As the number of Homo sapiens grows exponentially, unless there’s a dramatic shift in our attitudes and behaviours, it would be safe to predict that our environmental and economic degradation will only exacerbate. As of January 2013 our global populationat 7.2 billion is projected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, with China’s population at 1.35 billion — the largest on the planet, and India trailing slightly behind at 1.2 billion.
But this equation is about to change in the wake of China’s recent decision to relax its one-child policy, as one research points out this could result in additional 9.5 million births per year with the population in China alone expected to reach 1.6 billion by the year 2030.
This population quagmire draws attention to a concept coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968. It’s called the “Tragedy of the Commons” (TOC) and depicts the conditions that would lead rational people to overuse and even destroy an open access commons. A “commons” is a physical place where either something beneficial is depleted or exploited caused by over grazing of cattle, overfishing etc., or carelessly adding something deleterious, like CO2 in the atmosphere, or effluent in a river.
So how does the “Tragedy of the Commons” relate to population growth? Simply put, the more the people, the more the pollution and exploitation of natural resources, which is not only unsustainable for non-human species, but also threatens the survival of our own species.
In his published article “Averting the Tragedy of the Commons“, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Mark Van Vugt suggests,
“It’s doubtful whether the Earth’s ecosystems can sustain such large numbers, particularly at the current standard of living. Human activities are responsible for depleting natural resources, polluting the environment and reducing bio-diversity. Human-made environmental problems create economic and social conflicts with potentially devastating consequences for the health and well-being of ourselves and future generations. Our species has had a long history of causing ecological destruction; yet due to a rise in population and technological know-how, these effects are now felt globally.”
Undoubtedly, population explosion is already having detrimental consequences on many environmental and social aspects, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on the loss of biodiversity, specifically the tragic loss of wildlife fueled by demand for their body parts in Asia, especially in China.
As discussed in my previous articles, the insidious poaching that crept into the jungles of Africa in the 1970s is pushing elephants, tigers and rhinos to the brink of extinction. For instance, South Africa’s relentless efforts to save their native species seem to be unmatchable for the organized crimes, with almost 700 rhinoceros poached in 2012. At this rate scientists predict the South African Rhinos will become extinct by 2015.
It’s worth repeating, a global treasure cherished by people around the planet could be completely wiped out by 2015, fueled by demand for Rhino horns in Asia, purported by the use of scientifically unsubstantiated Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM).
In recent years, the massacre of elephants for their ivory has reached an epidemic proportion. Throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, elephants are now being killed faster than they can reproduce, with CITES or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species calling 2012 “the bloodiest year in decades”. This unprecedented increase reflects a dramatic shift in the magnitude of sophistication being used for illegal poaching, as heavily armed groups “sell their spoils to the highest bidder in the global market” fueled by soaring prices and demand for ivory in Asia, mainly China.
On the heels of China’s one-child policy reversal, perhaps this may be a good time for global bodies such as CITES and UNESCO to act decisively and bring forth more stringent measures to prevent further exploitation of the global commons. As evidenced by the drastic decline in wildlife, Hardin reiterates the natural resources are finite.
In a finite world this means the capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease, and so, a finite world can support only a finite population. Therefore, eventually the population growth must equal zero.
“Has any cultural group solved this practical problem at the present time, even on an intuitive level? One simple fact proves that none has: there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a growth rate of zero.”
Although maintaining the growth rate at zero may sound drastic, there are no obvious solutions either to the population crisis. In her book, “Thinking in Systems” Donella Meadows (2008) concedes, in order to solve a TOC we need to educate people so they understand the consequences, exhort them when necessary, and even threaten transgressors with “social disapproval or external hellfire” (2008, p. 119).
Evolutionary psychologist Van Vugt echoes similar sentiments. He suggests, in addition to providing adequate information about the environment that people live in, we need to create a strong positive social identity, build trusting relationships so the public can trust institutions entrusted with caring for the global commons, and develop incentives for responsible use of the global commons while punishing overuse.
Mutual coercion may be another option: a mutually agreed upon decision by the majority of the people affected, but not necessarily with enjoyable outcomes for everyone. Meadows (2008), suggests privatization and regulation as possible solutions that may have some effect on population control, which brings us back to China’s one-child policy.
The policy in itself was a reaction to population explosion between 1949 and 1976, almost doubling from 540 million to 940 million after the People’s Republic of China was created. It wasn’t until 1976 that the one-child policy was introduced in a desperate attempt to control the exponential growth. However, as it turns out, the policy seems to have backfired with the dwindling workforce, an aging population increase, and declining fertility rates.
Indeed the population quagmire seems like a never ending vicious cycle — but one that would have to be brought to a screeching halt sooner rather than later in order to ensure survival of our own species and our planet.