conveniently avoiding presenting a plausible number.  In the famous video on “How many people can live on this planet  ...” Sir David Attenbourough10, wonders “can our intelligence save us?”  (How many people can live on Planet Earth –BBC Horizon (HD)

Now you will ask me what could be answer for the question raised in the title itself.  I am surprised that many who have deliberated on issue, for or against, seem to be conveniently avoiding presenting a plausible number.  In the famous video on “How many people can live on this planet  ...” Sir David Attenbourough10, wonders “can our intelligence save us?”  (How many people can live on Planet Earth –BBC Horizon (HD)

More number of people would only mean congestion, inequality and suffering, leading to tension. It would then become essential to cut more forests, look for more pastures,  faster depletion of resources like fresh water, minerals, fossil fuels, more human – wildlife conflicts, and finally conflicts between societies. All of these problems are caused by population growth, and none of these problems can be “solved” if population growth continues. The series of big city riots of the recent decades are symptoms of a deep-seated illness, injustice and inequity that we have ignored too long

In fact the proliferation of humans on this planet runs parallel to spread of Cancer. We have occupied every habitat, depleting resources, spewing pollutants, killing the very life supporting system.
The illness is certainly made worse by the rapid population growth that consumes public and private resources in order to give generous returns to investors, with minimal benefits going to help the low income people who are adversely affected by the growth. The public financial resources that are needed to pay the costs of population growth come at the expense of all manner of community programs that are essential for improving education, justice, and equity. Injustice and inequity breed unrest and discontent. When a condition of instability is reached, things can happen with surprising speed.
What answer do we have for our future generations on these issues? Club of Rome suggested a population size of 6 billion. Earlier to that David Pimental27, estimated that maximum number of people that Earth can support is 1.5 to 2 billion, while Erlich 28   gave a figure of just about 500 million. In India we are now 1.2 billion people that would be an average of 0.1 hectares per person, while area required for an average Americas is pegged at 10 hectares per person.  From Rio convention and back to Rio, we see that people of developed countries are not willing to reduce their consumption rate.
How many people can the Earth support? Total terrestrial area of Earth is about 14.8 billion hectares, of this for human use we can only consider 50% at the maximum, balance for the nature to take care of us. That leaves us with 7.4 billion hectares of land.  So at 5 hectares per person, earth can support just about 1.50 billion people, and at 10 hectares per person,  a very comfortable limit, just about 0.75 billion people can live happily on this planet.  
This does not mean end of innovations, super markets, flashy cars or super robots.  Each citizen can still enjoy all the modern gadgetry, projector TVs or HD TVs, all Electric cars, safer and better Airplanes if not jets, good food – milk, meat, vegetables and cereals.  In fact if we are careful and plan right from now, we can recreate paradise of Earth. We can still dream of travelling around the world, visiting the natural or human made wonders, clean and green power generating industries, also places like Rwanda where ethnic clashes resulted in massacre of over million people in just three months.  
Will the ladies of the world decide to have just one child till and help to reach a sustainable population level of say 1.5 billion? Will the citizens of the world decide to limit their activity within 5 hectors?  Can this planet be converted to Paradise?  I am not sure. Am I hopeful that this article of mine will impress at least some of the policy makers, or the public in general? I would be happiest person if it did, though the ideas depicted here are not new –but may be put together in one place.
Astrologers had predicted a major natural disaster by the end of 2012, while Astronomers forecasted a devastating Mass Coronal Ejection in mid-2013. If these predictions do not transpire, we still can’t be off guard.  Life on earth would still be under threat. Effects of human made maladies like Global Warming, Ozone hole, pollution, peaking of fossil fuels, recessions in developed countries, ever growing populations and dwindling resources, Nuclear wastes, terrorism, all seem to be converging to a anthropogenic catastrophe in the near future. 

Eshavasya Upanishad
Micheal Ruppert
 Club of Rome
30 years after Club of Rome
Odum E.P.,
Seven Cullis Suzuki – Girl who silenced the World 
Doug Hamilton (in ref 10)
Ramachandra T V.,
Albert Barlett
Sagar Dhara
Molly Brown
Green Peace
Bruce Sandquist
A. Kent MacDougall          
Jorg Schaich
John Cronius
Stockholm Report
Julian Simon
Ref to French ladies

Dr. Ashok Kundapur,  Ph.D.
Environment & Energy Activist ,
International Solar Cooker Expert,


  1. Dr. Ashok, a very educational article. It has made me think

  2. Wonderful thought provoking article

  3. I'm sure this post will definitely make anyone who reads to rethink...

    1. Marian Dsouza, I couldn't agree more!