Environmental Ethics: 3.1 Optimising Population And Consumerism (1)

Author:  Image of S.M. JainS.M. Jain
Published: 15.02.2012


Population explosion has direct impact on environmental degradation. The more the number the more the requirement of food, putting more and more stress on soil, beyond its carrying capacity. Soil is not renewable on the time scale as biomass grown to meet growing needs and is therefore degraded continuously with each crop and ultimately becomes infertile. The unbearable pressure on soil has turned vast stretches of land into wastelands. The growing numbers need more and more water for meeting drinking, household, washing, agricultural and industrial needs. As a result water sources deplete fast ultimately getting completely dry as has happened in many places. For increasing numbers there are increasing needs for clothing, other household goods, transport, schools and colleges, electricity and therefore there is more and more pressure on natural resources both renewable and non-renewable. Most of non renewable resources particularly oil and minerals are being exploited in such huge quantities that all the known resources will be completely exhausted within a century or so and nothing will be left for future generations. This will be the cruelty of most abominable form inflicted by present generation on its own future progeny. Greater numbers will generate more waste and pollute soil, water and air more and more by increasing amount of household, agricultural and industrial pollutants.

Fruitarian Era:

Homo sapiens (mankind) are supposed to be on this planet earth since about 3 lakh years and for 99% of this time human population has been very limited within carrying capacity of the ambient environment and its constituents, the natural sources. Before advent of agriculture mankind lived on products of natural forests and the population was conditioned by naturally available food. Recent experiments in Germany on wolves have proved that their fertility was controlled according to food available in their forest habitat. During food scarcity due to natural or other causes fertility or birth rate was reduced proportionately. The same was true for humans when they lived on naturally available food. Dr. Robert Dudley of the University of California has categorically stated that primate ancestors of Homo sapiens were dependent on fruits of variety of species available abundantly in natural forest and this predilection was passed on to humans. Palaeolithic man was purely fruitarian. It was Neolithic man who became partially hunter. The assumption that man was initially hunter and subsequently turned fruitarian is fallacious and wrong. It did take time to develop implements for hunting even of stone. Obviously the humans fed themselves on abundantly available fruits, nuts, seeds, flowers, leaves etc. from forests.

Birth and onslaught of agriculture:

The population started rising with advent of agriculture about 10000 years ago. The beginning of agriculture was accidental when some ancestor of ours accidentally dropped edible seeds of grasses collected by him from forests, around his hamlet nearby a water source a stream or so. He was amazed to see around his hamlet the same grasses and their seeds which he was collecting from forest within 3 months. He reflected and thought that it would be easier and less laborious to grow seeds nearby than to go round and collect these from forests. It was this sense of lethargy that gave birth to agriculture and subsequent sense of greed to grow more and more that triggered rapid extension of agriculture. More and more people followed the man who first discovered agriculture. As food supplies increased population also increased requiring more and more land for growing edible seeds. Initially it was naturally available flat vacant or grasslands. Subsequently it was extended to forest areas. Trees were cut, burnt and land cleared for cultivation. The virgin lands of forest thus cleared gave bumper crops of edible seeds for 5-6 years and as the yields declined subsequently, people cleared new areas of forests more and more to meet growing needs of food of increasing population. There was a crusade against forest. There is mention of KHANDAV DAH i.e. clearance of vast stretch of forests by PANDAVAS in the famous epic MAHABHARAT in India. It continued till recently all over the world when people were given free licence and even rewards for clearing more and more natural forest and making the land cultivable even in America, Europe and elsewhere. In hilly areas the practice of shifting cultivation has denuded vast areas which are now stark barren, badly eroded, rocky and without even a blade of grass. Initially when population was small people went on practising shifting cultivation from one end to last end of forests of their village boundaries and returned back to the same point after 30-40 years as by then the land left fallow was again covered back by the same natural forest and became fertile. But as population increased the cycle of 30-40 years gradually decreased to 10-20 years and eventually to 5-6 years which did not allow forest to grow and make lands fertile. This necessitated shifting of whole villages to remaining forests and eventually denuding the entire landscape.

Futile Laws:

It was only during last century that restrictions were put on destruction of forest by enacting laws. In areas classified as reserve forests no rights of cutting, grazing etc. were allowed unless permitted. In protected forest areas rights were given according to agreements with people and recorded in settlement records. In remaining unclassified forest areas unrestricted rights were allowed. The unclassified forests vanished with in a few years and cultivation was extended to demarcation lines of protected and reserve forests. The burden of meeting timber, fuel and fodder needs increased on protected and even on reserved forests. In spite of stringent laws to prevent encroachments on forest lands under Forest Conservation Act of 1980 in India and interventions, injunctions by apex court encroachments are continuing and being encouraged by politicians by regularising the illegal encroachments. If the population continues exploding it is impossible to control encroachments by any law howsoever stringent. In Rajasthan (India) a high level committee was formed in 1959 to advise about stopping the practice of shifting cultivation. Accordingly the tribals were allotted plain forest areas for their agricultural needs. By 1980 the population of tribals increased so much that they started shifting cultivation again in these tribal regions and other districts and when action was taken by law enforcing agencies of forest and police departments, there was lot of hue and cry in legislature. This is the story all over the developing countries of Africa, South America and Asia. The few remnant rain forests of Amazon, Sunderbans etc. which are the storehouse and gene pools of vast variety of species of flora and fauna and with maximum bio-mass productivity and are an ideal example of symbiotic interactions between animate and inanimate constituent, are also under considerable threat of total extinction because of increasing biotic pressure of humans and their domestic animals. Recently Naxalite terrorists in India have started playing Robinhoods by opposing and retaliating against anti-encroachment actions of forest and police department to gain sympathies of exploding masses which continue to encroach more and more forest land. All laws, rules and even directions of Apex court are consigned to dustbins. This will continue if population continues to explode.

Tribals and Forests:

In spite of glaring stark facts on record many voluntary agencies, self styled intellectuals and socialists surprisingly assert that tribals do not destroy forests. The fact is that the tribals have done maximum harm to forests and wild life. While demarcating the forest areas as reserved and protected forests more than one third of forests were left outside the demarcation lines as unclassed forests which were all decimated within a span of 5-10 years. The burden then shifted to reserve and protected forests. Tribals cut away the trees and after that dug away even the roots, thus destroying the very base for natural regeneration by coppice. They killed every animal and bird they could see. The reason was exploding population. If the forests would have not been demarcated, the tribals would have destroyed much more rapidly. The faulty land use of cultivation on steep slopes in hilly and undulating landscape in tribal regions has resulted in severe degradation by erosion. Tribals are given fertilisers and other inputs on highly subsidised rates for faulty agriculture on steep slopes. They do not use it but sell it on throw away prices. Tribals are allowed to collect non timber forest products fruits, seeds, gums, resins, honey, medicines free of cost and these are purchased by forest or tribal corporations at remunerative prices. Though they get sustained income year after year from these products of forests, they cut away the very trees which provide them the benefits. They have over exploited honey and medicinal plants and the availability has now declined considerably. This author during his tenure in Rajasthan Tribal Development Corporation has a very sad experience of facing wrath of politicians when he insisted on restricted exploitation of a valuable medicinal herb Safed musli (Chlorophytum tuberosum). The yield has come down from hundred quintals to 20 quintals per year.

Mahuwa (Madhuca latifolia) trees were abundant in forest and also private lands in tribal regions in India. It provided nutritious food from its flowers and oil from seeds. Every mature tree of Mahuwa yields about 10-20 kg of flowers and same amount of seeds giving sustained net income of about Rs. 200/- per tree per year. In Shahabad area of then Kota District of Rajasthan with predominant primitive Saharia tribal population, thousands of Mahuwa trees were cut away by tribals from their own fields and sold for paltry sum of Rs. 200/- which was one time income against about same amount from flowers and seeds every year over and over again. When this author intervened and objected to permission by revenue officials to fell green trees against rules, the argument was that tribals approach the revenue officials with request that mahuwa tree is shading and affecting the yield of his agricultural crop maize, they have to allow its removal. The value of maize grown in limited area under the mahuwa tree was hardly Rs. 10/-. Such is the apathy of tribals for trees. When forest villages in Madhya Pradesh (India) and elsewhere were converted into revenue villages under political expediency of vote banking the first thing the tribals did was to cut away and sell the magnificent sal trees which were giving sustained income from sal seeds much more than from agriculture crops.

Planned scientific forest harvesting:

It is also argued that commercial exploitation of forests by government have resulted in their destruction. This is also not correct. Most of the trees in tropical and sub-tropical regions are very good coppicers. If the tree is properly cut and stump is dressed, it will produce good coppice shoots and forest will rejuvenate over and over again from coppice and also from seeds of seed-bearers left uniformly all over the worked area. The commercial cuttings by government agencies were on scientific lines under judiciously prepared working plans. There were no restrictions on tribals for the domestic needs of fuel, timber and fuel. They were given remunerative wages. All forest areas worked by government agencies produced good coppice shoots and forest rejuvenated better than the crooked and malformed trees because of cutting of trees by tribals at height of 3'-4' and more from ground. The cutting of trees under government agencies was proper and scientific at 3"-4" height. However the good coppice shoots from such cuttings were soon destroyed deliberately by tribals by grazing their rampaging cattle, goat and sheep. The reason is increasing population and increasing demands on resources to eke out existence.

Naturalists v/s Agriculturists:

When agriculture was first started accidentally by one person many people started following him. But some opposed it as they stuck to their forest based life style and were determined to preserve the natural forests from which they were getting food, clothing and everything they needed. These people were known as RAKSHASAS, which was derived from the word RAKSHA meaning protection of natural forests. The others who adopted agriculture were known as Suras from the world SUR meaning activity of cultivation. The society was then divided in two groups of SURAS or DEVAS and ASURAS or RAKSHASAS. The entire Indian mythology from Rigveda to Puranas is full of fierce battles between these two groups and atrocities of Devas or Suras, their chieftain the INDRA against Rakshasas or Asuras. Though Rakshasas were, if not better, equally powerful and more cultured, they were defeated gradually by Devas not because of superior might of Devas but by treacherous means. Devas would set fire to forests and consequently Rakshasas had to retreat to undestroyed forest areas but were eventually conquered and ideal civilisation and culture based on natural forests was destroyed for ever. Unfortunately history has always praised the conqueror and abused the conquered. It is why Vedas and Puranas of Indian mythology are full of praise for Devas and abuses for Rakshasas though the former were treacherous and destructive. In his research thesis, “Harappa culture and Vedic Literature” Bhagwan Singh has elaborately discussed the conflicts between the then agriculturist and non-agriculturist societies, known as Suras and Asuras or Devas and Rakshasas respectively. The ritual of ‘yagna’ or ‘havan’ (burning of wood, butter, cereals etc.) is reminiscent token of burning of forests by Devas or Suras for extending agriculture. The ritual is so much entrenched that it is essential prerequisite on most of religious and social functions in India.

Rishabha an Agro - Forestry Icon:

In that era of fierce battles between Devas and Rakshasas there had been saner towering personalities who brought rapprochement between the two warring groups or cultures and civilisations. The first such towering personality was RISHABH who has been given incarnation status of VISHNU in Brahmanic and of first Tirthankara (Enlightened) in Shramanik Chronology. He introduced and advised Agro-forestry i.e. planting of rows of trees and cultivation of land intermittently. The trees were so planted in the direction that their shade did not affect the agricultural crops in between. This has been substantiated by recent detailed research of Harappan and Sindhu culture. This practice of Agro-forestry now called “Taungya system’ in forestry was adopted in India during world war-II when the then British rulers extracted more timber from forests than prescribed in working plans. To compensate the excess felling compensatory plantations were raised by adopting agro-forestry and excellent plantations were raised free of cost e.g. teak plantations of Gorakhpur in UP. The methodology was to allot degraded forest lands to landless people, supply them seedlings of trees to plant at 15' spacing and in between allowed them to grow their agriculture crops and when trees grew taller and started shading agriculture crops, these people were shifted to other areas to practice agro-forestry. This practice continued till late fifties in India but had to be stopped by forest department because of malicious designs of so called leaders who instigated the people engaged in agro-forestry to claim permanent tenancy rights in such lands under tenancy acts and rules. It is worth mentioning here that plantations now being raised at the cost of several hundreds crores of rupees are not as successful as those from the above agro-forestry which were free of cost. The author has on assignment from Government of India evaluated till date tree planting and afforestation activities in 32 projects in various states and have concluded on the basis of recorded facts that 90% of plantations are decimated within 5-10 years and plantations are raised over and over again on the areas of earlier plantations. Hardly 10% of the plantations survive up to rotation age and that too because of special effort and enthusiasm of some good individual forest officers or the Samaritan social workers like Anna Hazare. If the tenancy and revenue laws are suitably amended and agro-forestry mentioned above is restored forest cover may be successfully increased free of cost, but it seems unlikely in the prevailing socio-political situation when self interest of vote banks by politicians get priority and preference to national interests.

Agriculture and Population Growth:

The birth of agriculture gave impetus to increase in population which then needed more and more expansion of agriculture which further triggered more and more rapid population growth and the vicious cycle continues till now particularly in predominantly agriculture based societies in developing countries. As a result all available land up to 90% has been brought under agriculture at many places. When no land is available for further expansion there is now fragmentation of land into small holdings. The land holding of say 100 hectares of person with four or five sons gets divided in 20 to 25 hectares for each son. Each son with as many or more sons gets further smaller holding of 4-5 hectare and subsequently less than a hectare. Since the reduced land area is not sufficient to produce sufficient to sustain the divided families, the effort to produce more from smaller and smaller holding results in more intensive agriculture, using more and more chemical fertilisers and water for irrigation. In several villages where there were only one or two tube wells, there are now over 50 and more tube wells. There is so much pressure of population and shortage of land and personal greed that farmers even break open the dams of tanks, allow the precious water to go waste and cultivate the land in the areas of such water bodies. This affects the whole village including the persons who do the mischief. This lowers the water table in the whole area. Wasting of water and destroying the water storage tanks ultimately leads to drying of wells and other resources of water. Water is one of the most essential components for agriculture. This nefarious foolish activity is like cutting of the same branch of tree on which the person himself is sitting.

Exodus from villages and mushroom growth of city slums:

The continuous fragmentation of individual land holdings into smaller and smaller area is also the main cause of exodus from villages to cities, creating serious problem of mushrooming slums where people live in abominably subhuman conditions without proper sanitation, drinking water and other basic facilities. Earlier hardly 5-10% of population was in cities, now it is 30% and more and within a decade or so it will be over 50% which will further accentuate the problems of slums and with it the law and order problems also. There is much ado about human dignity and human rights but these are non-existent in slums. Slum dwellers reconcile to the conditions they are forced to live in and are even inert to disasters like frequent fires, floods, epidemics and consequent loss of life and property over and over again.

Water Famine and Floods:

The increasing need of water more and more, deeper and deeper tube wells are being dug, resulting not only in its fast depletion but also in increasing the fluoride content causing debilitating fluorosis disease in many areas. As a result of shrinking forest cover and its absence over vast catchment areas of rivers and streams the infiltration rate of precipitation has decreased to almost less than 1% from over 99% on well forested areas, conversely the surface run off has increased to more than 99% against less than 1% on wooded lands. Consequently there is more and more soil erosion, silting of dams, tanks and other reservoirs and there are devastating floods during rains and then there is scarcity of water for rest of the year because of lack of recharge of underground water through infiltration of precipitation. The underground water stored as a result of accumulation over thousand of years has been exhausted with in few decades and several areas are now without water. Unless population is controlled there will be a serious crisis of water. Population explosion, has resulted in occupation or encroachment of areas along river banks, sea-shores, steep hill slopes which should have been reserved exclusively for forests and as a result there is heavy loss of life and property by storms, floods, landslides etc.

The recent Tsunami (26-12-04) catastrophe and others like it are as much a result of human choices as of geology and hydrology because of increasing population and consequent rise in consumerism and industrialisation resulting in over exploitation of natural resources, encroachment on uninhabitable areas, the sea shores, steep slopes, seismic zones (susceptible to earthquake), volcano regions etc. The green house effect and global warming and other harmful consequences of population increase and consumerism are redefining climatology, anthropology and even space. Like Tsunami future catastrophes will be far grimmer with many more disasters from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mud slides, droughts etc. There is sharp increase, in such natural disasters from about 100 per year in early 1960’s to 500 per year by early 2000’s. More and more people will be pushed into dangerous zones, flood plains, drought ridden deserts, along fault lines (prone to earthquakes) etc. People will suffer more and more if population and consumerism are not checked. The congested cities like Delhi, Istanbul, Tehran and other increasingly dense and shabbily constructed cities are rubble in waiting. It is population explosion that turned the fruitarian mankind to hunters, non vegetarian and fish eaters because after destruction or depletion of food providing trees as a result of expansion of agriculture which is erratic and inconsistent in providing enough food. Fishes are great scavengers of water bodies, lakes, rivers and even seas and maintaining their cleanliness and eco-system. Fishes generally live on detritus through their filtering fins. Fishing has augmented problems of pollution of water bodies.

Soil renewability:

Earlier when individual land holdings were large enough farmers would cultivate half the land in a year and leave other half fallow to allow it to recuperate and rejuvenate. Subsequently with rise in population entire land had to be cultivated but only one crop was raised and it was allowed to lie fallow during other crop season. Now the land is continuously cultivated with three crops all the year round giving no respite. The land also has renewability capacity but at a time scale very much greater (500 to 1000 years) than that of food crops or other biomass from few months to 5-20 years. As a result of over exploitation many areas are now converted into wastelands and remaining areas are also sustained by heavier and heavier doses of artificial fertilisers, hybrid varieties of crops, requiring more and more fertilisers and water. As a result vast areas of land has lost its natural fertility and the microorganisms which maintained its health and fertility. The land has been depleted into  almost a machine requiring as much inputs as its output and is now uneconomic and is sustained on the crutches of huge subsidies all over the world.

Biological magnification of pesticides:

Even the farmers with larger land holdings cultivate land intensively growing three crops continuously year after year and because of greed use more and more poisonous pesticides, fertilisers and water. Earlier the farmers even with smaller land holdings were growing mix of crops at a time i.e. dividing the land for different crops and there was polyculture which was a natural method of pest control. Now single crop or monoculture is practised over miles and miles, making crops more and more susceptible to pests and requiring higher and higher doses of poisonous pesticides which are not only polluting the environment, the soil, water and air but also accumulating in animals and humans to limits beyond tolerance by biological magnification and is cause of several endemic diseases. Pesticides and fertiliser pollution of 10 ppm in soil is magnified to 100 ppm when absorbed by plants and 1000 ppm when eaten by animals or humans.

The individual greed is so intense that it is totally insensitive to any amount of harm even death to others. In a T.V. interview when farmers were asked whether they were abiding by the rules that pesticides should not be sprayed at least a fortnight before vegetables or fruits are harvested for marketing the reply was that they were spraying pesticides deliberately a day before and even on same day because the products looked fresher and brighter in colour and fetched better prices. The farmers however told that they themselves were not using such products. Obviously they do care for their own families but not for others who may get any harm or even die. Most of the chemicals used in agriculture are persistent and remain in environment for several years with their harmful effects. The persistence of commonly used organochlorides (Aldrein, Dieldrin, DDT, Chlorodane, Endosulfan, Endrin, Heptachlor, Kepone, Lindane, Mirex, Toxaphene, Azodrin, Diaziman etc.) and organophosphates (Melathion, Parathion, Phosdrin, Carberyl or Sevin, Metacil etc.) is 5 to 10 years.

Environmental Ethics
Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur
Society for Scientific & Ethical Living, Jaipur
1st edition 2006
HN4U Online edition:
Dr. Rudi Jansma


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  1. Anna Hazare
  2. Anthropology
  3. Consumerism
  4. Delhi
  5. Devas
  6. Environment
  7. Gene
  8. Greed
  9. Indra
  10. Kota
  11. Lakh
  12. Madhya Pradesh
  13. Mahabharat
  14. Microorganisms
  15. Pandavas
  16. Pradesh
  17. Puranas
  18. Rajasthan
  19. Rishabh
  20. Rishabha
  21. Space
  22. Tirthankara
  23. Tolerance
  24. Vedas
  25. Vedic
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