This article looks at the population growth with time and how this has impacted on man’s endeavours. The population numbers grew slowly but steadily from many centuries before the 1960s, when it took a sudden acceleration from 3 billion over the next 50 years to today’s level of over 8+ billion. The reason is twofold; people living longer, due to advances in medical science, as well as having more children. It is expected to rise further to approximately 10.5 billion by mid-century and slowly decline thereafter to be about 9 billion by the turn of the century.
An interesting example in population growth comes from Indonesia where the population doubled in the 30 years from 100 million in 1970 to 200 million in 2000, and the average age of the population was dramatically raised from 40 to 70 years. Along with sensible government handling of the basics, food, water and education, looking after the physical and mental well-being of the people, the economy not surprisingly grew in parallel. The World Bank congratulated the country on the way the economy was being handled in 1989.
The notable increase in population along with the change in the age mix, i. e. the ratio of those elderly to those younger has changed, and ratio will vary in location and in ethnicity. Against this trend, however, it is notable that the indigenous population of highly developed countries, such as Japan, have been in decline for some time. In addition, these factors will be affected by the relative wealth or poverty of individuals and nations, and on which continent they are situated and by which climate they are affected.
The Years Ahead
Today the younger generation, except those in poverty, are the drivers of new inventions, building on what has gone before wherever and whoever they are. They are stimulated and see the opportunities. These youngsters, from a very young age, accept, as a matter of fact, miniature computers which have the power to process in a fraction of the time, what a new mainframe of 60 years ago could do, taking up a large room. At the age of 3, youngsters can today play simple computer games. Computerisation was just appearing at university courses in the early 1960s. I know because I was there! And today, we can reach for the stars, literally.
But at the other end of the scale, we still have very large numbers in poverty, approximately I billion, for a variety of reasons – fighting, war, corruption, changing climate, lack of opportunity, incompetent government, and so on - and this is a blight on us all. We have the knowledge and tools to provide the opportunity for people to be lifted out of poverty and most people in poverty respond well given the chance and encouragement. What we now call Sustainable (Humanitarian) Development should take place.
A dedicated example of this has been undertaken for 22 years for 17,000 people in northeast Bali, Indonesia living in a number of villages. At the start, among the villagers there was 85% illiteracy, the infant mortality was well over standard levels and life expectancy was well below the national average. There was too much dependence on cassava, which led to goitres; the diet was well below international norms.
The first thing that had to be done was to address the health problems, for which there needed to be greatly improved road access and easier access to clean water. The initial funding was largely by David Booth MBE, the founder, and the project is and has been entirely privately financed. The location was considered too remote to prioritise by government. It was acknowledged that education was paramount and the first school was started in 2000 with not much more than a floor and the first children given paper and pencils. The eagerness on their faces was a joy to behold. For adults they did not need much persuasion to make simple concrete roads and erect big rainwater tanks to store water. The communities were all involved in preparing the soil for agricultural beds and growing vegetables; the edges of the beds stabilised in difficult mountainous terrain by fast-growing deep-rooted vetiver grass.
After some 13 years of steady development work, the project had 4 schools with classrooms, desks and support appurtenances, libraries, teachers, key simple road links had been built, water was either on tap or no more than an hour away, people were healthier and the first stages of a basic sanitation system was underway. This for an expenditure of US$ 450,000 – private sector. The first school leavers after 20 years had graduated from the local university.
This is a single simple example, although involves many interrelated, sometimes complex, disciplines with understanding and we need to duplicate, with dedicated people, something similar but only about thousands of times! It is time to raise the profile of Sustainable Development to a higher level as the UN has recognised.
One can see that there are many and complex issues to raise in answer to the question as to why things develop the way they do. It is thought that the increased inequality is the main reason for the issue but it is a fact that poorer people tend to have more children and thus the divide increases, until the total population numbers level out. We are gradually approaching that position but we need to plan that we have a quite different distribution of population and some of the locations are different from those of 60 years ago. This also affects the expanding urbanisation issue which looks very different than it did 30 years ago in terms of how structures should be built to take account of new or adaptable available energy sources and insulation, for example.
Another factor of concern is pollution which will increase to an unsustainable level unless it is tackled vigorously from now on. This is of growing concern or should be. We have not taken adequate care of waste which has been augmenting at an alarming rate as population increased.
An example is taken from England (not the other parts of UK which are not so densely populated) which is a sophisticated developed country. There has come to light that many, if not all, of the main rivers are heavily polluted by overflow from sewage plants, which suggests that these have no longer have adequate capacity and need to be reviewed or upgraded, or totally new plants built. In addition, there is a dangerous level of agricultural pesticides in stormwater run-off, which is more difficult to tackle and, thirdly, there is an unacceptable level of plastics. Altogether, this has gradually been emerging; an all-embracing environment report is eagerly awaited There has to be an all-round master plan that cleans up groundwater, as the situation cannot continue or we risk poisoning ourselves and, heaven forbid, another pandemic. Where possible, more attention has to be paid to recyclable or reusable water before discharging, which is perfectly possible in the case of sewage works.
The other big pollutant that has been gathering attention is non-biodegradable plastics in the sea, probably because they are increasingly washed up on beaches across the world, sometimes travelling thousands of miles from the source. Occasionally, members of concerned communities act as beachcombers to clean up nearby beaches and they have to be applauded for their awareness. But the problem of plastic waste in the sea has to be measured in the billions of tonnes to take in the oceans which cover 70% of the world’s surface and the millions of sea-going journeys and the waste from these, often due to lack of care, that has occurred over the past many decades. Some scientists have been studying sea creatures and are coming up with alarming damaging facts which cannot be ignored. For instance, plastics which are ingested and get into the food chain.
A principal health hazard concerns the quality of air we breathe, particularly in big city environments because of fossil fuel vehicles. This is particularly bad in several parts of Asia with many cities of the Indian sub-continent and China being badly affected. Delhi is often quoted, because of polluting vehicles, but also it is badly affected being downstream from the prevailing wind which carries the smoke from land-clearing and burning of undergrowth, crop stubble, in preparation of the following year’s harvest. Indonesia has a similar problem in mid-year when the ground is prepared by burning the residue from last year’s palm oil crop and the smoke is carried on the prevailing anti-monsoon wind to Singapore and Malaysia
All these and other polluting issues are as important as those to do with climate change. What’s more there are solutions to hand to deal with all of them; in some cases, e.g. clean air, the climate is also being tackled. It is important that this is addressed right away.
Urbanisation in the years ahead
In 2011, Jakarta hosted the World Delta Summit, in which I was quite involved. It was realised that by mid – century 70% of the then population would be urban, some 6 billion people. In comparison, at the time of the Summit the world urban population was less than 3 billion. It meant that about 3 billion people would have to be accommodated in many places, usually at lower levels, which could be subject to sea level rise with climate change, wherever this takes place, which is one of the factors which concerns civil /environmental engineers.
This is a major topic beyond the scope of this article, which could, however, be said for most of the topics covered. Architects and planners are going to have to think about climate and how (renewable) energy can be used more efficiently for buildings more than they had to in the past, depending on region. A study of the main materials used in construction – concrete steel, timber – indicated that timber was the only material that could be affected by a changing climate in any significant way. Since it is being looked at increasingly for construction the temperature has to be factored into design, The next 30 + years should see an increasing amount of building whatever the material used and techniques and systems that provide quick and economic answers will be favoured. There is a backlog of buildings to be erected across the world.
The above has highlighted a number of issues that are viewed as very important today and in the years ahead, partly as a result of significantly increased population in a short time span. In most of the cases we have the knowledge and tools now to deal with them and, for the others; it is a question of studying them with knowledge, which can increasingly be brought to the fore by the younger generations.
It does not mean that they should not watch out for the world’s climate. They should, but that still contains many scientific factors that are as yet unknown, albeit that allows other complex lines of study. After all it is their future, but don’t forget our fellow human beings looking for a way out of poverty.
● Dr J Scott Younger. President Commissioner of Glendale Partners
and member of IFIMES Advisory Board
IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.