Pop ’til We Drop?

Posted January 4, 2008

Categories: Articles

According to the overpopulation crowd, the current food crisis is the latest evidence that the world has become too heavy with us all. We are currently at 6.6 billion and expected to approach 9 billion some time before 2050. Mother Earth is mad as hell and isn’t going to take us anymore.

We’ve heard this all before. In 1798, to be precise, when economist Thomas Malthus predicted in his essay on population that humanity would increase more rapidly than our food supply. The mathematical logic seemed inescapable. But Malthus didn’t predict how much bird excrement – and later chemical fertilizer – would increase agricultural production. Nevertheless, his fears have resurfaced every generation or so. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich dropped his Population Bomb on the reading public with its forecast of mass famine in the 1970s and 1980s. Certainly people died of hunger then – as, inexcusably, they do today – but again increases in food production exceeded the rate of population increase and mass famine never materialized.

And now, eager to find new evidence to prove their hardy thesis, the neo-Malthusians have latched on to the food crisis. In a recent article I wrote on rising food prices, I failed to mention overpopulation as a key factor. I’ve never received so many responses to an article before, and 90% of these comments chided me for failing to see “the elephant in the room.” As one letter writer put it, “Try to remember: Hunger, poverty, injustice, environmental destruction, and global warming are just the symptoms: OVERPOPULATION IS THE DISEASE.”

I don’t want to minimize the challenge of what demographers call “carrying capacity,” that is, the number of people that the earth can comfortably accommodate without triggering climate chaos, large-scale drought, and mass extinctions. In a provocative analysis of the then-current wisdom on this subject a decade ago, Bill McKibben conceded that Malthus would always be with us: “The idea that we might grow too big can be disproved only for the moment – never for good.” Jared Diamond, meanwhile, has chronicled the rise and fall of a number of societies, such as Easter Island, because of the locust-like tendency of humans to breed, devour everything in sight, and then die. If we can do it on an island in the sea, we can do it on an island in the galaxy.

That said, the current food crisis has very little to do with overpopulation. In fact, the current food crisis isn’t really about a crisis in production. We still produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet.

More pertinent than how we procreate is how we farm: whether we use the land for biofuels, whether we depend on industrial agriculture, whether we cut down the rainforests, whether we devote large portions of land and grain production for livestock. If we don’t change the way we farm, we will still reach our approaching limits – of energy, land, and carbon emissions – at current or even lower population levels. Our systems of production are set up in a way to produce this crisis, regardless of whether there are 6 billion people or 3 billion people who need to eat. Of course, with fewer people, the onset of the crisis wouldn’t be as rapid. But if we don’t change the systems, the crisis will come nevertheless. Overpopulation, in other words, is an aggravating factor, not a driving factor.

The irony, of course, is that industrial agriculture helped us leave the era of mass famine behind. Our ability to coax so much food out of the soil short-circuited nature’s rather cruel method of population control. By absorbing so much water (for irrigation), energy (for fertilizer), and land (for livestock and biofuels), our agricultural system now threatens to hoist us by own petard.

Compared to oil, water, land, and carbon emissions, population is the only positive “peak” that we are approaching. The number of human beings will level off in this century – perhaps in 2070, perhaps 2050 – and the sooner we get there the better. My own guess is that we might see a peak before then, because of rather unexpectedly rapid declines in fertility in countries like South Korea. It’s not that we have the population issue under control. But we have figured out that rising living standards and/or concerted government policies eventually bring down family size.

We must address hunger and injustice first as a way of addressing the problem of carrying capacity, not the other way around. And that means that people living in countries with large consumption “footprints” – regardless of how low their fertility rate – must shoulder the burden instead of pointing the finger at countries with smaller footprints but bigger families. A Malthusian future of famine may still await us. But it will be less because of the way we continue to populate the world than because of the way we continue to think about the world.

Georgia Still on My Mind

A ceasefire is in place between Russia and Georgia, but the accusations still fly. Georgia was the aggressor, argues Mikhail Gorbachev, and “Russia had to respond. To accuse it of aggression against ‘small, defenseless Georgia’ is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.” His arguments have found favor in some European capitals. For the rest – the European countries bordering Russia, England, Scandinavia, the United States – Russia is the one that must be held accountable. That translates into applying a cure that aggravated the problem in the first place: expansion of NATO to include Georgia, signing a missile defense deal with Poland.

As FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes points out, the U.S. role in the Georgia crisis goes beyond this ill-advised containment policy. Washington supported Georgia’s strongmen – first Eduard Shevardnadze, now Mikheil Saakashvili – even as they repressed ethnic Georgians and the country’s major minorities. “With strong encouragement from Washington, Saakashvili’s government reduced domestic spending but dramatically increased military spending, with the armed forces expanding to more than 45,000 personnel over the next four years, more than 12,000 of whom were trained by the United States,” writes Zunes in U.S. Role in the Georgia Crisis. “Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance to Georgia, a small country of less than five million people. In addition, the United States successfully encouraged Israel to send advisors and trainers to support the rapidly-expanding Georgian armed forces.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Michael Klare argues the root of the conflict is oil. Running through Georgia – and the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, the only one that connects the rich fields of the former Soviet Union to Europe that’s not somehow under Russian control. “The Georgians may only be interested in regaining control over an area they consider part of their national territory,” he writes in Russia and Georgia: All about Oil. “But the Russians are sending a message to the rest of the world that they intend to keep their hands on the Caspian Sea energy spigot, come what may. This doesn’t necessarily mean occupying Georgia outright, but they will certainly retain their strategic positions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – for all practical purposes, daggers aimed at the BTC jugular. So even if a cease-fire is put into effect, the struggle over energy resources – sometimes hidden and stealthy, sometimes open and violent – will continue long into the future.”

The invasion of Georgia has been cited as yet another example of Russia turning away from the West. In the FPIF special report Russia’s Anti-Democratic Paradox, Moscow-based Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Anna Arutunyan challenges this conventional wisdom. “In the short memory of current events, what has been overlooked is just how pro-Western Russia’s government has been all along. Instead of backtracking on Yeltsin’s ‘democracy,’ Medvedev and his continuation of the Putin Plan was, at least until this month, as committed to Western economic integration as Russia’s first post-Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin ever was, and perhaps more so.”

Build It and They Will Come

In the gold medal race at the Olympics, it has been China versus Michael Phelps. The U.S. swimmer is responsible for nearly half the U.S. gold medals. China, meanwhile, has a commanding lead in the category, capturing nearly twice as many gold medals as second-place United States. China, like Phelps, is rightly proud of its achievement.

China is also proud of the setting it has created for these Olympics, which includes the “Bird’s Nest” stadium built of 42,000 tons of steel and which can hold 91,000 spectators. As FPIF contributor Michael Stulman points out in the latest addition to our sports and foreign policy strategic focus, the cost of building this stadium and preparing for the Olympics overall – estimated at $40 billion – cannot be measured simply in outlays for steel and concrete. The government displaced thousands of Beijing residents to build these stadiums, and many remain homeless. The migrant construction force was poorly paid and denied basic social services. “In terms of the opportunity costs, theoretically $40 billion is capital that could alternatively be invested in hospitals, education, and health care, or even redistributed as taxpayers please,” he writes in Beijing’s Extreme Makeover. “It’s money invested in one sector, taken away from another.”

In Postcard from…Dhaka, FPIF’s Saif Rahman describes a similar architectural showpiece in Bangladesh’s capital: the new 2,500-store megamall called Bashundhara City. “Once you immerse yourself in this fully air-conditioned mini-city, you almost forget about the real city on the other side of the walls that encircles it with 100-degree heat (plus Dhaka’s famous humidity),” he writes. “The architecturally stunning building sits in stark contrast to its surroundings – amidst a passionate and resilient people that probably couldn’t care less about it. In fact, the rest of the 12 million people in the metropolitan area who can’t afford to shop in the mall are physically kept out by the ’round-the-clock security’ that the mall brags about having.”

Finally, FPIF contributor Steve Niva examines the latest depressing statistic out of Iraq in Behind the Surge in Iraqi Women Suicide Bombers. “While overall levels of violence in Iraq have significantly dropped from their peak in 2006,” he writes, “every day seems to bring news of yet another ghastly suicide bombing, only now the bomber often comes in a black abaya, the full-length robe worn by many Iraqi women. For the one deadly number that has risen substantially since the U.S. military ‘surge’ and widely touted adoption of a new ‘hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency strategy in early 2007 has been the dramatic increase in suicide bombings carried out by Iraqi women.”


In the last World Beat, I mistakenly described the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as “infamous.” I meant to write, simply, famous. That event in 1968, unlike Pearl Harbor, is not a day that shall live in infamy. Quite the opposite.

FPIF, August 18, 2008

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