The Last Taboo – By Julia Whitty | Mother Jones

What unites the Vatican, lefties, conservatives, environmentalists, and scientists in a conspiracy of silence? Population. / Photo: Michael Rubenstein

My family ties to Calcutta, renamed Kolkata in 2001, in the state of West Bengal, reach back to the city’s 17th-century British beginnings. My genetic roots in India wend back farther. Remarkably, little of architectural note has changed since this capital city of the British Raj was built; it’s only aged, postapocalyptically, with slumping buildings cobbled together from broken buildings and banyan trees growing opportunistically from tiles eroding to humus on old roofs.

That so many can live among the ruins seems impossible. Yet so many do. The city is home to about 5 million people, at a population density of 70,000 per square mile—2.5 times more crowded than New York City. Another 9 million live in the urban agglomeration, bringing the population of greater Kolkata to 14 million. More are added every day—though not as many as you might expect from births. Kolkata’s fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman) is only 1.35, well below the global replacement average of 2.34 (the number where population stabilizes as births balance with deaths). Instead, the city’s growth is fueled largely through migration from a poorer and more fertile countryside.

What supports the crowds of Kolkata are what supports life everywhere: air, water, food, fuel, climate. Three hundred miles north of the city rises the mighty buttress of the Himalayas, home to 18,000 glaciers covering an area of ice larger than Maryland. After the Arctic and Antarctic, this “third pole” holds Earth’s greatest freshwater reserve, supplying the outflows of some of the globe’s mightiest rivers—Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo, Brahmaputra—water for one in seven people on Earth. Fifty miles to the south of Kolkata, at the end of those rivers, lies the enormous Bay of Bengal, where 3 million tons of seafood are netted, hooked, and trawled annually. In highlands to the north and south lie the seams of coal that fuel the city.

Seen from above, the circulatory system of roads and railroads of the Indian east—home to 300 million people, roughly the same as the US—funnels into Kolkata, with trucks and freight trains running day and night, laden with fuel, fish, and food. The city itself funnels into a central core, a defensible bend in the Hooghly River and the classic star-shaped, 18th-century Fort William—a stronghold harking back to a time when wealth was measured in tea, silk, jute, ivory, and gemstones, and when survival was assured with cannon fire.

Survival in the 21st century is different. Its real measure lies in the depth of the snowpack in the Himalayas, in the sustainable tonnage of fish caught in the Bay of Bengal, in the inches of topsoil remaining on the Indian plains, and in the parts per million of coal smoke in the air. The root cause of India’s dwindling resources and escalating pollution is the same: the continued exponential growth of humankind.

As recently as 1965, when the world population stood at 3.3 billion, we collectively taxed only 70 percent of the Earth’s biocapacity each year. That is, we used only 7/10 of the land, water, and air the planet could regenerate or repair yearly to produce what we consumed and to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Global Footprint Network, a California think tank, we first overdrew our accounts in 1983, when our population of nearly 4.7 billion began to consume natural resources faster than they could be replenished—a phenomenon called “ecological overshoot.” Last year, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 Earths.

The United Nations projects that world population will stabilize at 9.1 billion in 2050. This prediction assumes a decline from the current average global fertility rate of 2.56 children per woman to 2.02 children per woman in the years between 2045 and 2050. But should mothers average half a child more in 2045, the world population will peak at 10.5 billion five years later. Half a child less, and it stabilizes at 8 billion. The difference in those projections—2.5 billion—is the total number of people alive on Earth in 1950.

Excerpt, read entire article here: The Last Taboo – By Julia Whitty | Mother Jones


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