Too Many People

Of Population and Control

Saral Sarkar

There are reasons to worry about the demographic crisis in the less developed countries. In many of these countries, the population is bursting at the seams. There are too many young people desperately trying to find a job, and too few new jobs can be created. India's population, already over 1.2 billion, is growing at the rate of 18 million every year. The Prime Minister says India's economy must create every year 8 to 10 million new jobs in order to integrate the young people in the work force. For some time, in the years in which the Indian economy was booming, growing at the annual rate of 8 to 9 per cent, its bosses welcomed the population growth as a guaranteed source of cheap labor. They even called it India's "demographic dividend". But despite this dividend, India's economic growth rate has recently been falling. The inexorable logic of limits to growth cannot be defied after all.

These days, advanced industrialized countries are using all means to prevent large-scale immigration of cheap surplus laborers from the less developed countries. Even the huge resource-rich Russia, the population of which is also shrinking, is closing its doors to laborers from Central Asia. Therefore, also for the overpopulated less developed countries there is no easy solution to their demographic crisis. If they do not want to see that their citizens die of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, they must at least now seriously begin the work of downsizing their population.

In the past there has been and there still is too much opposition to any policy or activity to stop or at least check population growth. The opposition comes mainly from traditional leftists (communists, socialists), third world solidarity people, conservatives, nationalists, feminists, and deeply religious people. Often the same person may represent two or more of these types.

The arguments and positions of these people can be summarized in short : (1) One of them, a documentary film maker from Austria, who recently made a film condemning the whole idea of population control, said "If one would accommodate the whole world population in the area of Austria, then every citizen of the world would have eleven square meter at his/her disposal. The rest of the earth would then be empty" (quoted in Weitlanger 2:013). Some years ago, also a representative of the Vatican had said similar things at a conference. He said, the whole world population of those days could without problem live in the state of Texas, USA. (2) There is no need to worry; firstly, because the world population will soon level off and, secondly, because there is enough food in the world and food production can be increased to many times the present production level.       (3) What appears to be an overpopulation problem is actually a distribution problem. There would not be any poverty anywhere, if the wealth and resources of the world were distributed equitably. There is not only enough food in the world, but also enough of the other needed resources. (4) The rich industrialized countries of the world with just 20 percent of the world population consume 80 percent of the world's resources. Only 20 percent of the latter remain for the rest of the world population, the 80 percent. (5) The said 20 percent of the world population also generate 80 percent of the total pollution and ecological degradation of the earth. (6) The discussion on overpopulation is just a horror scenario. It is only a maneuver of the ruling classes of the world to deflect the attention of people from the real causes of poverty, resource crisis, global warming, environmental pollution etc. Betsy Hartmann, a prominent critic of the overpopulation discourse, is reported to have said that it is not by chance that the topic of seven billion world population is being discussed just now, when people are at long last becoming politically active and paying attention to unjust distribution and the chaos in the finance market (cf. Weitlanger 2013). (This however is wrong, inasmuch as calls for population control are at least 40 years old.)

The Fallacy of One World
At first sight, such arguments seem convincing, but on looking more carefully, they do not hold water. They suffer from what one may call the fallacy of one world. An ideal is here being mistaken for the reality. "The earth is one, but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others" (WCED 1987: 27). Ideally, we should be thinking of ourselves mainly as humans, and not as Indians, British, Chinese, Ugandans, Russians etc. And, ideally, the interests of the whole humanity should be one of the chief concerns of every human. That should, of course, remain our goal for the future. At the moment, however, in the real world in which we are living and in which we must be acting, we are so far away from the ideal that mere tribal solidarity is considered to be great.

Against this real background, at a time when the Austrian government would not even give asylum to 7000 economic refugees who are fleeing their problem-ridden countries, it is utter nonsense to get us to believe that there are still many thinly populated areas in the world where large numbers of people from the densely populated countries could be settled (see quote above). No state of the world would accept this suggestion, not even the continent-state of Australia with its merely 25 million population. There are no empty lands any more as in the previous centuries. Everywhere, more and more barriers are being built to prevent mass immigration of the world's poor.

Of what use is it to say that there is enough food in the world and that, distributed equally, the current world food production would be sufficient to feed the whole world population? Farmers in the surplus producing countries would gladly sell their products to anybody who can pay, but they will not give away for free what they have produced at the cost of hard work and much investment. Where will the growing number of poor people in the less developed countries get the money from to buy imported food? Moreover, there may be enough food for now, but what about the future with a much larger world population?

As for the resources that the economies of the world need, the opponents of population control do not appear to know that most of them are limited in supply, are nonrenewable, and are being exhausted rapidly, while the world population is continually growing. As for resources that are renewable—water, wood and other organic resources—even their supply is limited by their renewability rate. Although land area remains the same, fertile land is disappearing under concrete jungles or are becoming infertile through soil erosion, water-logging, salinization etc. The opponents of population control do not appear to have heard of limits to growth and the problem of sustainability. Moreover, essential resources like fertile land, water, and fossil fuels are unevenly distributed over the globe. Fertile land cannot be imported at all, and water only very limitedly.

That means, at present at least, nations of the world will have to solve their problems by themselves.

Faith in Technological Solutions
Opponents of population control hope that food production can be increased to many times the present level. It is well known that the Green Revolution in agriculture closed the food-population gap in the 1960s-70s and thereafter. However, it is also known that the price paid for this technological solution—in terms of resource consumption and environmental degradation (biodiversity loss and soil degradation, for example)—has been very high. This price will continue to rise as the population continues to grow. As Nafis Sadik of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) wrote in 1990, "Population is always part of the equation. For any given type of technology, for any given level of consumption or waste, for any given level of poverty or inequality, the more people there are, the greater is the impact on the environment" (Sadik 1990: 10). Must we first create a problem or worsen an existing one by increasing our numbers and then seek a technological solution to it, this time perhaps through the production of genetically manipulated food with potentially dangerous impact on nature and our health?

There are some old studies, in which it was asserted that enough food for a growing world population could be produced without resorting to new high-level biotechnologies. In 1982, it was said in a study of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UNFPA that there was enough land in the less developed countries (without China) to feed 33 billion people—however, only if every square metre of cultivable land and large quantities of fertilizers and other chemicals were used for the production of a just sufficient quantity of vegetarian food (cf. Sadik 1990: 7). But there was also a model for the production of sufficient food for 15 billion people with a moderate use of fertilizers and other chemicals. This model, it was asserted, permitted an ecologically careful handling of nature (cf. Simon 1991: 30). It was generally assumed in those days that the world population would stabilize sometime between 2050 and 2100 at 11 to 14 billion.

Both these models should be rejected. If people in the less developed countries (without China) want to produce enough food for their share of the prognosticated 9 billion people who would live in the world in 2050, with just a moderate use of fertilizers and other chemicals because they do not want to damage the environment too much, then agriculture must become very extensive. They would then need more land for food production while, at the same time, as a result of growing urbanization and industrialization, they would be rapidly losing cultivable land. This is not only a future scenario, the second part of this process is already now manifest. This imbalance between future demand and future supply of land has already attracted the attention of international investors. For the last five years or more, they are rushing to buy up fertile land in the less developed countries, especially in Africa and South America. Also investors from China and oil-rich Arab countries are participants in this rush. According to media reports, a Chinese state-owned company has recently leased 100,000 Hectare cultivable land in Ukraine, where it wants to produce wheat for Chinese citizens (Silddeutsche Zeitung, 23.09.2013).

Moreover, that would mean that a very large portion of the remaining forests (including the precious rain forests) would be lost. Of course, the demands of the luxury industries could be radically rejected. But even satisfying the basic needs of 9 billion people like building timber and firewood (because oil would become exceedingly scarce and costly and coal is bad for the climate) would lead to continuous destruction of ever more forests. Apart from the fact that we humans ourselves need a certain proportion of land covered with forests, these forests are the habitat of many other species (whom also, by the way, we need for our mental and spiritual wellbeing). Does the human species have the right to conquer more living space at the expense of the other species of nature?

If we opt for more intensive agriculture, it is important to know that there are also limits to increasing production by using more and more chemicals. Already in 1984, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute wrote that response of crops to the use of additional fertilizer was diminishing, particularly in agriculturally advanced countries. During the fifties, the application of another ton of fertilizer on average yielded 11.5 more tons of grain. During the sixties the figure fell to 8.3 tons, by the seventies it was only 5.8 (Brown 1984: 179). And around 1980 it was ascertained by scientists that returns to technology were generally falling (cf. Trainer 1985: 211)

Surely, today, any reasonable person would agree that it is easier to reduce birth rates than to increase growth rates of food and industrial production.

The Politics of Overpopulation
The rest of the arguments of the opponents of population control presented above fall under the category of cheap politics, which has all along been played in an emotionally charged atmosphere. Thus, a feminist activist of Bangladesh accused Western politicians, NGO-activists, and institutions like the World Bank, who advocated and supported population control measures in her country, of trying to depopulate Bangladesh. Two other similarly harsh expressions that have been used are: "genocide", and "doing away with the poor".

Let us suppose that the present unequal/unjust distribution of food and the other resources of the world can be overcome through a kind of world revolution that would abolish capitalism and patriarchy and establish equal distribution. Of course, that in itself would be a great thing, because then not only will all currently living humans be freed from exploitation and oppression, but they would also enjoy a certain degree of prosperity. But that would not help humankind solve the problems of continuous resource depletion, worsening environmental degradations, and global warming with their devastating consequences. Only the blame for these scourges would from that time on be equally distributed. The urgent need to reduce our numbers and total resource consumption would therefore remain even after a revolution. Fortunately, it has by now also become clear to many well-to-do members of the currently living generations that they are enjoying their prosperity at the cost of nature and the future generations. And they are paying attention to more causes of the present miseries of the world than only capitalism and imperialism.

For the opponents of population control, there is no need to do anything in regard to population growth, because world population will, they are sure, stabilize at 9 billion in the year 2050. This assertion is based on the theory of demographic transition, which is based on observations made in Western European countries. It says: after a country has attained to a certain level of prosperity, both the birth rate and the death rate fall and they eventually become equal, so that the population stabilizes.

Now, it is a fact that in many prosperous Western countries the population is not growing any more. And in many less developed countries the rate of growth is falling. In India, according to this writer’s observations, members of the educated middle class are limiting the number of their offspring, on average, to two. But the educated middle class of India number only 2 to 3 hundred million. The rest of India's 1.2 billion people are not following this example.

In West Germany, the demographic transition took place in 1972. There is no chance any more that the large number of poor countries of the world will, as a whole, ever reach the level of prosperity that West Germany reached in 1972. For most of them, the dream of development is over. And even if prosperity comes somehow—e.g. through the discovery of large oil fields—that is no guarantee that the demographic transition will set in. In Saudi Arabia,—at least since the mid 1970s, a very rich country—the demographic transition has not begun yet. Its population has grown from 9.8 million in 1980 to 29.2 million in 2012. Its current population growth rate is estimated to be 1.5 percent (Data from Wikipedia). So one should forget this peaceful automatic path to a stabilized world population.

The world population will indeed stabilize at some point. It cannot grow without end. According to some experts, the world population will even start falling in the year 2040 (Weitlanger 2013). What will happen, what is already happening, is that more and more people will die before they reach old age. Malnutrition, bad hygienic conditions, various diseases including those caused by environmental pollution, lack of sufficient medical care, wars and civil wars, terrorist attacks, failed states—all these are already taking their toll. In two and a half years of civil war in Syria, already more than one hundred thousand people have lost their life.

What can be Done?
Apart from the irrational political opposition, there are also some objective, real-world obstacles to population control—economic, cultural, religious. In less developed countries like India, where there is no institutionalized old-age security for the poor, sons traditionally have the duty to take care of the aged parents. In order to make sure that at least two of the surviving children are sons, a poor couple must on average produce five children. This is highly rational economic behavior. Moreover, for many farmers, children are cheap farm labourers who "work like donkeys" for just board and lodging. Mahmood Mamdani, who in the early 1970s made a study of the Indian village Manupur after the total failure of an intensive family planning programme there, wrote:

"No programme would have succeeded, because birth control contradicted the vital interests of the majority of the villagers. To practise contraception would have meant to wilfully court economic disaster. "(Mamdani 1972: 21)
Cultural tradition and religious belief, and often competition among religious groups to gain strength through higher numbers are also objective obstacles. But they in themselves would not be insurmountable. Most people are indeed adjusting themselves to modern times. But modern times also demand that everybody takes care of his/her own material interests and nothing else. The contradiction between poor people's immediate economic interests and the interests of the nation and the future generations is a hard reality and is therefore more difficult to overcome.

Nevertheless, something must be done soon to check population growth. One cannot wait until a socialist revolution has taken place and power has passed into the hands of revolutionaries, who would abolish capitalism and patriarchy. If nothing is done today, the situation will worsen further, and in the end, in country after country, reactionary forces will make their kind of "revolution"—maybe even through election victories, as has recently happened in Egypt and Tunisia—and set up their republic. They too will fail to bring order in a volatile situation, and then society after society will break down and end up in a reign of terror and chaos. Power will be wielded by local and regional warlords, and they will wage war against each other in order to expand their territory.

This is not just being pessimistic about the future. Such things are happening today before our very eyes. Think of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Egypt. Tunisia is hanging precariously in the balance. Even in Europe, reactionary forces are gaining ground in Greece and Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, even in France and the UK. In the second group of the above-mentioned countries, the worsening economic situation is the cause of the alarming situation. In the first group, rapid population growth of the past decades has been the most important factor in creating the present situation.

Observation made by Paul Ehrlich, who in the 1960s and 1970s was at the forefront of a public campaign to control population growth merits serious attention. Addressing socialists, he wrote:
"In the long run, the progressive deterioration of our environment may cause more death and misery than any conceivable food-population gap".
"The battle to save our planet is not just a battle for population control and environmental sanity, it is also a battle against exploitation, against war, and against racism."
[But] "whatever your cause, it's a lost cause unless we control population." (all quotes from WeiBmann 1971:XI&XV).

Advocacy of population control must not be left to Western imperialist forces. That means, all kinds of socialists must revise their antiquated programmes. In addition to their continuous and long-term efforts to create a society free from exploitation, oppression, war, and racism, they must also, in the short and middle term, give priority to policies and programmes for stopping population growth and environmental degradation. Such policies too can help ameliorate the material condition of the poor and working classes, not only economic growth.

In less developed countries like, for example, India, in the framework of a kind of short- and middle-term social-democratic policy, a popularly elected government can offer the poor, only the poor, a guaranteed social and old-age security financed by the state. In return, the beneficiaries must limit the number of offspring to two. The state can fully finance all measures required for effective birth control, so that the targeted section of the population would not have to worry about the costs. It can pursue a strong policy for women's emancipation and empowerment through education. It can effectively ban child marriage by raising the minimum age of marriage to, say, 21.

Such welfare policies will not of course be enough to be called socialist policies. But they will, if implemented in the problem countries, save their societies from utter ruin. Moreover, they will pave the way for a future ecological society.

Vol. 46, No. 26, Jan 5 -11, 2014

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