The population crisis

Malthus, writing in 1825, when Earth's population had just risen rapidly to nearly one billion, predicted that it would very soon reach the limit which the planet could support, after which it would fall sharply because of famines, epidemics and wars. In fact it proceeded to double in a century, doubling yet again in the subsequent halfcentury. It is now about twenty-five times greater than at the time of Christ, and growing at a quarter of a million people per day. The doubling time is down to about thirty-five years. Even if fertility were to fall tonight to the 'replacement rate', just over two babies to each grown woman, the figure would still climb from today's roughly six billion souls to around eight and a half billion, because so many of those now alive have yet to reach reproductive age.

Although the United States has itself doubled its population since 1940, most of the increase has occurred in the poorer countries. It is expected that the population of Asia will have grown about ten times between the years 1800 and 2040; that of Africa some thirty times; that of Latin America perhaps fifty times. In Kenya in 1975 the fertility rate (lifetime births per woman) stood at over eight. It has now fallen, but only to about the same figure— namely six—as in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. For Egypt the figure is roughly five; for India and Peru, around four. In Indonesia the widely praised success of a campaign of education, advertising jingles and free contraceptives still leaves the figure above three. United Nations projections suggest a global population of roughly ten billion by AD 2050, given a marked decline in fertility, and twelve and a half billion otherwise. Although over a billion people are already near to starvation, forecasts of mouths to feed in AD 2100 range up to twenty-seven billion. Nigeria just by itself, with a present-day doubling time of a little over twenty years, could move from its hundred or so million to nigh on half a billion. Crowded together as they are, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are expected to double their numbers.

In contrast, the ecologist P.Ehrlich—author of The Population Bomb (1968), a book whose predictions have on the whole turned out to be overly pessimistic, and then of The Population Explosion (1990)—has suggested that the maximum readily sustainable global population would be two billion. True, one might cram in twenty billion if they lived at the miserably impoverished level of present-day Bangladeshis, but environmental disaster could seem inevitable if all these people were to move to the level of Parisians or New Yorkers in diet, resource consumption and production of pollutants. The average US citizen is said to put between forty and a hundred times as much stress on the environment as the average Somalian. Scientific progress (possibly some new source of energy, virtually non-polluting) could be of great help, but twenty billion people would seem more than twenty-first-century science could hope to sustain at any acceptable standard of living, or perhaps at all. And of course one would rapidly get to many more people than this if growth continued as rapidly as in recent times. Not even rapid expansion into outer space would remove the problem. With the best presently imaginable technology it could take some four million years to colonize our entire galaxy, while with modern rocket technology three hundred million years would be required.127 Yet in under 1,300 years a human population continuing to grow at the current rate, roughly 2 per cent a year, would need to be distributed across one hundred billion Earthlike planets. Even supposing, fantastically, that there were one such planet for every star in the galaxy, this result could be achieved only by faster-than-light travel.128

At least in the near future, a population of as little as ten billion could be expected to cause desertifications and famines, intolerable local water scarcities and levels of pollution, which virtually guaranteed wars. (The recent mass killings in Rwanda's civil war can be viewed as a direct result of overpopulation and the resulting pressures on the country's agriculture: while the population had a doubling time of only two decades, soil nutrient depletion had reduced harvests by almost 20 per cent.) Despite advances in crop science, global population growth seems almost sure to outstrip growth in food production in the next forty years. Disease and environmental disaster might then sweep over the planet. Species could become extinct in such numbers that the biosphere collapsed, or the greenhouse effect might run beyond all possible control: bear in mind that methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is generated plentifully by rice paddies and livestock, and that many in the developing world might like to own automobiles. All this gives some plausibility to the title 'Ten years to save the world' which the president of the Worldwatch Institute gave to an article of 1992:129 the population bomb is sometimes said to have exploded already. Ordinary wars seem unlikely to alter matters by much: all the fighting from the start of the First World War to the end of the Second World War killed only about a fifth of a billion people.130 However, if some desperately hungry or thirsty country unleashed biological warfare, then that might indeed make quite a difference.

When one third-world bureaucrat was asked what he would like to see from his window twenty years in the future, the answer was 'Smog'. One can sympathize with this. Better the smog of industrialization than grinding poverty and constant fear of starvation ('a challenging daily struggle for the daily bread', in the words of one clerical opponent of contraceptives). Yet the pollution which causes smog could cause famine too.

In 1972, with the backing of a group known as The Club of Rome, D.H.Meadows, D.L.Meadows, J.Randers and W.H. Behrens published The Limits to Growth, warning that the rapidly increasing exploitation of the environment could soon become disastrous.131 While some of their forecasts have proved too gloomy, many have been accurate, as evidenced by such things as collapsing fisheries. In Beyond the Limits, the first three of them point once again to the sad results to be expected from continuing, if only for a short while, on exponential curves of growth in population and in industrial production. A quantity grows exponentially, they remark, 'when its increase is proportional to what is already there', as with the imaginary water lily that chokes out all other life in the pond after thirty days of doubling in size: 'For a long time the lily plant seems small, so you decide not to worry about it until it covers half the pond. On which day will that be? On the twenty-ninth day. You have just one day to save your pond.'132

Even when not pushed by population increase, industrial production tends to grow exponentially as people seek higher standards of living. The combination of an exploding world population, a widespread demand for equalization of living standards, and delays in reacting while the limits to growth approached could easily be disastrous.

There are some grounds for hope. First, technology might come to the rescue in unexpected ways, particularly if assisted by changes in society's values. Beyond the Limits suggests that the impact of each new human on the environment might in theory be reduced 'by a factor of a thousand or more': a good start would be to give the world's population 'the productivity of the Swiss, the consumption habits of the Chinese, the egalitarian instincts of the Swedes, and the social discipline of the Japanese'.133 Second, as countries become richer they tend to move to lower fertility rates ('the demographic transition'). If the fertility rate recently found in West Germany spread to the rest of the world, there would be no humans in existence by about the year 2400. Affluence means no need for children to share your labour, or to give assurance that one or other of them will survive to grow food for your old age. Again, because of unavailability of contraceptives and exclusion of women from decision-making at least a quarter of today's pregnancies are definitely unwanted by the pregnant, according to the World Health Organization. Well, the equivalent of under a month's global expenditure on armaments could make contraceptives available to everyone. Television soap operas in Brazil, showing families as typically small and happy but sometimes large and miserable, have been encouragingly effective, and there is evidence that the demographic transition begins in poor countries after just a small rise in incomes. Third, governments have had some success by combinations of reward and punishment. Despite the indignation expressed by Westerners at its population-control programme of 1975-7—sterilization was officially compulsory for one of the parents in each family that had three children, while tiny rewards were given for other sterilizations—India is still offering its citizens cash for voluntarily ending their reproductive lives. The amount involved, so few rupees that they couldn't buy twenty dollars, is accepted surprisingly often. In China a more draconian 'one child only' policy, backed by losses of benefits, by fines and by compulsory sterilizations, forced fertility down-wards almost to the replacement rate. The cost in human misery was immense, but constant famine could well have been the alternative. China had doubled its already huge population between 1950 and 1980.

There are also major grounds for pessimism, however. China, still adding sixteen million a year to its population, will have 25 per cent less arable soil per capita in 2010 than in 1994, and it will be soil suffering from erosion. The migration of tens of millions from its impoverished interior and north to its booming coastal cities could initiate prolonged warring among regional states, as has so often occurred in its past.134 Incomes in most developing countries have long been falling, not rising in the way that encourages the demographic transition towards constant population. Furthermore, religious fundamentalists often wish to make women powerless, treat all uses of contraceptives as instances of the sin of Onan (Genesis 38.9) or classify as infanticide any destruction of a fertilized human ovum, for instance by a 'morning-after pill', while a few third-world leaders continue to dismiss as 'racist plots' all suggestions about encouraging small families. Population policy was actually excluded from the official agenda of the 1992 'Earth Summit', the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The Reagan administration cut off US support for the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, the Bush administration then failing to restore it. And well-nourished Canadians scarcely help matters when they express outrage at the very idea of Indians being 'bribed' into sterilization by offers of transistor radios.

It is doubtful whether voluntary population control could work for very long. Lovelock cites with approval the claim by C.G.Darwin, grandson of the author of The Origin of Species, that natural selection would make 'Homo philoprogenitus' (lover of many offspring) bound to win in the end.135 This might seem correct despite the importance of social influences. Philoprogenitus might be expected to evolve so as to resist those influences if necessary; but pressures inside particular groups could in any case encourage their members to reproduce themselves prolifically in spite of pressures from outside, the groups in question then coming to dominate the world. An urge to produce numerous offspring could be passed on to each next generation by displays of pride in large families or by the preaching of God's enthusiasm for them, instead of by genes.

Overpopulation, environmental degradation, disease, criminality and war all tend to come in a single package. R.D.Kaplan writes to his fellow Americans:

For a while the media will continue to ascribe riots and other violent upheavals abroad mainly to ethnic and religious conflicts. But as these conflicts multiply, it will become apparent that something else is afoot, making more and more places ungovernable. Mention 'the environment' or 'diminishing natural resources' in foreign-policy circles and you meet a brick wall of skepticism or boredom. To conservatives especially, the very terms seem flaky It is time to understand 'the environment' for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century. The political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and Bangladesh, will be the core foreign-political challenge. While a minority of the human population will be, as Francisco Fukuyama would put it, sufficiently sheltered so as to enter a 'post-historical' realm in which the environment has been mastered and ethnic animosities quelled by bourgeois prosperity, an increasingly large number of people will be stuck in history, living in shantytowns where attempts to rise above poverty, cultural dysfunction, and ethnic strife will be doomed by a lack of water to drink, soil to till, and space to survive in.136

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