Environment and climate change due to increased human activity

There was a news item recently on TV showing some hilly areas in south Asia which have been experiencing serious drought for a number of years. In the past this region used to have frequent rains and even snowfalls during winter. There never was a shortage of water for irrigation and drinking etc.

But as the number of people in the area rose and led to increased human activity, it caused many changes and new requirements. There was increased cultivation of crops for more food. The number of domestic animals for milk and meat went up. Need for wood as fuel in wood ovens increased leading to cutting down more trees. Wood was also required in increased quantity for furniture and house construction as the number of people in the area increased. To meet the increased demand for wood there was a reckless destruction of forests and cutting of trees leaving the landscape in the area bare, especially in hills. Eventually the loss of foliage (trees etc.) led to a change in rain pattern resulting in drought like conditions.

After the area described above experienced a persistent shortage in rains and running water, the previously fertile land was reduced to parched fields. People are no longer able to grow crops in them and have sufficient food to eat. There are serious food shortages in the area requiring imports of food from outside. There also is not enough water for use by people and animals due to drought like conditions, and whatever water trickles down from bare hills is usually dirty and muddy and it often makes people ill after drinking.

Even though the above sad situation was brought about by increased population and human activity in the area, the TV reporter was careful suggesting during the news that it was a result of global warming and climate change. That type of suggestion putting the blame on global warming and climate change was misleading, to say the least. While it is true that climate change or lack of rain in the area appears to be the cause of this misery, that in itself is not the basic reason. The real culprit for this calamity is the rise in population and human activity in the area leading first to the reckless cutting of trees for wood and overusing land and water for housing, crops and people etc., which in turn left the landscape bare and without foliage causing a shift in rains and drought.

Perhaps it is possible that the role of increased population and human activity leading to climatic and environmental disasters (droughts etc.) is being deliberately shielded from general public for fear of upsetting some people and groups. Thus the emphasis is directly on climate change and global warming without even mentioning the problems of overpopulation and increased human activity which are the real causes for climate change etc. While this skewed approach by media and officials may be politically correct and good for public relations, this unfortunately leaves the public in dark and unable to do anything worthwhile and on long term (permanent) basis to tackle the issue properly.

Incidentally, in a somewhat similar scenario involving media and an important international agency, there was a proclamation recently which read, "to reduce global warming, distribute free condoms around the world." Notice the word "use" or any reference to "reducing population" missing in this announcement even though it offers advice to "distribute" free condoms around the world for the purpose of reducing global warming. It is easy to question here as to how the free distribution of condoms will reduce global warming unless something else happens in between, like “using” them in the bedrooms will keep population in check leading to reduction in human activity which will eventually reduce global warming. As can be seen, a very important piece of information is missing here in this announcement, leading to confusion and lack of awareness in people about the real problem (overpopulation), and again it seems to be a case of political correctness on the part of media and officials.

It is clear that talking only about global warming and climate change which require controls on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions seems less controversial than talking about increased population and human activity which will need putting limits on population growth through family planning and birth control etc. to keep the size of family small (probably not having more than two children per family). But that type of approach promoting reduction in global warming and climate change alone and not doing anything regarding overpopulation, even though convenient and palatable to public, is unsatisfactory and will lead nowhere because the entire issue of global warming, climate change, environmental degradation and pollution, depletion of energy and resources, destruction of flora and fauna is ultimately tied to increase in population and human activity.

In any case, if there is reluctance on the part of officials and media to talk openly and realistically about overpopulation and increased human activity, it may be due to religious considerations. Perhaps they think that any open discussion on these issues, requiring probably a solution in the form of family planning and birth control to limit the size of family, will upset the opponents of birth control etc. in world’s two major faiths, comprising almost two-thirds of humanity (2.5 billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims).

Unfortunately this issue goes beyond that. Note that there is apprehension regarding family planning and smaller families among others also, belonging to other religions and having no taboos against birth control etc., because they at present are unwilling to control their own population if people in other faiths continue to have more children and larger families due to religious reasons. It is a no-win situation and urgently requires the participation of all (public, politicians and religious leaders) to tackle the problem of overpopulation at fundamental level.

Overpopulation is a global issue anyway with serious migratory, social, political and religious consequences. As the population increases and resources (land, water, energy etc.) remain constant or diminish, the number of poor and destitute around the world will increase. Many people will face starvation and death and there will be fights for scarce land and water, resulting in additional loss of life and giving rise to many environmental refugees. Unless something drastic is done urgently to curb the population growth, feeding and sheltering the hungry and poor around the world will become a routine and major undertaking in future. In addition, many people from highly populated countries in the south (in south Asia, east Asia, Middle-East, Africa, Central America and South America) will move to Europe and North America etc. in search of better life. This will lead to a demographic shift in northern areas as new immigrants move there and have more children in line with their religio-cultural practices.

Thus the rising population and human activity, leading to changes in climate and environment etc., are the most important issues which require a concerted effort from everyone to curb the population growth first. Perhaps limiting the number of children in each family to two, irrespective of religion, might be the way to do it. Although this approach, limiting the number of children, appears to be a drastic step, it may be necessary for the survival of humanity. In any case, it should not be looked at as putting restrictions on anyone's religion or religious freedom. Note the freedom of religion is to allow a person to be able to pursue spirituality and to pray and worship God freely in one’s own way without becoming a nuisance or posing threat to others. And when the issue involves overpopulation, like at present, having more number of children and larger families for whatever reasons (even while shunning the use of birth control etc. on religious grounds) only adds to the problem of overpopulation leading to more hunger, poverty, climate change and global warming etc. In such a situation, involving changes in environment and climate etc., having more number of children and larger families is not just a nuisance to others but it also poses a serious threat to everyone. Thus there is hardly any justification or support for the idea of freedom of religion propagating that type of activity and burdening the already overpopulated situation.

In conclusion, notwithstanding the atmospheric controls on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions etc., a long term (permanent) solution to the problems of global warming, climate change, environmental pollution and degradation, depletion of resources (land, water and energy) and destruction of flora and fauna is unlikely unless there are also curbs on population growth and human activity. It is therefore important that people everywhere and belonging to all faiths work together to solve this problem.

by: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma