Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Too many mouths to feed?

By Faisal Kutty *

On 12 October, the world population hit six billion. Everyone, from environmentalists to the world's billionaires, is worried about this "problem". In fact, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, David Packard, and George Soros have all put their considerable financial resources at the disposal of those working to contain it. Even the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations have put aside funds for population control.

Are we really in trouble? Well, you would think so if you believe the alarmist calls of population control advocates like Paul Ehrlich and his ilk. Unfortunately, his views are promoted as gospel even though he has been disproved many times. But, like those who predict the end of the world, he simply moves the date of calamity further into the future when his predictions don't come to fruition. In fact, rather than being dismissed, Ehrlich and his supporters have attracted more funding and their views have gained more disciples. Brace yourself: the bombardment of documentaries and coverage of the impending population explosion has already started.

Ehrlich, a Stanford University professor, wrote in 1968 that the battle to feed humanity was lost. He predicted in The Population Bomb that the world would suffer major famines and millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s. Needless to say, this doom and gloom prediction by the guru of the movement never came to light. Still, Ehrlich insists on disaster. In fact, he wrote another book in 1989, called The Population Explosion, in which he warned that "there may be time to limit the scope of the impending catastrophe, but not much time." Thank God for Paul Ehrlich. Where would we be without his warnings?

Proponents of aggressive population control have hijacked the United Nations agenda by promoting certain myths that could easily be destroyed by analysing the facts. There are too many of these myths to canvass in the space of this article but some of the more popular ones are as follows: the world is too small for any more people; the world food supply is diminishing; overpopulation is the chief cause of poverty; the world's resources are disappearing because there are too many mouths to feed.

Unfortunately, this constant propaganda has lulled many of us into accepting these claims at face value.

A number of scholars and institutions, including the Population Research Institute (PRI), have shot such "facts" right out of the water. Jacqueline R Kasun, an economist, does a wonderful job of debunking most of the myths in her book The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of World Population Control (Ignatius, 1998).

In reality, the rate of total fertility (number of children per woman) dropped from five in 1950-'55 to less than 3 in 1990-'95, and continues to drop. According to the UN, the replacement rate -- the rate at which a population stabilises -- is 2.1. In the developed world, the rates have dropped from 2.8 to 1.8 in 30 years. In fact, the rates are down below 1.5 in Japan, Spain and Italy. The rate in the developing world dropped from 6 to 3.3 in the same period.

Even if the rate were not decreasing, however, there is still space for a lot more people. According to the PRI, all the people on earth could be comfortably housed in an area equivalent to the US state of Texas. That would leave the rest of the earth free for agriculture and other economic activities. The density of such accommodation would be greater than San Francisco, but less than the Bronx. Of course, nobody is advocating this, but it gives an idea of the situation.

With respect to the food fear, a Scientific American series titled "Managing Planet Earth" concluded a few years ago that, even if food production was to grow at a slower rate than today, there would still be enough food for about 10 billion people by the time they were born. Indeed, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), world food supplies stand at a surplus. In 1990, for instance, the surplus stood at 50 per cent in the developed world and 17 per cent in the developing world. Moreover, thanks to improved farming techniques, food production has been steadily increasing. In support of his theories, Ehrlich had cited figures showing that food production in India had reached its maximum in 1968. Yet grain production rose 26 per cent in seven years, and by 1992 had grown by 112 per cent.

Even the fear of depleted resources is wildly exaggerated. The world's forested area, according to the FAO, stood at 30 per cent in the 1950s and still stands at the same level. According to Julian Simon of the University of Maryland, the amount of forest cover in Europe has increased in the past 50 years. In fact, the prices of five non-renewable metals dropped, as the known reserves for these metals increased between 1980 and 1990.

Thanks to the promulgation of population control myths, the focus is now on abortion, sterilisation and contraception -- both voluntary and coercive. Deplorably, China with its draconian one-child policy and harsh so-called family planning programme, was given an award by the UN Fund for Population Activities in the early 1990s.

The real reason for poverty is not the growing population but the unfair distribution and poor management of resources, and population control advocates appear to be afraid of any change in the status quo. The following passage written by Ehrlich in 1968 clearly reveals the real agenda behind calls for curbing population growth: "At the moment the United States uses well over half of all the raw materials consumed each year. Think of it. Less than 1/15th of the population of the world requires more than all the rest to maintain its inflated position... Can we guess what effect this growing disparity will have on our 'shipmates' in the underdeveloped countries? Will they starve gracefully, without rocking the boat? Or will they attempt to overwhelm us in order to get what they consider to be their fair share?"

Sure, population control is vital. But it should not be implemented at any cost. Instead of pushing aggressive population control initiatives blindly, our efforts should be directed toward improving the lot of those with whom we share this planet by advocating a more equitable distribution of our abundant resources.

* The writer is a Toronto-based freelance writer and columnist.

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