Last month, temperatures across the world spiked. ‘Heat wave’ screamed the headlines. In parts of northern India, temperatures will be almost seven degrees above normal. In parts of the western world, people died, as temperatures soared. Death Valley, California, recorded a new high of 54 degrees Celsius.
Global warming is real, as is climate change. As the world gets hotter, it is going to impact every nation. With changing weather patterns, parts of the grain-producing world are moving towards drought. Hunger seems imminent, coupled with water shortage. Nature’s wake-up call is loud. Drastic attempts have been made to look at the world’s population and how it consumes.
1951 was seen by many as the start of a new era in the world. The second world war was over. There was relative peace in Europe. This was also the era of de-colonisation. Former colonies in Asia and Africa overthrew their Imperial overlords to chart their own destiny. The world over, it was the start of an era of hope and of growth. The population of the world stood at 2.6 billion people. India’s population in 1951 stood at 361 million. Two very different things drove development. The first was a massive investment in infrastructure and development of cities. The second was agriculture and animal husbandry on an industrial scale.
In the post-war era, with the growth in state-backed science, and public health – there were massive drops in death rates. In 1950, the world saw 146 infants die, per 1,000 live births. That figure in India was almost 190 for every 1,000 live births. Simultaneously, green revolutions across the world ensured that those born would not starve to death. Simultaneously, many countries adopted industrial livestock production – also known as factory farming. This enabled the world to beat the impact of droughts, and ensure that most people didn’t die of starvation when rains failed.
Population issues in 2021
In 2021, the problems we face are different. The first, very clearly in population. In the 70 years since 1951, world population has increased just over 3 times, to 7.9 billion people. India’s population stands at 1.39 billion people, an increase of almost 3.9 times. While there are those who insist that population sizes are not a problem, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
7.9 billion people of the world have to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and be allowed to access those tools and techniques that will enable them to meet their aspirations. And all this costs the nations of the world, not just in terms of money, but in terms of energy expended. When we discuss climate change, it is impossible to discuss it without the impact of populations and their aspirations, on climate. Our aspirations, our activities, our very existence gives rise to emissions that make the world warmer.
Everything that we do contributes to the increase in emissions. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Given that there are eight billion of us, that is a fair amount of carbon dioxide. Add to this deforestation and the chopping of trees that absorb carbon dioxide and we have compounded the problem. Also, when we consider the emissions produced by all our industrial activity, including the rearing of animals on an industrial scale, we are looking at an even further increase in the increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs).
The message from nature is crystal clear. Stop messing around. The world has to pay heed, or we will be leaving wastelands for future generations. And therefore, we need to learn from how nations built back in the 1950s. Once again, the focus has to be infrastructure. But this time, it needs to be rebuilt in a manner that reduces GHG emissions. Every polluting part of our infrastructure must be identified, studied, and replaced with more environmentally friendly options. This will have the effect of reducing emissions in the medium run, while reviving economies in the short run at the same time.
The second is to look at how we feed the world. With almost 80 per cent of the world identifying itself as omnivorous, the need for meat production is extremely high. Most western economies are built on factory farming. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the total emissions from global livestock amounts to 14.3 per cent of all GHGs. Of this, cattle reared for both milk and meat are responsible for 65 per cent of the livestock emissions.
A growing number of influential billionaires in the world have added their voice to the chorus against industrial rearing of livestock. What was initially the domain of animal rights activists and animal lovers – has now been joined by the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who have begun investing in startups pioneering lab-grown meat. The move away from livestock slaughter to lab-created meat will not just solve ethical and moral issues around killing animals, but also alleviate the environmental disaster that arises out of ‘factory farming’.
Nations and people may not want to combat climate change by reducing aspirations or curtailing consumption. Science and technology will need to find solutions that create ‘clean’ variants of everything that we use today. And, one of them definitely has to be lab-grown food on an industrial scale.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker