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Environmental Ethics: 3.2 Optimising Population And Consumerism (2)

Author:  Image of S.M. JainS.M. Jain
Published: 16.02.2012

Extinction of Species:

The indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has also resulted in extinction of several thousand species of useful micro-organisms, insects, birds, animals and plants, disturbing the natural ecological balance. With the birth of agriculture started the violation of symbiotic rules of nature. Any organism, insect, bird or animal causing slightest damage to crop, may be for a short while and may be useful in the long run, was considered enemy and killed and annihilated. In several scientific studies it has been observed that out of total number of organisms, insects, birds or animals only a fraction hardly 5% cause certain temporary damage but the use of chemicals to eliminate these, kills all other useful ones also. With increase in population and consequent increase in extension of agriculture in area, combined with increasing intensity of cropping, more and more species of flora and fauna were annihilated and the process is continuing even now. According to the recent report of International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 15589 species of mammals, amphibians, turtles, tortoises, fishes and plants are threatened with extinction, mainly because of environmental damage caused by mankind. Craig Hilton Taylor of IUCN said that this number is greatly underestimated as only a fraction of known species have been assessed. Even apparently robust species from tigers to horse, sparrows are threatened because of habitat destruction from depredations by humans. Extinction rates have increased 1000 fold in last few decades.

Erosion, water logging, salinity-alkalinity, water pollution:

The extent of damage done to environment in disturbing its ecological symbiotic balance, decreasing the diversity and more so by severe pollution of soil, water and air, is so immense that if quantified in terms of money it will be several hundred trillions of dollars every year. The tilling of soil for cultivation dislodges soil and accelerates erosion by water and wind in absence of permanent green cover of forests. The annual loss of soil by erosion is colossal. Indiscriminate irrigation has rendered vast areas useless as a result of water logging, salinity and alkalinity. The use of chemical fertilisers particularly those containing nitrogen has polluted not only rivers, wells, tanks and other water sources but also the oceans where the number and size of oxygen starved dead zones is increasing and almost doubled to 150 since 1990. The size of the dead zones in oceans varies from one sq km to several thousand sq kms. These are graveyards for fish and plant life. According to Klans Toepfer and Marion Cheatle of UNEP the problem is escalating with serious economic and climatic consequence for the planet earth. Most of the water sources, rivers, lakes, tanks, wells are polluted many times more than permissible or tolerance limits with harmful metals viz. lead which cause mental retardation, sodium which cause heart diseases, calcium which is responsible for kidney stones, magnesium which may cause bladder stones, iron causing constipation, arsenic which is poisonous and insecticides which are cause of even deadly cancer.

Hybrids and G.M. Varieties:

In order to feed the increasing numbers it is increasingly necessary to increase production of food per unit area of land beyond its carrying capacity by artificial supplements. After chemical fertilisers and pesticides now the hybrid varieties of crops wheat, rice, maize etc. are threatening eco-systems. These reduced the biodiversity of food crops to 10-15 in place of thousands earlier. In India alone there used to be over 2500 varieties of wheat and about 3000 varieties of rice in different edapho-climatic zones, suited to particular environment and were resistant to pests. Most of these are extinct now. The hybrid varieties not only replaced the less demanding varieties but required more water and artificial fertilisers and pesticides thus further accentuating the environmental pollution. After hybrids a new danger is looming large by genetically engineered or manipulated (GM) varieties of food crops. Since powerful Corporates and multinational companies are promoting the GM food crops, it is being thrust on developing and poor countries with a view to monopolise food production world over. The GM varieties will be terminal i.e. the seeds will germinate only once and the grains produced from GM seeds will not germinate and can not be used as seeds as at present. The farmers will therefore depend for seeds every time on Corporates. The harmful effects of GM food crops on humans, animals and birds have not yet been fully studied. There are already distressing reports from several studies. There is every possibility that it may be disastrous for biosphere as a whole. But the mad race to feed increasing mouths continues.

Industrial onslaught:

After agriculture came the industrial revolution which further ruined the environmental conditions. In addition to direct pollution of environment by industrial emissions of poisonous gases into atmosphere and toxic effluents into water systems and soil the most harmful impact of industrialisation is that it is triggering consumerism more and more and to meet the increasing demands, more and more industries are coming up which further triggers consumerism and the vicious cycle is going on. Before industrialisation it was only increasing number of people that was adversely affecting the environment. Now it is double edged sword i.e. of population increase and consumerism that is cutting ruthlessly the very fabric of environmental safety.

Earlier the requirements for food, clothing and shelter were very limited and so also the energy requirements. Most of the items whether food, cloth, houses, implements were hand made. It was cottage industry of almost every household that supplied all requirements. This provided employment to most of the people both males and females. Cottage industry is almost in doldrums because of more and more mechanisation and automation in industries. Even small scale industries are unable to compete with the big ones owned by corporate giants. The technology used and quality of goods produced by cottage industry were quite superior. The fabulous fineness of Dhaka muslin is well authenticated in factual historical records. The iron pillar of Delhi, its stainless quality is still puzzling the scientists. The temple architecture of Hindu period and Mughal architecture of red fort and of fairy wonder in marble of Taj are envy of even most modern architectural technology. The point is that technologies should be such that they are harmless and benevolent for short as well as long terms and for all people for all time i.e. present and future generations. The destructive technologies such as that of atom bombs, biological and chemical weapons should be discarded. Energy intensive technologies based on fossil fuels should be replaced by those which are manual or based on solar, wind, tide or other forms of natural energies and others which are environment friendly. Most of the technologies create problems and new ones developed to solve these also create problems and there is an unending technology trap e.g. water pollution. Water is polluted as an impact of polluting industrial and agricultural technologies and then technologies to purify water are evolved which also need industries adding and accentuating pollution, necessitating newer and newer technologies. Similar is the story in case of pollution of air and soil. The most harmful effect of pollution is on the health of people domestic and wild animals, plants and all other life forms. The remedial measures need more and more pharmaceutical, instrumental appliances and other industries which further aggravate pollution. However the technologies that conform to the principal of utilisation of natural resources within their carrying capacities are not at all harmful. Of course development of technologies is a continuous process and is an essential ingredient for human progress but these should be within the ambit of the cardinal principal of symbiosis.

Galloping Consumerism:

The consumption levels are increasing by leaps and bounds. The thrust of alluring and sensuous advertisements through audio-visual electronic media is polluting the minds of young and old for more and more consumption. The production of more and more consumer goods ultimately puts stress on natural resources soil, water, minerals etc. and these are getting depleted faster than ever before. It requires 1000 tonnes of water to produce 1 tonne of steel. A 1000 megawatt thermal power plant of 40% efficiency heats up 10 million litres of water by 35ºC. This suffocates fish and other fauna and is harmful to aquatic flora also. Construction of 24 kg computer along with 27cm cathode ray tube requires 230 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg chemicals, 1500 kg of water. To produce 32 Mb DRAM memory chip it requires 1.7 kg fossil fuel and chemicals and 32 kg of water. The requirement of water and energy (electric or fossil fuel) for sugar, textile, automobile, chemical and other industries is colossal and so are the billowing poisonous fumes and gushing toxic effluents from mushrooming fast industrial growth.

E. Cook in 1975 gave elaborate calculations about growth of daily energy consumption per capita in KCals–1 day–1 from Palaeolithic to present era. The Palaeolithic man 106 years ago needed only 2000 units of energy for his requirements then and that was food only. In middle Palaeolithic era 105 year ago the need doubled to 4000 units because of requirements for other domestic purposes, building shelter etc. In early Neolithic period 104 years ago the energy requirement increased to 12000 units with break up of 4000 for food, 4000 for domestic needs and 4000 for agriculture and cottage industry. By end of middle ages about 600 years ago the energy need was 26000 units (6000 for food, 12000 for domestic purposes, 8000 for agriculture and industry). The early industrial society 100 years ago consumed 77000 units (7000 for food, 32000 for domestic needs, 24000 for industry and agriculture and 14000 for transport). The energy consumption level of modern technological society in 1970 rose to 230000 Kcals–1 day–1 (10000 for food, 66000 for domestic consumption, 91000 for industry and agriculture and 63000 for transport). It may have by now crossed 300000 Kcals–1 day–1.

Industrial emissions, effluents, wastes and their impacts:

Most of the energy needs are met by burning fossil fuel, the oil and coal. The thermal power stations are highly polluting and generally work on 40% efficiency. They need huge quantities of water and the heated water thrown back in water bodies damage the eco-system. Since the combustion of coal or oil is never complete, lot of harmful, gases the carbon-dioxide, carbon-mono-oxide (a very toxic gas), sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide etc. damage the environment. The acid rains are result of sulphur dioxide, reacting with water in atmosphere. Thermal power stations produce huge quantities of fly ash, the disposal of which is yet a problem. The levels of carbon dioxide produced by these power stations, vehicular exhausts and other activities produce green house effect, trapping the ground heat and not allowing it to escape in the atmosphere higher up. As a result the average temperature is increasing, affecting the climatic patterns all over the globe. Average global temperature rose by 0.6ºC in the last century, it is now increasing by 0.1ºC every decade and ten warmest years in recorded history occurred during last fifteen years. Global warming has led to freakish weather conditions in unexpected droughts, cyclones, coral bleaching, megastorms, sudden snow storms (recently in UAE where it was never before), grass taking roots in Antarctica. Arctic getting hotter, species getting mutated (micro-organisms have mutated into new organism Pfiesteria which kills and eats fish). With depleting ozone layer, the effect of sun and wind will become stronger, people will have to live indoor and grow food underground. If the trend continues it will affect the production of food crops. It will also result in melting of glaciers and ice capes, raising the sea level which will result in submergence of vast areas, displacement of populations and simultaneously drying up of the glacier fed rivers will create more pressure on shrinking land area, cause draught, hunger, water famine, and misery to people all over. There are numerous other toxic solid, liquid and gaseous industrial effluents and emissions polluting soil, water and air causing immense harm to human and other life forms, various diseases like asthma, cardiac and even cancer. The more the population and consumerism the more will be generation of waste, gases and effluents.

Danger from Nuclear power plants and other radiation:

The nuclear power plants considered less polluting than thermal plants are in fact more dangerous. Presently nuclear energy is produced by fission. Only certain nuclei of unstable atoms are fissionable. The material used is uranium. Only uranium 235 is fissionable which is only 0.7% of the uranium found and converted into plutonium 239 and then used as fissionable fuel for nuclear power plants. Plutonium 239 is one of deadliest poisons. A thousandth of a grain will kill any one. In spite of advancement of technology and best precautions there are accidents in nuclear power plants which require considerable effort and preparation to control. The radiation emissions can result in catastrophe. The burnt nuclear fuel remain radio active for long periods. There is not yet safer method for its safe disposal. It is being dumped in sea in sealed containers which may be corroded and the contents be leaked out. There are other forms of radiation also viz. radio waves, micro waves, infra-red waves, X-rays etc. Their intensity is increasing as the consumption levels of emitting gadgets radios, phones, mobiles, TVs, ovens etc. are rising. If humans are exposed to dose of 100-200 rads, it will cause fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of hair etc. Beyond 400-500 rads it will impair bone marrow function, essential to produce materials needed by human body to fight infections. In an experiment honey bees were put under high tension electric transmission lines and it was observed that bees became very violent. There will be same effect or human beings, animals and other insects. There are many delayed effects of radiation which occur months or years after exposure. There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to radiation increase incidence of cancer. Radiation is affecting not only percent generation but also the future generation by altering the genetic materials in sperm cells and egg cells and mutations. As a result infants may be borne deformed. With rising population and consumerism there are more and more nuclear power plants and other such appliances and radiation threat is increasing. There is also so much stockpile of nuclear warheads with many nations that if by mistake or under impulsive reaction by individuals controlling them, they are triggered, then it will be the end of the world. These need to be dismantled and neutralised.

Impact of Chemical industries:

Likewise more and more chemical and consumer goods industries are coming up. There are about 70,000 different chemicals produced and the number is increasing. These are used in food processing, textile, tanneries, sugar, electronic and other industries and are discharged in water bodies, soil and air. Most of the synthetic food additives, the preservatives (Benzoic acid, Calcium propionate, Sorbic acid, Sulphur dioxide etc.), the antioxidants (Butylated hydroxyanisole, Propyle gallato etc.), the colouring agents and flavouring agents (Monosodium glutonate, saccharin), the emulsifiers (Lecithin, Polysorbates, Propylene glycol, Mono and diglycerides), the stabilizers and thickeners (Dextrin, Gelatine, Saccharids etc.) being used beyond permissible quantities are toxic and many are carcinogenic. Hazardous DDT, BHC though banned in developed countries are still used in large quantities in developing and poor countries notably India uses 77% of its total world production. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) used in manufacture of electrical insulations, transformers, plastic food containers, epoxy resins, caulking compounds, wall and upholstery coverings, soaps, cosmetic creams, paints, glues, self duplicating papers, waxes, brake linings are as toxic as DDT. They are not bio-degradable, dispersed and are persistent in environment for years. PCBs are soluble in animal fat and stored in living tissue. They are found in cows milk, fish, in living tissue, meat and in human bodies. When decompose, the products of their decomposition are more toxic than original material. Though banned, yet are being used and even if their use is stopped, the adverse effects in environment will remain for long. Dioxin which is one of the deadliest poison is being disposed by burying in water bodies (e.g. 1000 kg of waste contaminated with Dioxin is buried in Niagara falls). 75 grams of dioxin in drinking water is sufficient to kill a million people. All the harmful chemicals are ultimately discharged in environment, in soil, water and air. Recently the new electronic waste is increasing every year by leaps and bounds. Computers and other electronic appliances are getting obsolete within 2-3 years and their waste of billions of tonnes of cadmium, mercury, lead and chromium etc. are pausing hazardous environmental pollution of soil, air and water.

Human beings from their washings of tooth pastes, creams, lipsticks, nail polishes, soaps etc. discharge several hundred kilograms of the chemicals in environment. The luxurious, consumerist life style of modern techno-society with its use and throw attitude is generating so much of all sorts of waste, plastics, chemicals, metals etc. that its safe disposal is already a problem and will accentuate in future. Since the effects of most of the pollutants except few are not immediately perceptible and manifest after a period of time, people and governments are generally careless. Many of the waste products can be recycled and their harmful effects can be reduced. However the real remedies lie in controlling population and consumerism. Unless use of chlorofluorocarbons in refrigeration and air conditioning is stopped the widening of hole in the protective ozone layer cannot be restored and more and more people will suffer from skin cancer because of ultra violet radiation which would be reaching to earth in absence of protective ozone layer.

Sound Pollution:

There is general ignorance about incipient sound pollution which is increasing because of more and more factories, automobiles, aeroplanes, music, radios, TVs and also bands etc. in persisting cultural functions. Sound is not a chemical but a wave motion in air and is measured in decibels (dB). Rustling of leaves is 10 dB and is “very quite”. The soft whispers in a library are 30 dB and are considered “quite”. Average living room has sound intensity of 40 dB. Light traffic noise of properly maintained vehicles 30 metres away is 50 dB and is “moderately loud”. Air-conditioning unit 60-metres away produce 60 dB and is “loud”. Vacuum cleaner generate 70 dB. The garbage disposal produce 80 dB. Motorcycle 8 metres away, food blender and diesel truck 75 metres away generate 90 dB and is considered “very loud”. Long exposure to more than 70 dB cause damage such as gradual impairment of hearing. News paper press, Jet flying over 300 metres produce 100 dB. Textile loom, auto horn one metre away generate 110-120 dB and this level is “uncomfortably loud” and cause progressive damage in loss of hearing. Maximum recorded rock music produce 130-140 dB and Jet plane at take off gives 150 to 170 dB and rocket engine produce 180 dB. These levels are painful, traumatic and injurious to mental health. Sound pollution is more harmful to children.

Fall out of Consumerism:

With all the technology, knowledge, material comforts at its command mankind is still not at peace with itself and other constituents of environment around. Natural resources are being consumed at very fast rate and will be exhausted thus endangering the very foundations on which the citadel of material glamour and glare is standing. India supposed to be rich in its coal deposits is being forced to import coal from Indonesia etc. at thrice the local cost to feed its increasing number of thermal power plants due to rise in electricity consumption. Petroleum imports are already threatening the balance of payments and leading to debt trap like many other developing countries. In absence of the equitable and fair distribution of consumables tensions between haves and have-nots are increasing. Only a fraction of population, hardly 10%, live in opulence, consuming more than 80% of the total resources and products. The mass of people, the remaining 90% subsist on meagre 20%. In both haves and have-nots also there are myriad stratifications. There are people just 1% who have fabulous life style more than poorest million put together. Similarly there are various degrees of consumption in have-nots. There is fierce rivalry in between the myriad groups of people, societies and nations to get more and more, exploiting and usurping each other. The people who muster money and muscle power by hook or crook usurp maximum share.

It is population explosion that is creating serious unemployment problem for youth who are being allured by fanatics as tools of conditioned hard terrorists. Drug addiction and related crimes of theft, murder are also result of growing unemployment, inequalities, lack of mutualism and prevailing predatory, exploitative life styles. Man is becoming more and more individualistic without any concern for even other human beings. There is no concern for environment. Greed is increasing, contentment is vanishing. Good moral values are declining fast, losing sensitivity to pains of others. Majority of people even remain just spectators in cases of injured in accidents and crying for help. Greed generates vanity and indulgence in sensuous pleasures and this triggers anger on slightest pretexts in insignificant discomfort or inconvenience. The multinational corporations and other corporate industries are thrusting their products by aggressive advertisements and thus generating more and more consumerism. This is having very adverse effect on young generation which is getting more and more addictive to sensuous indulgence particularly sex, pornography and violence so proliferate in electronic media, cell phones, T.V., internet, cinema with obvious fall out of growing alcoholism, drug addictions, premature teen age sex and consequent violence and disturbance of peace in society. The future generation particularly of rich and middle classes is drifting away from traditional values and morality and is getting more and more individualistic sensuous and consumerist with dreadful impact on social and physical environment. With development activities, liberalisation and inbuilt corruption in the system there is enough black and easy money to splurge and waste. Paradoxically the more opulence the more tensions and mental disorders including schizophrenia and need for sleeping pills and other sedatives. Obviously the increasing numbers and exponential growth in consumerism are causing great harm to present and future generations. The World Bank experts have opined that availability of adequate employment is best safety for society and there is no alternative to it. But this will not be possible so long as the population continues to explode as of now. It is suicidal path and must be changed, sooner the better.

Balancing the mismatch between demand and carrying capacities:

On an average the per capita requirement of land is 1.9 acres for food crops, 2.4 acres for pasture, 2.6 acres as wood land, 2.2 acres for shelter, clothing etc. i.e. total of 9.1 acres or 4 hectares approximately. Populations should therefore be brought drown gradually according to above carrying capacity of land. Likewise per capita consumption should be optimised to the same extent. Extensive research work has been done on the impact of mismatch between demands and carrying capacities of resources on damage to environment, water resources, atmosphere, soil and to human health and this has been quantified and documented. The findings are alarming and necessitate remedial measures soonest. References of these research works are available in Environment Extracts, published by Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India. There are numerous such publications from other countries also. The available data are so massive that it is not possible to quote even some of them in this brief treatise.

It will be illusory to assume that administrative, economical or even technological measures will solve environmental problems. The past experience is that it has not been possible. In spite of meticulous planning in cities and towns, the number of slums and their size are increasing. There are elaborate rural development, rural employment and poverty alleviation programmes, yet exodus from villages to slums in cities is on the increase. There has been considerable increase in grain production but intermittent shortfalls and consequent imports are back again. There is phenomenal increase in public transport both on roads and railways but the overcrowding is there. Residential houses have been constructed in large numbers, devouring even fertile prime agricultural land, yet there is acute shortage, forcing people to sleep on pavements. More and more people are being continuously forced to inhabit inhospitable dangerous seismic zones, volcanic regions, flood plains, deserts and tsunami prone areas susceptible to more severe disasters and miseries. Medicinal science has made considerable progress. In spite of vaccination, more and more number of hospitals, there is overcrowding in hospitals. The percentage of literates may have increased but the number of illiterates is also going up. There are phenomenal technological advances yet the air, water and soil pollution is increasing e.g. a whopping expenditure of over Rupees 1000 crores on Ganga Action Plan to clean river Ganges have been incurred, yet the river is more polluted now.

The satellite imageries may show slight percentage increase in forest cover mainly because of naturally spreading obnoxious and aggressive Prosopis juliflora, in real terms the density and bio-diversity of natural forest is decreasing. Trillions and trillions of trees have been planted since 1952, yet the status report of green cover is yet alarming because plants are soon wiped out under increasing biotic pressure of exploding population of men and domestic animals. There are similar several other maladies continuing unabated. There will be no respite unless population and consumerism is checked. In spite of stringent laws encroachments on forest and public lands will continue and so all the malaise of overcrowding everywhere, shortfalls in power, water and food supplies, filth and squalor, crimes and wars and miseries to people. Whatever measures that may be taken to solve problems, these will always be inadequate against galloping population and consumerism which will continue to accentuate existing problems and generate new problems also.

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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