International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Mosque loudspeaker saga continues

Last week when I wrote about a single mosque in Toronto using four loudspeakers to declare “Allah is the Greatest” and that there is “No God, but Allah.” I thought it was the case of one mosque, a few zealots and their formerly communist councillor investing in her Muslim vote bank.

A Mosque in Toronto, Canada

I was wrong. Within days, dozens of mosques across the country deployed loudspeakers, ostensibly to soothe the loneliness of Muslims because of the lockdown, but what critics may rightly claim could be laying the foundations to establish what are predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, which we see in Paris, Amsterdam and cities in Britain and Germany.

The most blatant illustration of the power some voices in the Muslim community have over our municipal politicians was demonstrated in Mississauga, where Mayor Bonnie Crombie rejected the advice of her top administrators, and in a drive-by vote managed to pass a unanimous resolution amending the city noise bylaw that will legalize the blaring of loudspeakers at all Mississauga mosques.

When Mississauga councillors Sue McFadden and Ron Star on Wednesday sought to overturn the first vote and have a discussion, they were somehow persuaded by the mayor into changing their mind. The fact that critics of the loudspeakers have already been labelled racist and Islamophobic would scare the bravest amongst us.

If Crombie thought the affected people would simply roll over and hand the keys of city decision-making to the Mullahs of Mississauga, she was in for a surprise. The city known for its suburban subservience triggered a citizen’s revolt led by one person – Ram Subrahmanian, who announced a plan to launch a constitutional challenge against the change of Mississauga’s noise laws.

Subrahmanian, who is part of the Peel Region group ‘Keep Religion Out Of Peel Region Schools (KROOPS)’, also managed to receive around $120,000 for this cause through a Facebook page. As of Wednesday, Subrahmanian appears to have recruited over 6,000 people, each committing to donate around $45 for the court battle was joined by Muslim Canadian Congress spokesperson Munir Pervaiz, who cited many Islamic scholars who have denounced the use of loudspeakers in mosques as against the spirit of Islam.

Subrahmanian told me that lawyers are preparing to seek a constitutional challenge in the Ontario Courts of Justice. “This is not about religion or being against Islam. This is about the separation of religion and state and preventing any group trying to thrust their religion on others via loudspeakers that blare religious messages into the privacy of homes,” he said.

So, what exactly is the Islamic call to prayer? Here is the English translation:

Allahu Akbar (“Allah is greatest,” four times)
I testify that there is no God, but Allah (twice)
I testify that Mohammed is God’s Prophet (twice)
Come to prayer (twice)
Come to salvation (twice)
Allahu Akbar (twice)
There is no God, but Allah (twice)

Cities across Europe and in India (home to the world’s second-largest population) have taken measures to ban the loudspeaker.

In Germany, a non-Muslim couple succeeded in banning a mosque from broadcasting its Friday midday call to prayer by loudspeaker.

Elsewhere, the Green Party mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, refused a mosque’s request for loudspeaker call to prayer, saying that “given advances in technology, from alarms to apps, it was not necessary to use loudspeakers to remind the faithful when to pray.”

In India courts have ruled against the use of loudspeakers on mosque minarets, but the faithful continue to defy the laws.

The fact is that for 1,400 years, through the conflicts of Islam’s birth in the 7th century to the “golden era” of Andalusia and Baghdad (11th to 14th centuries), Islam’s call to prayer was never accentuated to increase the decibel noise.

According to Pervaiz, the loudspeaker has little to do with Islam and everything to do with Islamism — the use of Islam for political purposes.

Tarek Fatah, a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and columnist at the Toronto Sun, is a Robert J. and Abby B. Levine Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Advanced science, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Coronavirus pandemic – opening the eyes

Human beings had been fighting against the nature, against other animals and even against other human beings for centuries; in fact, ever since human consciousness arose. In doing so, the prevailing science and technology and natural defence were the main armoury of human beings. But now this little virus called Covid-19, so little that it is invisible even to the microscopes, has brought home to human beings in no uncertain terms that human existence is at the mercy of this virus or any similar strain of virus or mutated viruses.

What is this insidious virus that has brought virtually the whole world to a standstill, that is banging the heads of ardent capitalists, committed communists, socialists, devoted Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, mullahs, ayatollahs, rabbis, priests, atheists, agnostics and all other strands of human dogmas come together to fight against it? Political, social, economic, religious divisions are now totally irrelevant against this virus. This virus does not distinguish or differentiate between the prime ministers, presidents, princes, ministers, millionaires, billionaires and destitute, paupers, street beggars etc. This virus can strike anybody at any time and that’s why it is a pandemic now.

This coronavirus is a virus – a miniscule biological entity, a microscopic parasite – that can infect living organisms. The coronavirus is a collective name for a group of viruses that covers everything from common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The covid-19 is a particular strain of coronavirus which had popped out, or one can say evolved, only a few months ago (in late 2019) in the wholesale fish market in the city of Wuhan, China. However, Covid-19 strain is somewhat different, more aggressive and contagious than SARS or MERS. Even Covid-19 has a number of strands

This Covid-19 is a variant of SARS that can go from human to human in aerosol form and through body contacts. Although some virologists speculate that it may have jumped from animals or reptiles to humans through food chain, there is no definitive evidence to support this hypothesis. Few days ago, there had been a report that some animals in the zoo in Bronx, New York had developed coronavirus symptoms, probably due to infection from zoo-keepers. This means that this virus or some variation of this virus has the ability to jump back and forth between men and animals.

The virus consists of a nucleic acid molecule (typically RNA or even DNA) with a protein coating to protect itself and distinctive spikes at the outer surface to anchor into a particular type of human cells. As it is a virus, it hasn’t got the ability to replicate itself and multiply. Nevertheless, it does want to survive, as all genes do, by multiplying and moving from body to body to improve its chances to live. To survive and replicate, it needs to find a host cell where it can make use of host cell’s genetic material and protective coating and then it strangulates the host cell so that the host cell cannot hit back and the host cell gradually withers away and dies. This virus when multiplied many times within the safety of a host cell bursts open and spreads out and each one of them then attacks surrounding cells and the process proliferates.

The victory by the virus following the first attack is by no means a smooth affair; it’s a bloody war. When the parasitic virus attacks the body, the immune system of the body (which is a system of proteins and cells that are distributed throughout the body) responds to the invasion. These proteins include antibodies, which lock on to the bits of the virus such as the spike ‘S’ protein. It was this spike ‘S’ protein that was used by the virus in the first place to home in to the body cell and go through the cell membrane. Now this very spike is used by the defence mechanism of the body to identify and target the virus.

Thus, the immune system tries very hard to exterminate the invading virus. A life and death struggle ensue; the virus (Covid-19) knows that unless it can colonise the host cell, it will die and the host cell also knows that if the invading virus wins, it will suck life out of it and the cell will die.

Thus, the immune system tries very hard to exterminate the invading virus. A life and death struggle ensue; the virus (Covid-19) knows that unless it can colonise the host cell, it will die and the host cell also knows that if the invading virus wins, it will suck life out of it and the cell will die.

As this struggle continues, the host body – the survival machine – is blissfully unaware of what is going at the cellular level. There is no outward symptom, no discernible ill effects. It is called the asymptomatic condition meaning no symptoms. After a few days, if the body immune system wins, the invading viruses are crushed and disposed of. On the other hand, if the invading viruses start winning and keep attacking cells after cells, alarm bell starts ringing and messages go out throughout the body that it is under attack. The organs which are lost or partially lost start showing up symptoms. These are sore throat, headaches, persistent coughing as respiratory tract cells gradually become dysfunctional and high body temperature. There may be reduced functionality of other body organs. For example, there may be loss of appetite, aches and pains, dizziness etc.

The body nonetheless keeps fighting. If the invading army of viruses attack and destroy lung cells, which in turn affect alveoli sacs, breathing becomes difficult and artificial breathing using oxygen masks and, in extreme cases, ventilation units may be required to supply oxygen to the body. All is not lost even at this stage and the body can recover. It is anticipated that at least another week or so would be required to recover. However, if there are pre-existing health conditions wherein the immune system was weakened already, such as pre-existing diabetes, heart conditions, kidney problems etc., then the chances of recovery become that much difficult.

Once the viral attack has been successfully overcome, the cells of the immune system would ‘remember’ the virus and its characteristic make-up and any future attack by this virus would be immediately repelled. However, this immune system memory would not last for very long period. Normally two to three years is the maximum for this memory.

To counter this virus, a vaccine is needed to be developed. The vaccine is likely to be a harmless subcomponent of the virus, and the idea is that the vaccine would stimulate the immune system, to develop antibody by lymphocytes and get the body well prepared in anticipation of viral attack.

The presumption among the political and economic leaders of the world is that once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic is overcome and the fatality figure is brought down to nil, everything can be scaled down and life will turn normal again. The reality is likely to be far from this situation. When fatality is brought down to zero in an area or in a country, it does not mean the virus is finished; it is just contained away from human beings. It can come back at any time, despite some precautionary measures.

The graph above shows that a physical system – an earthquake, a disease, a pandemic and so on – may appear multiple times, albeit in damped condition, after the first incidence. The first peak may be much bigger than the second peak, but the second and subsequent peaks cannot be ruled out. Moreover, the time gap between the peaks would depend on the measures taken to terminate such occurrences. The Spanish Flu of 1918 is a case for pandemic example; it came back and ravaged the world number of times over a number of years. So, every precaution must be taken to counter such recurrence.

Admittedly this pandemic is causing untold misery and pain to millions or billions of people round the world. The economy of each and every country is suffering and will bear unimaginable strain due to this pandemic. The social structure is irrevocably strained: social gatherings, public performances, national and international sports and games would be severely curtailed, if not completely abandoned. The education system is at doldrum. In fact, everything that the present civilisation pursues has to be reconsidered.

But much of it, if not all of it, is due to our unbridled activities, as if there is no tomorrow. The Earth had been poisoned endlessly with greenhouse gases (CO2, NOx, CFC etc) leading to unprecedented global warming – the devastating impacts of global warming are yet to come, the Earth and the seas are endlessly exploited, the population is going up and up and within 20 to 30 years it is likely to be over 12 billion. The worst thing is that there is no recognition that we are destroying this planet.

Take, for example, the actions of Donald Trump, the president of the most powerful and flamboyant nation on Earth. He has withdrawn America from the Paris Agreement of 2016 (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) meaning that he can pursue whatever he wants to do regardless of what happens to Earth’s climate. Only about a month ago, he was dismissive of coronavirus as a common flu and asked people to have common flu precaution. Now, when thousands of Americans are dying in all major cities every day in America, he is blaming the States for not taking measures in time!

Political leaders must understand that short term measures to boost their public rating are causing long term damage to the Earth and the livelihood of common people who live on it. The leaders must be made to bear the consequences of their actions.  World order needs to be rearranged and made favourable to the Earth. Otherwise, the existence of humanity will be at stake.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Why should we care about the air we breathe in?

If you live in Dhaka, a city that is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, you may think that a scarlet sunrise or sunset blazing across the horizon is a sight to behold. However, there is an ugly story behind this pretty picture. It is air pollution. Indeed, pollutants of any kind in the air will make sunrise and sunset colourful.

A dusty road in Dhaka

Pollutants in the air arise from two major sources: natural and anthropogenic. Globally, the largest sources are natural events: dust storms, forest fires, volcanoes, earthquakes, biological decay and the like. In sheer quantity, natural pollutants often outweigh the anthropogenic pollutants that generally create the most significant long-term threat to the biosphere. Why? Natural pollutants come from widely dispersed sources or infrequent events. As such, they do not substantially raise the ambient pollutant concentration, and thus have little effect on the environment.

Some of the major anthropogenic pollutants in an urban setting are effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. They emit large quantities of harmful pollutants—carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, hydrocarbons and photochemical oxidants—in restricted areas, making a significant contribution to local air pollution levels. Other sources of pollution are municipal and agricultural waste sites, brick fields, foundries, metal smelters and waste incineration facilities. Refineries, which emit several pollutants, also make a huge impact on the quality of air. All these pollutants are precursors to the formation of smog, a term coined to describe a mixture of smoke and fog. It is the worst form of air pollution.

Smog is produced through a complex set of photochemical reactions involving the above-mentioned pollutants. They react in the presence of sunlight to produce a witch’s brew of virulent chemicals. Among some of the worst are formaldehyde, peroxyacyl nitrate (PAN) and acrolein. Furthermore, ozone is formed at the ground-level through chemical reactions involving unburned hydrocarbons in gasoline, volatile organic compounds, various oxides of nitrogen and sunlight. Problematic ozone levels occur often on hot summer afternoons when there is little wind and temperatures soar above 30 degrees Celsius. The net result is a brownish orange shroud called photochemical smog, occurring more frequently in large cities with high rise buildings where there is less air circulation and more accumulation of pollutants in the lower atmosphere.

To make a bad situation worse, smog remains under siege for days if it is accompanied by temperature inversion, a phenomenon where air temperature increases with altitude instead of decreasing, resulting in a warm-air lid over cooler air anywhere from ground level up to few thousands of feet into the atmosphere. In an area experiencing inversion, the warm-air lid prevents ground-level air from rising. Consequently, pollutants in the cool, stable and quiescent ground air become trapped below the warm layer of air, creating dirty air with dangerous concentrations of noxious pollutants.

The pollutants in the air do not respect international borders and are carried by wind to faraway places. Hence, anthropogenic air pollution is a global environmental problem instead of regional or local, continuous rather than episodic.

A measure of outdoor air pollution is the Air Quality Index, or AQI, a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. It rates air conditions across a city/country based on concentrations of five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. An AQI of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health. When AQI is above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy, at first for certain sensitive groups of people—sick, elderly and children, and then for everyone as AQI gets higher. If the AQI is greater than 200, the air is considered hazardous for the entire population.

Dhaka has the dubious distinction of being one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, with AQI invariably close to 200. Arguably, these cities are often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” According to The Health Effects Institutes’ State of Global Air Survey, the entire population of Bangladesh has been consistently exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air since 1990.

Over the past few decades, researchers have unearthed a wide array of health effects which are caused by exposure to air pollution, particularly smog and ozone. Among them are respiratory diseases—asthma, emphysema, coughing, shortness of breath, changes in lung function and lung cancer. Children are at a greater risk of damage to lungs because their respiratory systems are still in the developmental stage. Cardiovascular diseases, immune system impairment, adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and significant decrease in life expectancy are other health-related effects of air pollution.

Human body has very little defence against the injurious effects—burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, irritation of the skin and nasal passages—of the three pernicious constituents of smog—formaldehyde, PANs and acrolein.

Most fuel contain some toxic mineral contaminants, such as lead and mercury, both highly potent neurotoxin. These non-combustible contaminants may be carried off by hot combustion gases, escaping into the air as particulates. Exposure to these deadly particulates have serious health-related consequences too, primarily neurological disorder, severe disability and muscular tremor.

The effects of human-caused air pollution are not limited to people. Acid rain, for example, is formed when emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide combine with moisture in the air to create sulfuric and nitric acidic precipitation, thereby acidifying lakes with detrimental effects on aquatic biome. It can also cause structural damage to buildings and monuments, especially those made of limestone or marble, as well as destroy plants and crops.

Indoor pollution can be worse than outdoors pollution in some cases. Air pollution inside buildings is accelerated by the toxicity of materials like asbestos, radon, pesticides and tobacco smoke, mildew, mould, mites, dust and pet dander, together with poor ventilation and humidity. Appliances that produce combustion fumes, especially cooking stoves and water heaters, emit carbon monoxide.

Most indoor pollutants, except carbon monoxide, asbestos and radon, are responsible for irritating but non-lethal allergic reactions. Prolonged exposure to air with high levels of carbon monoxide could be lethal, while radon and asbestos can cause lung cancer.

While there is currently no proven link between air pollution and Coronavirus (COVID-19) mortality, one peer-reviewed study into the 2003 SARS outbreak showed that patients in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 80-85 percent more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution. COVID-19 is similar to SARS and can cause respiratory failure in severe cases.

Satellite images from NASA show a surprising effect of COVID-19 outbreak in China: reduction in air pollution. A “significant decrease” in pollution over Wuhan and the rest of China is attributed in part to an “economic slowdown” resulting from the virus outbreak.

An unexpected consequence of air pollution could be cooling the climate by offsetting some of the global warming that has occurred so far. That is because certain aerosols—sulphate, for instance—can reflect part of the sunlight back into space before it reaches the Earth’s surface. Call it unwittingly geoengineering the climate. Nevertheless, even if pollutants reduce global warming, it is not desirable to have them in our lungs.

Finally, because of the vastness of the atmosphere, we felt that it could absorb any conceivable amount of abuse by us. We have, therefore, used the air, and in turn our lungs, as a receptacle for hundreds of noxious pollutants. But with clean air technologies, targeted regulations, effective laws and strict emission standards, it is still possible to go far enough back in time to a period when the air was relatively pure.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.


Coronavirus – virus of the lungs and Meme – virus of the brain

We are in throes of two strains of virus – one is the virus of lungs, called coronavirus and the other is the virus of the brain, called meme (similar to gene in biological speak). I would deal with these two viruses sequentially below and show that there are many commonalities, despite the fact that one is biological virus and the other is cultural virus.

Despite this dissimilarity, there are a lot of common traits – they both replicate, colonise or parasitize the respective organs of the human body; they both propagate through air from human body to human body and incubate within the host body for a while before they express themselves; when they express themselves, they destroy the host body and transmit the virus to other adjacent bodies; they cause tremendous damage to the society, economy, education system and all other branches of civilised society. Worst of all, there are no known cures against them at the moment. They are so vicious that either humanity will manage to eliminate them or they will eliminate humanity.

So, what is this vicious coronavirus – also called COVID-19 as a particular strain? It is a virus, which means that it is a microscopic parasite that infects living organisms. It consists of nucleic acid molecule – typically RNA but it can also be DNA – with a protein coat. It can replicate itself, like genes, within the living cells. When it invades the specific organ – the lungs – of a host body it spikes through the cells’ membranes and gets inside the cell and start replicating. It is speculated that this coronavirus jumped from animals to human species.  

Coronavirus – virus of the lungs

Obviously, the host cells do not like this invasion and their defence mechanism (generally called the immune system) is called on and put into action and a battle ensues. While this battle is raging on cellular levels in a specific organ, other organs are functioning normally and the host body is completely unaware of the vicious battle taking place within his or her body. This may take a few days, which in coronavirus case is called incubation or dormant period. After three or four days of the battle, if not won by the body’s defence mechanism, it goes into all-out war against the invading parasites. That is when the host body starts showing some symptoms, like high temperature, coughing and breathlessness etc. The fight goes on and depending on the outcome, the patient can start recovering or go progressively worse.

At the moment there is no reinforcement or vaccination that can be given to the defence mechanism. It is assumed that any vaccine that can be developed is at least 12 months away. Only assistance that is suggested is not to weaken the defence forces by allowing further incursion of parasites and hence the advice is to wash hands regularly, stay away from other infected people etc. – the so-called isolation period.

In the worst case, if the invading army is in the verge of victory and occupies the lungs creating pus in the alveoli sacs and impeding breathing, then ventilation units can be used to artificially supply oxygen to the body and keep the defence system going to fight to the last. Quite often body’s defence mechanism can beat off the invaders even at this stage and recover. This is the do or die stage. Altogether it is anticipated that it will take 14 days from initial invasion to full recovery.

The other virus – the virus of the brain which Richard Dawkins, Professor Emeritus of the University of Oxford and an evolutionary biologist, calls it a meme to resonate with gene – is equally, if not more, vicious and malicious as coronavirus. Meme is not a biological virus in the strict sense as coronavirus is. But it is a cultural virus behaving exactly like any other biological virus – replicating, propagating, colonising and eventually destroying the host body.

Memes carry a remarkable resemblance to gene. As genes propagate in the gene pool from body to body through sperm cells or egg cells, so do memes in the meme pool jumping from brain to brain of human beings through cultural imitation or peer pressure. It could sometimes be benign or not too intrusive, when there is just the cultural imitation. A new designer dress or the latest mobile phone can take a ‘must have’ label to a group of people and that may take on obsessive space in the brain. The other example can be a catchy song or rhyme or a social media movement like “Me Too” etc, which may become obsessive mimicry. These are benign memes with hardly any damaging aspect.

But the real meme with uncanny resemblance to gene or virus is the parasite that colonise the brain obsessively. It can easily propagate from brain to brain, jump over cultural barriers, jump over national barriers and last for a long period of time. Take, for example, the “belief in life after death”: it is a meme that can easily parasitize brains and propagate across all social, political, educational and cultural boundaries and there is no antidote to it. No rational argument or concrete evidence (similar to remedies against viruses) can be produced to counter the belief that there is no life after death and hence this meme would flourish almost unhindered, even without any evidence supporting that there is life after death!

Then there are other more gripping memes: the idea of God or Yahweh or Allah. This meme had been digging in human brains for almost 4,000 years through various religions, cultures, art and literature, music and social encounters. The existence of God is now taken as absolute, without any shred of evidence supporting it. This is the most durable primary meme supporting other subsidiary memes like “life after death” or “heaven and hell” or “hell-fire for the sinners” etc. Each of these memes supports the other meme and together they stand strong, invincible, absolute and incontrovertible.

When a meme gets a strong foothold in the brain through continuous reinforcement, it comes as vivid as a gene or even stronger. In Islam, the first sound a newly born child in any culture is supposed to get is the prayer call for Allah. Admittedly, it is symbolic, but it is the symbol that will become real throughout the whole life. The first lesson a child gets is how to read Arabic and Quran. A practicing Muslim is supposed to have prayers five times a day in a mosque and each time he is reminded of the existence of God and his supreme power with the rhetorical question, “Who created the Earth”? With such persistent messages and unquestionable submission to God’s authority by fellow Muslims, it is quite normal that God and his divine messages become as vivid a meme in the brain as gene is in the cell.

Although memes are cultural imitation and analogues of biological genes, they are no less real and damaging than other viruses. In fact, when fanatic Muslims happily sacrifice their lives (i.e. their gene pool) for the messages carried through their memes (i.e. guaranteed place in heaven who give up lives on Earth for God), then one must wonder what is more vivid and real: gene or meme?

Cure for coronavirus in the form of vaccines can possibly be found in 12 to 18 months, but it is highly unlikely that any cure against religious memes can be found in 10 or even 100 years. One can call an embedded religious meme a prejudice, but to the man who holds that prejudice, it is as real as the Sun and the Moon in the sky. No wonder, even Albert Einstein had to say nearly a century ago, “What a sad era, when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

World Population and Environmental Catastrophe

We are all aware of, indeed seriously concerned about, the climate change and global warming. The large majority of scientists – environmentalists, climatologists, atmospheric physicists, geophysicists, geochemists, oceanographers and experts of hosts of associated disciplines – as well as overwhelming proportion of human population unanimously hold the view that significant climate change is indeed taking place and that is all due to human activities. But then a small but powerful section of the population, mostly in America, reject this contention and assign changes to just natural activities. Obviously, these people have vested interests in deflecting away human activities.

It is blatantly obvious that human activities are the root causes of climate change. Of course, nature may be reacting to adverse conditions created by human beings, but the initial cause is human activity. One may ask, why is it that earth is reacting so disastrously over the last few decades when it existed in stable conditions for millions of years? The answer is undoubtedly ‘WE ARE’, there are too many of ‘US’ – human beings on the surface of the earth demanding, exploiting and extracting earth’s resources ruthlessly without any regard to its stability and sustainability.

Some 200 years ago or even 100 years ago we were doing what we are doing now – spewing out carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere – but that did not change climatic conditions irreversibly, because not enough of us had been doing the abusive actions. But now more than 7,500 million of us abusing the earth and probably pushed the earth to the threshold or beyond its sustainability.

The large human population of the present day is causing the problems. The United Nations’ estimation of human population from 1050 to 2017 is shown in Figure 1, where the past numbers had been compiled from human records and best estimate values. At no time until 1850 the global human population exceeded 1.0 billion. Around 1750, when Industrial Revolution took place, the Western World started using coal and other natural resources to improve living conditions and consequently the population started to grow significantly. From that time on, not only the standards of living started to improve but also better hygiene and improved medical sciences managed to bring down the death rate and thereby help increase population growth. At the moment the global population is 7.5 billion and growing at the rate of 80 million every year and this number is also growing! Since 1970, the global population had gone up by two-fold!

In 1960s and 1970s there were intense debates about the sustainability of the world population beyond about 3.5 billion, particularly with regard to food production. As estimated at that time that in about 12 to 15 years the population would grow by more than a billion (about 30% of the prevailing population). If so, could the food production be increased by about 30% in that time scale? The global population had been going up at that rate ever since despite all the measures taken to curtail it.

As the population grows, there are extra demands for housing and other socio-economic facilities and consequent shrinkage of arable land. But human ingenuity prevailed – multiple crop production, better yielding crop, crop rotation, disease resistant seeds and now GM crop etc – had improved food production. In fact, food production had been improved so much that food supply for the population is no longer an issue. But that had created more serious problems, particularly environmental problems, which need to be tackled.

Figure 1 Human population from 1050 to 2017

The United Nations have also produced a population growth projection for the years 1950 to 2100, as shown in Figure 2. Many factors affect population growth and incorporating various assumptions in those factors produce widely varying outcomes.  The middle thick green line is the outcome based on best estimate values, whereas the top and bottom lines are those with 95% level of confidence in various assumptions. If corrective actions such as proper family planning, better education and social responsibility of the population etc. are taken, the population growth could be limited to 9.6 billion in 2100, whereas unbridled growth will show a figure of 13.6 billion! The difference between two extremes in population numbers in 2100 is about 4 billion, more than 50% of the present population! That is an alarming prospect indeed!

Figure 2 Human population projection until 2100

Population distribution is not uniform round the world, as shown in Figure 3. At the moment over 60% (4.6 billion) of world population is in Asia and Africa constitutes 1.4 billion (less than 20%). But by 2100 the Asian population may remain same or even decline, whereas African population will shoot up to 4.4 billion, more than three times of the present population. This drastic increase will place enormous burden on the continent and may even lead to violent responses, unprecedented population migration to other continents etc. This situation will arise on top of ensuing environmental deterioration – global warming, extreme weather conditions etc.

Figure 3 Population growth by continents

It is interesting to note that China’s present population of over 1.42 billion would come down to about 1.06 billion by 2100, whereas India’s population would grow from 1.35 billion to 1.46 billion in the same time scale, as shown in Figure 4.  China’s drastic reduction in population is due to lower fertility rates which arise due to older population group. China had imposed two-child policy right from its inception and gradually it is bearing fruit.

Figure 4 Most populous countries

As already mentioned, population growth is multifactorial. But a very important factor is the economic condition of the country. A run away population growth stunts the economic growth of the country and at the same time a low economic growth tends to encourage higher population growth. A family tends to produce more children in a poverty-stricken country so that the children can look after the parents at their old ages. Thus, population growth and poverty form a vicious circle. Examples are Pakistan and Nigeria where large population growths are anticipated. On the other hand, Bangladesh is the country which has broken out of this vicious circle.

Let us get back to the aforementioned theme that climate change is primarily due to the presence of vast population. Coal extraction and its use by limited number of people catering for one or two billion people in the Western World in the 18th or 19th century was not that damaging to the climate. But, as deprived population of the East as well as other decolonised countries’ population are striving to improve living standards from abysmal depths, demand for natural resources like coal, gas, oil as well as minerals have gone up exponentially and environmental degradation followed the suit.

Nature has an inbuilt mechanism of correcting itself when there is any deviation or offset from the norm, which is commonly known as negative feedback. If there is an increase in temperature in the summer, more water from the sea would evaporate and subsequent rain would cool down the area. There are lots of factors acting in opposite phase to the initial condition to stabilise the natural conditions and that is the negative feedback.

But there may be situations when moderate negative feedback condition could breakdown and violent response would ensue. If due to excessive increase in global temperature, arctic and Antarctic ice caps melt, then there would be no seasonal cold stream of water, no moderation of summer temperature etc. In some areas the temperature would become so high that there would be almost spontaneous fire – as in Australia, California and even in Siberia. Condensation would be restricted to limited areas giving large increase in rainfall – as in England now – causing unprecedented floods etc.

So, either we pull ourselves back from the precipice by limiting and then reversing the damage that had already been inflicted to the nature or let nature go berserk threatening the very existence of human life or for that matter any form of life on earth.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist