Population explosion and the fate of mankind

Dr. Rashid Askari
Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Photo Source - commons.wikimedia.org

The population of the world has lately stood at 7,000,000,000. Many of the people make a song and dance about it. Some vie for their claims to being the last digit of the count. There is, however, nothing to get it all wrong. Maybe, it is good for them to see their small planet Earth teeming with human species which had once been the most essential condition for the survival of ancient societies worst affected by high and unpredictable mortality. The societies that persisted were successful in maintaining high fertility. They did so by encouraging procreation of homo sapiens. Their pro-natal motives later were incorporated into religious dogma and mythology, as we find in the biblical injunction (be fruitful and multiply, and populate the Earth), the Hindu laws of Manu, and the writings of Zoroaster.


But, we are not inhabitants of the primitive society. Nor are we afflicted with high and unpredictable fatalities so that we have to be as prolific as rats and rabbits for the existence of our species. We are the citizens of a modern world governed by sound existential logic and reality, not by illusion, superstition, and other moth-eaten ideas. We would like to be the proud members of a desirable population in our country and the world as well. This alarmingly high reproductive rate is giving us serious cause for concern. The circumference of the earth (40,000 kilometres) is not rising while its population is constantly on the increase. Except for some areas of sparse population, most of this earth is overflowing with people.


English economist and demographer Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) arrived on the scene with his groundbreaking theory that the betterment of humankind is impossible without stern limits on reproduction, because population growth will always tend to develop faster than the food supply. Although modern technology has revolutionised agro-industrial production across the globe, the means of subsistence, as per Malthusian population law, is increasing in an arithmetic progression while the increase of population, being unchecked in some countries of the world, is taking place in geometric progression. This results, as Malthus warns, in the vain hope for social happiness.


This surge in population started occurring after 1950s as a result of the comparative peace and prosperity following World War II. In Malthus’s time the world population was under 1,000,000,000. When Margaret  Sanger (1879-1966) and  Marie Stopes (1880-1958) opened the first birth control clinics, and waged the birth control movement in  the first quarter of the 20th century, population was still less than 2,000,000,000. In 1960, global population exceeded 3,000,000,000, and the next 1,000,000,000 was added in a mere 15 years. In the 19th century, the population of industrialised nations rarely grew by more than 1 percent per annum, but in the 1960s and 70s, many developing countries exploded at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. This alarming birth rate is never going down. Population is always expanding to the limit of subsistence, and is being followed by poverty, famine, and malnutrition. It is an acknowledged fact that in all natural and man-made disasters in the world, overpopulation has had a direct or indirect hand.


Rapid population growth in the underdeveloped and developing countries in the world has several economic consequences. It requires heavier investment in food, clothing, shelter, education, health, and transport merely to make a living at the subsistence level. Besides, the working population has a higher burden of dependence to support that makes both individual and national saving more difficult. Although this overriding population growth is not the only problem separating rich and poor countries, it is one of the most important factors that widen the gap in growth in per capita income between developed and developing countries.


Malthus made a doom-laden economic forecast in his pamphlet “An Essay on Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society…”(1798) that the perfection of a human society would be a mirage, because of the constant threat of population growth. He was supposed to have echoed a more dismal view of Robert Wallace expressed in his Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence (1761), which suggests that the perfection of society carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. By destruction he means here the overflow of population. Wallace predicts that the earth would at last be overstocked, and become unable to support the large number of inhabitants.


Our dearly bought Bangladesh seems to be already overstocked. It is the most densely populated country in the world. While it was born with seventy five million people in 1971, the current number of population has been far more than double in only four decades. With our national liberty we seem to have taken liberty to reproduce ourselves wholesale. The average population density of Bangladesh is extremely high (1,900 persons per square mile). We have in addition the highest density (over 2,800 persons per square mile) occurring in and around the capital Dhaka. In the urban slums and ghettos, the rate of growth is much faster. Our beloved Dhaka is now an old and tired donkey with twenty million people on its back. And with this enormous human sack the donkey with puffs and pants is slouching towards the Malthusian upshot.


However dismal his views on population explosion may be, Malthus did not find the problem insolvable. He recommended both natural and artificial means of checking this excessive growth. Like him many others have felt that the population explosion is in urgent need of check if life is to be tolerable on this small planet earth in the 21st century. If the prime objective of economic development is to raise the level of per capita income, it cannot be achieved only by increasing the rate of growth of total output. Reduction in the rate of growth of population must accompany it. Although the development economists of the 1950s tended to neglect population-control policies, it is now globally recognised that population control is a precursor to the economic development of countries which are suffering from high population growth.


The problem can be tackled by raising public awareness and using modern technology resources. In the first instance, effective measures should be taken to limit the rate of population hike. Medical technology can offer means of controlling this unwanted increase through contraceptive devices and painless sterilisation procedures. But this artificial population control is sometimes impeded by powerful moral constraints and religious taboos. In such cases, the birth controlling measures should be made socially and religiously acceptable through numerous awareness-building activities. Sterner steps may sometimes be essential, however, if stability in world population is to be satisfactorily achieved. The experience of China, which has almost one-quarter of the world’s population, may be adduced here. China met with a rapid population growth in the 1950s and ’60s because of the lax attitude of the post-Revolution national leaders towards population growth. In an attempt to stop this exceeding population growth in order to sustain the existing standards of living, the government imposed a “one-child family” campaign in the 1970s, which is maintained by severe social controls.


Population control or planned parenthood or family panning is not such a bad thing at the bottom. The history of concern over the uncontrolled growth of populations is as old as recorded history, but it was not until the 1950s that the dread of a faster- expanding world population came to be connected with fertility practices on the family level. The new millennium has appeared on earth with numerous challenges. The threat of overpopulation is one of high magnitude. We have to face it quite realistically. It is a common sense understanding that in a world of limited resources and unlimited needs, people should not make the fullest use of their fertility capacity like that of the great apes. No rational person would ever approve of this.


The world’s major religions, too, do not go along with process of overpopulation leading to myriad socio-economic problems. They rather approve of responsible parenthood directly or indirectly. Although Hindu and Buddhist teachings are linked by a belief in reincarnation, this does not amount to an obligation to achieve maximum fertility. While the staunch Buddhist groups are opposed to contraception on pretext for abstinence from any form of killing, the Buddhist scripture contains an unequivocal warning against overpopulation: “Many children make you poor.”


The orthodox sections of Judaism allow women to use certain methods of birth control, as and when necessary to protect the mother’s health. The Reformed and Conservative branches too underline the need of proper education in all methods of birth control which they consider as means of enhancing the spiritual life of the couple and the welfare of mankind. Many Jewish physicians and leaders, such as Alan Guttmacher, took part in the birth control campaign. Christendom was, however, very slow to recognise new medical knowledge and new social needs. But they ultimately had to admit the importance of birth control.


In Islam, the Prophet Mohammed endorsed the use of al-azl (coitus interruptus) for socioeconomic and medical reasons. The Quran instructs, “Mothers shall give suck to their offspring for two whole years if they desire to complete their term” (II, 233). Contraceptive precautions/methods were advised by the great physicians of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages. Moreover, under Islamic law the foetus is not considered a human being until its form distinctly assumes human shape, and hence early abortion was not forbidden. So, most of the modern methods of family planning have been accepted by the Muslim in general.


The western societies took more than a century to reach zero population growth, and adapt to the rapid expansion of population that occurred with their process of industrialisation. On the contrary, the majority of the governments of contemporary Third World countries have adopted national family planning policies, and are trying to inspire their people to the use of public family services, but to little avail.  Most ironically, “The World Fertility Survey” shows that more couples in developing countries desire small families than actually achieve their goals.


It is time to attain the goal, not to be waiting in the wings of willingness. In our Bangladesh should be imposed a China-like “One-child family” campaign which should be maintained by draconian social controls. One of our moronic state ministers may be afraid of controlling the profuse procreation for fear of losing some potential Tagore, but we have no chance to tickle anybody’s fancy about the grimmer realities of our socio-economic life. These concern not only our small Bangladesh but also our planet Earth which, being burdened with seven billion may be tilting to one side which may lead to the headlong sinking to the bottom of a sea of troubles. Although spoken figuratively, the underlying truth here is unvarnished.


Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. E-mail: rashidaskari65@yahoo.com

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