Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Jul 11, 2022
A more holistic developmental paradigm that incorporates the SDG goals needs to be adopted for a resilient ad sustainable future.
The World Population Day 2022: A new development paradigm for a resilient future

This article is part of the series — World Population Day.


There is no harm in reiterating that modern civilisation has witnessed exponential population growth: Today’s world population today is 1,860 times what it was around 12,000 years ago—roughly around 4 million which is tantamount to less than half of the population of London, one-fifth the population of Beijing, and almost one-eighth the population of Delhi. This sudden spurt in population growth from 1850 onwards has brought about various developmental challenges that can largely be theorised through the Malthusian creed that predicted the failure of food and natural resource systems to keep pace with the growth of the population. The Malthusian creed, however, has been challenged from various corners.

While on the one hand, overpopulation has been posed as a developmental challenge giving credence not only to the above Malthusian theory but also to a system’s declining capacity to meet the human needs for a dignified life, there are economies with skewed demographies (implying a high proportion of older population, e.g. Japan, South Korea, the United States (US), etc.) that feel challenged due to the growing numbers of older population (> 65 years in age). This high dependency ratio—the ratio of number of dependents aged 0 to 14 and over the age of 65, and the population aged between 15 and 64—again poses challenges to any nation’s capacity to cater to the needs of the dependent population, and also raises concerns about its future growth due to the low base of future productive labour. Such a sub-replacement level of fertility (resulting in each new generation being less populous than the previous one) is a major concern that looms large for many parts of the Global North, especially the European Union (EU) and the US.

As the World Population Day 2022 talks of a resilient future, one needs to understand the various dimensions of human existence.

As the World Population Day 2022 talks of a resilient future, one needs to understand the various dimensions of human existence. This means understanding at the very outset that population is not merely the numbers, but the associated economy, society, their linkages with the broader natural ecosystem, the life with dignity, the emotions and aspirations, the cultural ethos, etc. It is a combination of all these varieties of parameters that create this human system.

The history of human civilisation is marked by multiple threats and shocks (natural disasters, diseases, wars, etc.). That the human system has survived and evolved is a clear reflection of its tremendous resilience and abilities to adapt to such shocks and ever-changing ambient conditions. However, the present threats to the human system are largely unprecedented. This is more so because most of the present threats or shocks are more endogenous than what used to prevail earlier. This is true if one talks of climate change, human warfare, or the COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest of the challenges to the present human system not only emerges from the size of the population but because of the ambitions and aspirations posed by modern civilisation. Forces of global warming and climate change emerge from human developmental ambitions. Therefore, contrary to populist thinking that climate change is an environmental problem, climate change should be understood as a developmental problem emerging from the human penchant for unbridled growth. Through a feedback loop emerging from the intricate dynamics of the environment-development interactions, climate change affects various human development parameters. In short, the problem of global warming and climate change emerged due to human’s myopic growth ambitions without any consideration of the “cost of growth” which has finally made its negative impacts felt on the long-term development ambitions. Similarly,  COVID-19 and various zoonotic emerging infectious diseases have affected humanity due to extensive anthropogenic interventions and consequent modifications in the natural ecosystems, thereby, inhibiting an organic regulating service of the ecosystem, disease control.

Contrary to populist thinking that climate change is an environmental problem, climate change should be understood as a developmental problem emerging from the human penchant for unbridled growth.

On the other hand, an increasing population base has also exerted pressure on the natural resource base—the fundamental capital form that provides food, water, and livelihoods. Interventions over natural hydrological regimes to tap the untapped irrigation and hydropower potential infringed the integrity of surface water flow, led to fragmentation of the river systems, destroyed the natural ecosystem dependent on them, and consequently impeded the capacity of the ecosystem to provide the ecosystem services (i.e. goods and services provided for free by the natural ecosystems to the human community). Increased population combined with its diversified demand has, therefore, been proving inimical for the sustainability of the ecosystem, thereby, affecting their long-run abilities to sustain the human system. This is increasingly being witnessed in China, South Asia, the western US, and Latin America.

Call for a new development paradigm for a resilient future

In other words, the business-as-usual ways of looking at development through the lens of a reductionist and myopic paradigm that has so far confined itself to the growing GDP numbers are unsustainable for the human system to survive: The present model of “brown growth” is already in its own auto-destruct mode as can be witnessed with the pressures being felt. There is no doubt that the time has come to redelineate human priorities. The question is: How do we ensure the progress of the human system without compromising the integrity of the natural ecosystem given the intricate relation between the two? It is in this context that a more holistic and integrated development paradigm needs to be evolved. Such a paradigm has already been embraced in the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that fundamentally embeds the four forces of capital, namely, physical, social, human and natural in its 17 goals.

Quite rightly, Mohan Munasinghe’s new “sustainomics framework” for reconciling  sustainable development and climate change gets reverberated in the SDGs that also emphasise addressing the three normative concerns of development, namely, equity, efficiency, and sustainability, simultaneously. The essence of the new development paradigm for human progress, therefore, rests on three pillars: a) Enhancing human capital through the provision of better health and education for all; b) enhancing physical capital without compromising the integrity and sustainability of the natural ecosystem over time and space; and c) creating normative pathways for distributive justice through reduced wealth, income, and social inequalities.

The way physical capital (infrastructure) creation has been thought of so far has proved largely unsustainable as it resulted in large-scale land-use change or resulted in interventions over the hydrological flows.

What should be the modus operandi then? At the very outset, this warrants more targeted or universal transfer mechanisms not only through governmental systems but also through private initiatives – this will entail an appeal to the human conscience to create processes of transfers from the “haves” of the world to the “have-nots” of the world. On the other hand, “green” physical infrastructure should be thought of as the future. It is this sector that has already been projected as the next-generation employment generator. However, the way physical capital (infrastructure) creation has been thought of so far has proved largely unsustainable as it resulted in large-scale land-use change or resulted in interventions over the hydrological flows. Again, there is a feeling in many parts of the world that only “energy transition” from fossil fuel to renewable sources will help the process of “green transition”. Nothing can be further from the truth! Unbridled land-use change for infrastructure projects not only destroys ecosystems and their local level services to human systems but also releases the stocked carbon into the atmosphere exacerbating the impacts of climate change and counteracts the positive impacts that would otherwise be obtained by the energy transition.

Therefore, the new development paradigm needs to build-in ex-ante cost-benefit analysis of projects through strategic assessments entailing social, economic, ecological, cultural, and all other forms of impacts. The losses to ecosystem services entailing those of the regulating services like carbon sinks and sequestration, additional carbon emissions, disease control, food provisioning, biological control, and other social costs (e.g. rehabilitation costs, human-day losses, livelihoods losses etc) should be plugged into the holistic benefit-cost matrix. Adoption of such a new development paradigm by discarding the business-as-usual can help in looking forward to a resilient future for the human population. Embracing this new paradigm and ushering the resilient future should, therefore, be the pledge of and for humanity on World Population Day 2022.

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Author

Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in India, where he leads the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) and ...

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