By Dr. J Scott Younger
As I was writing a section of a book on sustainable development, I was struck by two key thoughts. In the first place, I was reminded of the growth in population, which had taken place over the last 60 or so years, from 3 billion approximately to over 8 billion. However, had we continued the previous trajectory of growth the population today would be approximately 5 billion. There are good reasons for this increase in growth of population; improved health, medical research breakthroughs, people living longer, expansion of globalised shipments of increased output of bulk food from better agricultural practises, and comparative peace, i.e. limited scope wars but no major conflagrations.
An example of allowing continued long-term peace to reign, after a fairly uncomfortable period of erratic governance, is that of Indonesia. In the thirty-year period from 1970, the population doubled from 100 million to 200 million, and the average longevity increased from 40 to 70 years. This was as a result from prime attention to food production and nutrition, education and learning such that elementary education was compulsory and at least junior high encouraged. The difference in the Indonesian case, was that although they could have fallen into the trap of most other countries, by running the country under the military authority which had assumed control in 1968, they didn’t. The military joined and supported a civil administration with highly trained economists, the Berkeley mafia, as they were called, and competent civilian bureaucrats. The country showed admirable growth in the following years; a lesson.
Today, with the 5th largest population in the world, 270 million, Indonesia stands as an important and largest member of ASEAN, the trading block of Southeast Asian countries, and promotes peace.
The UN, with some justification, has designated the current change in the climate as human-induced, and point to the hot conditions and unprecedented wild fires across the world which have caused tremendous losses to property. I don’t think the world realised the results of the fast growth in population nor was it ready to cope with it. While some developing countries have benefited over the last period, others have been left behind. Although there may be some disagreement in the numbers, there are still over a billion population in poor to poverty conditions, especially in Yemen, as a result of a cruel and unjustified war which has been going on for some seven years, and also in sub-Saharan Africa which also sees armed conflicts in Sudan and other locations.
I watched the other day 2-3 year-old children happily playing in a sandpit, learning life skills, and thought of William Henry Davies’s, Welsh poet b. 1905, verse – “What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare…’’
My heart filled with pleasure. At the same time, I was gripped with a deep sense of sadness at the little children I witness in poverty, listless with no hope of any future, mothers’ faces etched with forlorn looks for help.
It is a truism that in the first 5-6 years of our lives, human beings learn most of their life skills. What of the children in poverty, stunted beyond hope? Tackling this must be a top priority, as the UN recognises, especially as the population continues to increase towards the 11-12 billion mark as forecast for mid-century, when it is expected to decline slightly by 2100 (UN Population Forecast 2021).
From Growth to Migration and Space Exploration
There is also the other outcome of this surge in population, migration from poor countries; especially if these countries are war-torn, or if there is an unacceptable level of government corruption, or unfair shackles imposed on women by misguided theocrats, or simply because there is no governance. This is not the first migration in history, nor will it be the last. Politicians should show empathy and refrain from trying to score political points off peoples’ misery, and work together to find suitable solutions.
At the other end of the human scale, there is an accelerating interest in exploring Space, and, undoubtedly, we shall hear about it increasingly in the years ahead. India has just made the first successful landing on the far side of the Moon. In announcing it, PM Narendra Modi made it clear that this was not just a triumph for India but for all the peoples of the world. One wonders if President Vladimir Putin would have been equally gracious had the Russian endeavour, which went awry just three days earlier, not malfunctioned late in its journey. India can now join the big three – the USA, China and Russia – in showing its prowess.
The question of how the USA and China/Russia, who will most likely lead the space endeavours, behave towards one another or can reach an acceptable level of cooperation is well argued by Tim Marshall in his highly readable new book – ’”The Future of Geography’’. There is undoubted mineral wealth to be found in the ground of the Moon surface as there would also appear to be on the Red Planet, Mars. I was reminded of the first moon rocks to be brought back and my professor at UC Berkeley being one of the experts tasked with finding out what was in them. However, this is no longer tomorrow’s world; it has arrived. The last few years, decades even, have been spent in development of solving the many problems to be overcome towards coping with living on the Moon, e.g. gravity, or even staying on Mars later. In between the space-interested countries, of which there are already several, will have to agree the complex issues surrounding satellites, of which there are several thousand, belonging to many countries, e.g. to monitor weather; bases for operations; much space debris, which can interfere with some space operations; and some military equipment, hopefully for defence.
While more and more people, including some of the brightest, will be lured to the new frontier of Space, it will still be a tiny number compared with those who will have earthly tasks. Will there still be poverty? Probably. There will be more urban living and that is another story. In the meantime, it is imperative that we pay attention soon to the big problems that are with us today, namely; climate change; sea and land pollution-the urban infrastructure support for water and sewerage services has not been keeping pace with the need for new building, especially in older, mature towns and cities; heath and care services; energy, a big subject, renewable vs fossil fuels; protection of crucial water resources; sea level rise and coastal defences, especially where large cities are involved. It must be remembered that urban living takes up a very small percentage of the total land space, approximately 1 ½ % and by mid-century that will mean about 7-8 billion living in urban conditions, compared with today’s +/- 5 billion.
Accommodation? It is good, however, to see that there is a growing number of people taking a real interest in the rural landscape. It requires our attention now.
There will be plenty to do in the near future on Earth as well as some of us aspiring for the stars. There is no time for war! There shouldn’t be.
About the author: Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP. He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia and Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Glasgow University. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board. Lived and worked in Thailand from 1978 to 1983 and visited Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal for projects.