Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

89. Ecology and the Future of Humankind

C. Govindasamy & Jayapaul Azariah.
Department of Zoology, University of Madras, Guindy Campus, Madras - 600 025, INDIA.


Much of the current controversy about ecology concerns the future of global ecosystem. Will human beings continue to progress in knowledge, health and standards of living, or are we heading toward oblivion of life in the near future? Is the good life gradually spreading around the world, so as the available for everyone. Is humankind coming into better balance with our environment, or are we already on a path of self-destruction? The are a few questions that will be of interest for the future.

Other scientists consider these attitudes as overly emotional, fear-producing and scientifically unjustified. They feel that ecologists cannot support many of their prophesies of doom and gloom, and that they are, in fact, raising unreasonable bogeymen. They point out that there is a good deal of inaccurate sentimentalism about "the good old days". They note that the good old days had no electricity, no easy transportation, long working hours, very little educational and recreational opportunities, and plenty of diphtheria, smallpox, cholera, malaria and tuberculosis. They feel that the alarmist-type ecologists cannot recognize progress when they see it. To this the ecologist replies, "does progress require polluted rivers and lakes, choking air, birds dying from pesticides, intolerable crowding, ulcer in children, violence on the streets and heart attacks in young men"? Thus the controversy and arguments continue almost indefinitely.

In general, ecologists have tended toward pessimistic views of the future for more than 30 years. The first scientific book on the ecological imbalance of man in the world appeared during 1930's and 1940's (Vohra, 1980). Since the duplication of these early warnings about the ecological problem of man, difficulties have generally increased. Ecologists have found ample evidence for their fears. They feel that current events show that world population growth will not be amenable to significant slowing before the world is severely overcrowd. They have found that man has not learned the lessons of history and has continued to destroy his environment. They believe that the future survival of humans will be, at best, a close and hectic race between these destructive forces and an enlightened society which can find the knowledge that is necessary for the formulation of solutions.

Essential questions for human future

The most difficult and essential problems for human future lie in broad ecological and social issues, wherein two questions are most fundamental:

(a) What is the carrying capacity of the earth for man?

(b) What are the tolerance levels of man to the pressures by his own societies?

The carrying capacity, or life support capability, of the earth for man may be dependent upon a great variety of factor. We can readily identify oxygen, water, food, space shelter as mineral resources and energy availability vital requirements for human life. Since most of these however, would operate through the media of air and water, it is worth while to consider each of these briefly.

Oxygen Supply And Air Quality

Atmosphere of the earth consists of about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide and remainder other gases. This composition is remarkably stable despite the fact that oxygen is a highly reactive element. The Commission of WCED (World Commission on Environment and Development) (1970) have reported that oxygen has remained stable in the earth's atmosphere because green plants recycle it in molecular form through photosynthetic process. For 70% of the free oxygen produced each year is thought to have came from planktonic plants in the ocean, and the remaining 30% from terrestrial vegetation of forests and grasslands. World Commission on Environment and Development emphasized that if we should seriously pollute the sea and ocean as is already happening in coastal areas, and if we should excessively denude the forest and grasslands of the earth these we shall be in danger of upsetting the oxygen balance in the atmosphere. In other words, we must look upon the oceans, forests and grasslands as the world's oxygen tank, and we must insure their continued healthy ecological function in future.

Another important atmospheric problem of long-term concern is the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Between 1860 to 1980 the combustion of fuel increased the CO2 contents of the air by 14% of its formerly stable level (UNEP, 1985). Carbon dioxide trends to reflect infrared rays from the earth, and this provides a "greenhouse effect" for the whole earth; that is it accumulates heat. This will gradually increase the temperature of the earth-an effect which may have long term implications in climate modification. A rise of just 2°C or 3°C degrees in annual mean temperature would have a major melting effect on glaciers and ice caps, and this could raise the level of the seas several feet (Aksornkolae and Puphavasit, 1996).

Further, the atmospheric problem may also become acute in terms of various toxic elements released into surface of air and water; carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead from automobile exhaust, hydrocarbons from industrial operations and numerous other products of modern technological societies. For example, 500 million pounds of lead are discharged into the atmosphere of the United States each year from automobile exhausts alone, (WHO, 1982) and significant amounts of this become incorporated into living organisms including man. In some localities the breathing problem is more critical for an adequate supply of total oxygen. In some of our largest cities such as Tokyo, London, New York, New Delhi, the levels of toxicity of air and dust pollutants have increased to dangerous levels. In 1971, twenty million people were affected by the varying degrees of eye irritation and respiratory diseases (Rosenbaum, 1991). Hence, more serious events may occur unless strong measures against air pollution are undertaken.

Water Supplies

Worldwide water supplies represent a concern for the ''future of man'' in terms of both the quality and absolute quantify of fresh water. Many cities have reached or are coming close to their total available fresh water supply and are engineering further and further to obtain new supplies. A large proportion of the world's fresh water falls and resides in relatively unpopulated portions of the globe, particularly Siberia and Northern Canada. Hence, man's activities are limited by other factors, and he cannot readily obtain these vast stores of water. The principle of water reuse is now becoming accepted, so that people recognize much of their water has been used previously by other municipal systems. Each reuse cycles, however is increasingly costly in terms of treatment, and each reuse cycle requires disinfectants and other industrial chemicals. Combining these problems of distribution and quality, it seems that the water problem of the future is not only going to be one of a global water shortage on a planetary basis but also one of the local crises due to the concentrations of peoples, industry and water use. Certainly, the immediate concern is finding local water resources of adequate quality to meet the burgeoning needs of urban populations.

World Food Supplies

Now here is scientific controversy more evident than on the issue of world food supplies. Some scientists predict famines and mass starvation within the next 10 years. They feel the stage is irrevocably set for millions of people to die of starvation in the 1980's. In fact, already there is famine in many parts of the world, if one defines famine as people dying of lack of food. Even at the height of the 'Green Revolution' in Asia in which new strains of rice and wheat have productive phenomenally larger yields, famine conditions existed in parts of Rajasthan in India; in sections of Burma, Zambia and in southern Thailand.

A world of caution about the green revolution is also necessary. It's quite true that new strains of agricultural crops can sometimes dramatically increased yields, but often these new strains require more careful management, more intensive care, more water, more fertilizer and more insecticides. Although the plant geneticists to bread in every possible disease resistance, natural selection and regional adaptation etc. these new strains do not have the centuries of natural selection and regional adaptation behind them as do the local strains which the villagers have always used.

Another factor in the world food picture is one of pure climatic good fortune. The green revolution in India, was accompanied by best monsoon season in over 10 years. The possibility exists, that a good part of the success of the green revolution was due to good weather, combined with free from pollution, new strains and more fertilizer. This is a question that will be more adequately answered in future years to see in increasing agricultural production can be maintained in years of poor rainfall.

Throughout all of these arguments on how many people the world can fed. One must ask the realistic question: Is it necessary that there always be a race between population and food production? Is it the best representation of the human condition to be struggling in this manner to feed more and more people at a subsistence level?

Reviewing the literature on world food supplies that too much emphasis is placed on future predictions, and not enough on current conditions. We already know that malnutrition of any kind has profound effect upon growth, development and behaviors. Children growing up with malnutrition from early infancy definitely show reduced growth rates and possible retardation of physical and mental development. Furthermore, they show increased susceptibility to infectious disease. Thus, we return to the issue of the quality of life and the realization that merely preventing death by starvation does not by any means insure a quality nutritional base for adequate growth and human development. It is apparent that the problem of world food supplies will continue for some time as a problem of both quantity, and quality and especially one of distribution.

Space on Earth of Future

As reported as "the total surface of earth's is 196,940,400 square miles of which about 30% or 57,230,000 sq. miles is land surface of this total land surface, approximately 5,000,000 sq. miles are in Antarctica and are too cold to be easily inhabited except by scientists and explorers. Further 9,000,000 sq. miles are deserts, and 11,000,000 sq. miles are in mountainous regions. Of deserts and mountains at least one fourth of their land area can't be inhabited, so this eliminates another 5,000,000 sq. miles of land surface for human habitation. We are left with approximately 47,000,000 sq. miles of land surface, at the most, for the world's populations. Now the world has about 450 billion people and will probably may teach 7.5 to 8.5 billion within the next 25 years" (WHO, 1994). It means that we now have about 75 people for every sq. mile of inhabitable and surface on the face of the earth and this will approach 150 peoples per sq. mile by the year 2000 AD (UNESCO, 1996). As with water, air and food, it is important to distinguish between total or potential amount of any given resource on earth and that amount which is actually utilized or partially available to man. UNESCO was pointed out that the earth's total amount of resources is apparently adequate for many years to come, but the supply in a given city may not be of significant quantity or quality to support the standard of living. Although we theoretically have one square mile of land for every 75 people (about 9 acres per person), the human population is not evenly distributed. In the great urban concentrations of the world densities often exceed 50,000 people for square mile (UNESCO, 1996).

Perhaps we need to know more about the real spatial and social needs of man. What are his requirements for space and privacy, and how do these interact with his needs for social stimulation and group activity? Does man become conditioned to crowding in early childhood and then seek further crowding throughout his life? Does he require the social pressure of a crowd because he feels a compulsion to be in tough with the group and thus be able to predict what the group is going to do next? Have we produced, in our urban centers, self destructive systems which so modify the behaviour of their inhabitants that these inhabitants exaggerate their own problems and can no longer achieve rational solution? These are questions that can't be answered in simple or easy terms. Some sort of answers will certainly be necessary before we can even begin to solve the ecological and behavioral problems associated with our own use of terrestrial space.

Adaptive Capabilities of Humankind

Many scientists feel that one of the problems of the present and the future is the rapid rate of change which is occurring in society and in science and technology. However, there is no agreement on the consequences of this rapid change, changing the patterns are too rapid for man to adapt successfully. Man kind is so over stimulated by the increase in new sight and sounds, so bombarded by worldwide mass media, and so constantly beset with novel situations and new problems that he will break down psychologically and physically. His responses will be maladaptive pathologic and also he will thus collapse under sensory overload.

In many ways, the future is with us now. Although can find one example of high quality life in high quality environments we can also find an abundance of low quality life impoverished environments. Many of these questions about the future revolve, therefore, around the question of relative balance and proportions. Which way are we heading? Which way will the scales tip? For these, a major aspect of the future concern centres around our sense of responsibility to posterity. No representative of posterity is here to speak for that segment of society. How do the present populations of mankind regard their obligations to future generations? Are we willing to be more conservative in our life requirements and are we in fact, willing to reduce our rates of personal economic growth to insure a better environment and a greater abundance of resources for future generation? This may be one of the central issues for the next 20 years, and one on which the quality of present and future environments depends.

New Approaches to Environment and Developments

Human progress has always depended on our technical ingenuity and capacity for cooperative action. These qualities have often been used constructively to achieve environmental development and progress, in air and water pollution control, and in increasing the efficiency of material and energy use. Many countries have increased food production and reduced population growth rates. But this is not enough, failures to manage our environment and to sustain development threaten to overwhelm all countries. Environment and development are not separate challenges, they are inexorably linked. Development can't subsist upon a deteriorating environmental challenges. They are inexorably cannot be protected when growth leaves out the cost of environmental destruction. These problems cannot be treated separately by fragmented institutions and policies and they are linked in a complex system of cause and effect. First, environmental stresses are linked with one another. For example, deforestation, by increasing runoff, accelerates erosion and siltation of seas rivers and lakes. Air pollution and acidification play their part in killing forests and lakes. Such links to create several diffident problems must be tackled simultaneously.

Secondly environmental stresses and patterns of economic development are linked on to another factor. Thus agricultural policies may lie at the root of land, water and forest degradation. Energy policies are associated with the global green house effect, with acidification, and with deforestation for fuel wood in many developing nations. Further, the economics and ecology must be completely integrated with decision-making processes and lawmaking processes; not just to protect the environment but also to protect and promote development. Both economy and ecology are equally relevant for improving the wealth of nature and future of humankind.

Thirdly, environmental and economic problems are linked to many social and political factors. The rapid population growth that has so profound an impact on the environment and on development in many regions, is driven partly by such factors as the status of women and children in society and other cultural values. Further, the environmental stress and uneven development can increase social tensions. It could be argued that the distribution of power and influence within society lies at the heart of most environment and development challenges. Hence, new approaches must involve programs of social, economical and environmental particularly to improve the position of human in society.

Finally, the systemic features operate not merely within but also between nations. National boundaries have become so porous that traditional distractions between matter of local, national and international significance have become blurred. Ecosystem do not respect national boundaries. Water and air pollution moves through shared seas, rivers, lakes and atmospheric respectively.

Many environment-economy links also operate globally. For instance, the highly subsidized, incentive driven agriculture of industrialized market economies generates surpluses that depress prices and erode the viability of the often neglected agriculture of developing countries. Soils, forests and other environmental resources suffer in both systems. Each country may devise national agricultural policies to secure short-term economic and political gains, but no nation alone can devise policies to deal effectively with the financial economic and ecological costs of the agricultural and trade policies of other nations. The effect of such trends many put the future of man in jeopardy.


The First author (CG) thanks the Department of Zoology University of Madras and the University authorities for facilities and encouragement and he also thanks the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Government of India for the financial support.

Aksronkoae, S. and N. Paphavasit, 1996. Effect of Sea Level Rise on the Mangrove Ecosystem in Thailand. Natl. Res. Development., 43/44: 95-104.
Rosenbaum, A. W, 1991. Environmental Politics and Policy Affiliated East-West Press Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. 336 p.
Stephen, S. H. 1989. Global Warming. San Francisco; Sierra Club Books. 240 p.
UNEP, 1985. Management and Conservation of Renewable Marine Resources in the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Indian Coast. 61: 45-56.
UNESCO, 1996. Hydrochemistry and Dynamics of the Hydrogen- Sulphide Zone in the Black Sea. 107 p.
Vohra, K. G. 1980. The Atmospheric Environment Past, Present and Future. Wiley Eastern Ltd. New Delhi. 559-567.
WCED, 1987. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. 383 p.
WHO, 1982. Rapid Assessment of Sources of Air, Water and Land Pollution - WHO Offset. Publ. 62: 113 p.

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