My yoga teacher tells me sternly to use the airconditioner at night. I tell him I won’t, because humans have done without ACs from the beginning, and India has always been a hot country. But he replies, if you live like those old-time Indians, going to bed at sunset and waking at sunrise, then you can turn off even the fan. Since you sit in a cubicle all day and go to bed late, you must turn on the AC to give your body a rest.
Suppose I turn on the AC. More coal, dug out from beneath more forests, will have to be pulled by more diesel-burning locomotives, to more smoke-spewing power plants, to heat more scarce fresh water, to drive more turbines, to generate more power to feed my bedroom AC to compensate me for my poor lifestyle choices. One can’t help but feel guilty.
And worried. Some parts of Delhi, as was recently reported, are several degrees hotter than other parts only because all the ACs throw hot air out into the narrow, overbuilt lanes. On Thursday this paper carried a PTI report that said Mumbai and Delhi will “experience the maximum demand for water in the world by 2025”, and that catering to this demand will cost $480 billion — that is, assuming there is sufficient fresh water to be had. Even now, RWAs are going to war over rising power tariffs and water shortages, while slum residents are busy sinking borewells. What will things be like in 2025?
If there is a solution it is, I feel sure, not just a matter of pruning expectations and going “green”. Nor is it enough to believe in the market and human ingenuity. Any sensible solution will tackle the tricky issue of population.
Are there too many of us? A question that in the 1970s was perfectly legitimate, by the 1990s had turned awkward. One doesn’t say, now, that there are too many people. Some people look forward with a kind of pride to the day that there are more Indians than Chinese. Economists tell us that a young, growing population means more people at work, and therefore more money made and taxes paid. More people is good. Does their model include the environmental variable?
Back in 1798, the English scholar and clergyman Thomas R Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society (to give the work most of its original title). In it the reverend theorised about the relationship between population and sustenance. Too many creatures will over-consume the resources that support them, and when not enough is left, many will die. After the numbers fall, resources become plentiful again, and numbers begin to rise.
“The perpetual tendency of the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is one of the general laws of animated nature, which we can have no reason to expect to change,” Malthus wrote. Elsewhere: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
This view of periodic mass extermination just hasn’t applied very well, partly because humans have various solutions to the problem of numbers. They range from mass emigration to clever geopolitics to ever-greater efficiency and productivity. We expect that similar solutions will continue to work forever. But now we are running up against our resource limits in a way that we haven’t since the oil price crisis of the 1970s or, more catastrophically, the man-made famine associated with Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and 1960s.
When Malthus says that, “I have read some of the speculations on the perfectibility of man and of society with great pleasure. I have been warmed and delighted with the enchanting picture which they hold forth. I ardently wish for such happy improvements. But I see great, and, to my understanding, unconquerable difficulties in the way to them,” one has to agree — and to hope that he forever stays off the mark.
He may have been wrong, but it’s time to pay Malthus a little more attention.