Contemporary History of Anthropogenic Environment Change

  • Alok Sheel

The earth's geological past has seen violent climate shifts. The extinction of the dinosaurs, the Neolithic Revolution that followed the retreat of the last ice age, and the sudden demise of ancient civilizations, has been linked to climate change. While mankind has been altering the planetary environment ever since the Neolithic Revolution, it is only after the Industrial Revolution that it has attained the weight of numbers and technological capacity to majorly alter the climate through its own activities.

The earth's geological past has seen violent climate shifts. The extinction of the dinosaurs, the Neolithic Revolution that followed the retreat of the last ice age, and the sudden demise of ancient civilizations, has been linked to climate change. While mankind has been altering the planetary environment ever since the Neolithic Revolution, it is only after the Industrial Revolution that it has attained the weight of numbers and technological capacity to majorly alter the climate through its own activities.
Anthropogenic environment change stems from a tangled web of population growth, poverty, affluence and technology. The origins of the debate can be traced back to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Towards the closing years of the eighteenth century, when Britain was undergoing the demographic transition that several developing
countries, such as India, are undergoing today the first symptom of which is a sharp increase in population due to a declining death rate the English economist, Thomas Malthus, predicted that population growth would outstrip man's ability to feed itself. In case the carrying capacity was exceeded, war, pestilence and famine would descend to wipe off the surplus population.
Malthus has been repeatedly proved wrong by history, as cereal production has in fact outstripped population growth on account of continuing technological progress. Indeed, the Malthusian perspective was turned on its head by Esther Boserup, who postulated that population pressure acted as a catalyst for technological progress. Moreover, with the control first of catastrophic famines and epidemics, and subsequent improvements in public health sanitation, dietary habits and health care-the new technology facilitated a dramatic fall in mortality.
While mortality declined sharply, the birth rate adjustment was lagged and variable as it is influenced by a host of heterogeneous cultural, social and economic factors. It is this maladjustment that lies behind the galloping population growth rate ever since the Industrial Revolution. As a result global population, which had inched its way upwards since Neolithic times to some half a billion by 1650 doubled by 1820, and doubled again to touch the two billion mark in 1930. The doubling to four billion took only 44 years. Despite the fact that the rate of increase shows a downturn since the early seventies after
touching an unprecedented 2% globally, current projections are alarming enough to trigger major environmental concerns regarding the ability of planet earth to sustain such vast numbers, especially following alarms sounded by the Club of Rome a few decades ago. The neo-Malthusian school continues to have a wide following as it is feared that the speed and rate of population growth, combined with rapid economic growth and per capita consumption, presage not just a Malthusian catastrophe that would wipe out
the surplus population, but also wipe out the human species through catastrophic climate change.

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