Pursuing The Myth Of Over-Population
From Against Nature — Part 2 of 3 Part Series Broadcast by Channel 4 in the UK, 1997

Tyranny Imposed By Environmentalists Fearful Of Overpopulation

As the world's population nears six billion, most of us believe that there are already too many people on the planet. The second programme in this series presents arguments that there aren't enough.

Introduction
The superfluous four million— and the rest
Density and delusion
Reaping the rewards of technology
Green revolution, Green reaction
Heading for a stable 11 million?
People need people: population growth and prosperity
Coercion and control: more of us; less of them?
Four legs good, two legs dispensable?
The immigration bogeyman
The romance of the land, the beauty of the metropolis
Looking to the future: the positive and the negative
« NEXT » « Against Nature » « Environmentalism » « Impact Of Decline » « Our Decline » « Home »

Introduction
Although many Greens believe the entire world to be overpopulated, the problem is always considered worse in the Third World, where, they say, humans are encroaching on the habitats of trees and animals. The programme also shows that environmentalists have legitimised pressure on Third World countries to reduce population as a condition for aid.

Western measures to control population in Africa are highly controversial. US AID has this year given Kenya $13.5 million for family planning, compared to $4 million in humanitarian assistance. One environmental organisation is even suggesting withholding food aid to Africa in order to keep numbers down— letting people starve, in other words.

However, it can be argued that Africa is underdeveloped precisely because it is underpopulated. How can you justify building schools, hospitals or roads if there are not enough people to support them? And if there are more people, there will be more ideas, which in turn will lead to better technology and an improved quality of life. In the West, every indicator of quality of life has improved as the population has grown.

The superfluous four million — and the rest
Over the last 35 years, the population of the Earth has doubled. Next year it will expand by 86 million people— that's three babies a second, or another Birmingham every four days, or another UK every seven months.

Today there are almost six billion people in the world, and environmentalists argue that this is already unsustainable. Professor Norman Myers, of Green College, Oxford, puts the optimum world population at two billion or less. Further population growth over the next few decades, it's argued, will be disastrous.

"If you took our planet and just put one human being on it," Lord Melchett, President of Greenpeace, told Against Nature, "that human being would be consuming resources which otherwise would be available for nature — for wildlife, for wild animals, plants, whatever. Two human beings consume twice as much, and a million consumes a million times as much. At what point do you start to say: this is not sustainable? Everything we do impacts on nature and to my mind what we need to concentrate on is limiting that impact."

Brent Blackwelder, Chairman of Friends of the Earth, agrees, arguing that many of the world's conflicts are caused by scarcity of natural resources.

The Greens say that the population problem is worst in the Third World.

"People live longer, child mortality is lower— and all those are good things," says Barbara Maas of the Pan African Conservation Group. "I don't want people to suffer and I don't want people to lose their babies. But some restraint in terms of population control is inevitable if we are not to destroy our very life support system. There just is not enough to go round."

What's more, according to the Greens, if we don't manage to stem population growth in the Third World it won't be just the environment that suffers. There will be mass starvation.

Density and delusion
But are the environmentalists right, is the world really overpopulated? Dr Frank Furedi, author of Population and Development,doesn't think so.

"Just a couple of years ago, my partner and I went to South Africa," he says. "Everybody told us about the tremendous population problem in South Africa, the lack of land and lack of resources. We were driving from Johannesburg to Natal, and at one point my wife and I looked at each other and started laughing, because for the last 35 to 40 miles we hadn't seen one single human being."
"I think that it's important to realise that there is always a disjuncture between the perception of population density and the reality. The reason why so many Westerners regard Asia as a continent of teeming masses is because people feel very uncomfortable with Asians. The reality, of course, is that Belgium has got a higher population density than China. You'll find that many Western societies have far higher population densities than Asian or African societies. But we don't talk about those insects in Belgium, those teeming masses. The reason for that is that we're quite comfortable with those people."

Environmentalists say that people are the problem: too many of them can only lead to famine and environmental degradation. But critics of the Greens point out that people in countries with high populations are by and large better fed and live in nicer environments.

The Netherlands, for example, has a population of 381 people per square kilometre. This is more than three times as high as China's population density of 126 people per square kilometre. Africa is very sparsely populated indeed. Even discounting desert and semi-desert areas, there are still only 48 people per square kilometre, compared with 238 people per square kilometre in the UK. Despite what the Greens suggest, the result of all these people in the First World has not been environmental degradation.

Some of the most densely populated parts of the world also happen to be growing more trees than ever before. In Europe, for example, there are 30% more trees than there were 50 years ago.

"Trees and forests provide a good example of how it's possible to have a growing economy and a growing population and a thriving environment," says Steve Hayward of the Pacific Research Centre. "The lesson from trees really applies across the environment. We have cleaner air today; we have cleaner water; we grow more food at less impact on the land; we have more wildlife diversity — and we've done all this while having a growing economy and a growing population."

Reaping the rewards of technology
The densely populated First World is growing more trees because of modern high-yield farming techniques.

"In the United States," continues Steve Hayward, "we use less land to produce more food than we used 50 years ago. We're able to use less land precisely because of chemical agriculture and some of the very sophisticated techniques that we have. That allows you to preserve more land for wildlife habitat, for open space, for forests and other purposes."
"If you look at Africa, where they use very primitive agricultural techniques, which means they have to use very large amounts of land — that reduces the amount of land for endangered species like elephants and lions and tigers. It's also usually very bad agriculture — there's more soil erosion. So the environmental benefits of technological agriculture are really quite high."
"It flies in the face of green theology," adds Dennis Avery, Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, "but man-made chemicals today are helping to give us the most productive, most sustainable farming in the history of the planet. The best yields, the best soils, the more earthworms, the most soil bacteria, the most food for people, the most land left for wildlife— all of it being achieved because of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, weedkillers."

Of course the climate in Africa is not as friendly to agriculture as it is in the Western world. However, scientists argue that with high-yield farming and irrigation Africa could feed itself many times over. The problem is not overpopulation, they say, it is backward farming techniques.

Green revolution, Green reaction
But environmentalists are opposed to high-yield farming, which they say produces poor, contaminated land and food, and will lead to other problems in the Third World.

"You can have yields that are quite good without industrial agricultural methods," says Brent Blackwelder. "Some people say, "Why shouldn't we copy the agriculture of America, because you're so productive. Why shouldn't we utilise all those pesticides, all that farm machinery?" Well, one answer is to look at what it's actually done to farm communities in the United States. They started up here with millions and millions on the land, and now there are only a couple of million left. Who's going to pay for all this in developing countries? They're going to be in an incredible debt trap, far worse than they're in already. So it's exactly the opposite direction that the world should be heading in."

The Green dislike of high-yield farming has had an enormous impact on Africa and other Third World regions. Over the last 10 years, such groups as Greenpeace, The Environmental Defence Fund and The Environmental Protection Agency have transformed the policies of international aid agencies. The World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have now all officially adopted Green policies restricting the use of pesticides and other chemicals, despite opposition from Third World governments and farmers.

As a consequence, over the last four years fertiliser aid to Africa has fallen by two-thirds. Fertiliser use by African farmers today is just 1.6% of that found in The Netherlands. Indeed, there is more fertiliser used on American lawns and golf courses than in the whole of Africa.

In 1970 Professor Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to modernise farming techniques in the Third World. He is known as the father of the green revolution which saw agricultural output in India increase five-fold in only 30 years. He has spent the last ten years trying to do the same for Africa. But he has come to the US Senate Committee of Agriculture to complain that his work has been hindered by environmentalists.

"One of the big dangers that's been going on in the last 10 years is that there's been a tremendous erosion of the gene for common sense," says Professor Borlaug. "We aren't being poisoned out of existence; we live longer, better lives in the affluent nations than ever before. And if we don't bring to Africa in the next five to eight years an improvement in the food situation, we will see an ever increasing volume of hungry, miserable people.
"When I come back from Africa after spending time seeing hungry, miserable people, and I hear these outrageous criticisms about the use of high-yield technology that will spoil the environments in Africa being spouted out philosophically by privileged people, it makes me angry and sick."

Heading for a stable 11 million?
Environmentalists argue that population growth will soon lead to widespread famine. However, according to the UN, the Third World alone would sustain a population of no less than 32 billion if agriculture was modernised to Western standards.

As it happens, most demographers believe that the world's population will stabilise at just 11 billion people in the next few decades, since women in the Third World are having far fewer children than they used to. There are parts of the Third World that have high population densities, such as Singapore, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Korea. However, they tend to be small nations or city-states, and all have rapidly declining fertility rates. Over the past 20 years, Bangladesh, which is self-sufficient in food, has seen its fertility rate fall from six births per woman to only three, and women are getting married a lot later. Forty years ago, 77% of women married in their teens. Today that's down to 30%.

According to Frank Furedi, the pattern in the Third World should be familiar.

"What's happening in the Third World is not so much that population growth is going on, but that more and more children are surviving into teenagehood and adulthood. And that's a process that all industrialising societies have gone through. What's very interesting is that once you have urbanisation and societies begin to gain greater control over their circumstances, families begin to have fewer and fewer children. You can already see this happening in Asia."

In Africa, fertility rates have actually been falling for the past 10 years. In Kenya, Africa's most densely populated country, the United States government predicts that population will stabilise at around 44 million people at about the year 2050— that is, 20 million fewer people than there are in Britain today, in a country twice Britain's size.

People need people: population growth and prosperity
While environmentalists regard the Third World as overpopulated, many of the people who live there have a different perspective.

"Most of the [African] continent is underpopulated," argues Dr Margaret Ogola, who runs a health centre in Nairobi. "The evidence of the world so far is that countries with a lot of people with high population densities tend to be the richer ones. I believe that this is why you are having the phenomenon in some of the Asian 'Tiger' countries, as I believe they are called — people create wealth and ways of using it more effectively."

Machakos is a thriving district in southern Kenya with a growing town and a green hinterland. But 50 years ago there was no town and the hinterland was almost a desert. Few people lived here and the soil was typical of most sub-Saharan Africa: red, short of nutrients and hostile to crops.

Then, in the 1940s, the population began to rise, and as the population grew, so did the town, creating a market for food. Farmers used the income from selling their produce to buy fertilisers and pesticides and to improve irrigation and water storage. Today there are five times as many people in Machakos as there were in the 1940s, and far from destroying the land, the use of chemicals has enormously improved the quality of the soil, which is now comparable with that of southern Italy. Consequently, agricultural production has increased tenfold and Machakos has 10 times the number of trees.

The lives of the people have been transformed. They now have more shops, markets, schools and hospitals. Having more people has made them healthier, better fed and better educated.

"When you have low population densities, as in north-eastern Kenya, for example, you find it's very expensive to provide schools and health centres," says Dr Rachel Musioki, an economist and adviser to the government. "So this is one area where sufficient density of population is essential."

Coercion and control: more of us; less of them?
While many Africans believe that they need more people,environmentalists are concerned there are already too many. They say that if disaster is to be averted, population growth must be drastically reduced. One way of doing this is to link aid with population control.

In Kenya, the government had been opposed to population control. But in 1982 they were forced to introduce such measures when the World Bank threatened to withhold financial assistance.

"Very few of the African leaders were involved in setting the agenda for global population policies," says Dr Musioki. "And that's why they saw it as someone else's agenda."

Population control centres have been established throughout the Third World with money from Western donors. Their purpose is to distribute contraceptives, perform vasectomies and sterilise women.

"Women are encouraged to have the 'final solution', they call it, by getting sterilised in their twenties," says Dr Ogola.

Sterilisation is, after the pill, the most widely used form of contraception in Africa. By 2020, according to the US government agency US AID, two million women will have been sterilised in Kenya.

In the Third World as a whole, no fewer than 123 million women have been sterilised in the past 25 years, thanks to Western population control help. That accounts for 90% of all sterilisations worldwide.

This year US AID will give Kenya $13.5 million for population control. This compares to only $4 million for humanitarian assistance. Dr Ogola finds that the only medical aid she can get is aimed at population control.

According to Elizabeth Liagin, author of Excessive Force:Power,Politics and Population Control, this is a very widespread problem.

"Again and again we're hearing complaints coming from all over the southern hemisphere," she says. "Women will take a sick child to a clinic, or someone will have an injury and go to a clinic, and there are no Band-Aids there, no antibiotics, nothing to relieve suffering, only condoms and intra-uterine devices and contraceptive pills."

And in their efforts to meet population control targets, Third World governments have been known to use desperate methods. Through an interpreter, a local woman told Against Nature:

"They inserted me a coil. I stayed with the coil for three months. I went to the clinic; they told me to stay with the coil for one year. Before that year ends, I started getting sick. From there I went to the hospital. I was injected with some injections, but I was not getting anywhere. I went to the family planning clinic— I told them to remove it because I was getting sick. They refused.
"I had to remove it myself. There was pus and blood. From that time I never had a baby. So I think it's because of that coil that I never had a baby."

According to Dr Ogola, women are also being sterilised without their consent after caesarean sections or other forms of abdominal surgery.

Like Dr Ogola, Elizabeth Liagin feels that this is a question of human rights.

"The right of a couple to make love and to make a baby, to have a family as large as they want or small— this is the most intensely private and important freedom that we as human beings have," she says. "To violate that is an absolute abomination, and we would never put up with it in the West."

Inevitably, many people now ask why it is that Western countries, which have high population densities, go to such lengths to impose population control on African countries, which are sparsely populated.

"Nobody considers himself as the superfluous person, as one too many," explains Dr Ogola. "Somehow it is always the other person who is has too many children or is too poor and therefore should not have children."

Dr Julian Simon, author of Population Matters, has a still more simple and disturbing answer:

"It's the inevitable human tendency to want more of us and less of them— more of us whites, less of them blacks."

Four legs good, two legs dispensable?
Just as environmentalists are worried there are too many humans in the Third World, they are also concerned there are not enough animals.

"Elephants are reduced to about 17% of their historic distribution range today," says Barbara Maas, "and it is humans who are expanding. In the front line, where human expansion meets the remaining wildlife areas, of course there will be conflict. But to say, "Oh well, let's just push animals further back"— if you take that argument to its logical conclusion, you will elbow every other species off the face of the planet."

John Fuchaka lives in the district of Nyeri, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Wild animals like lions, black rhinos and leopards roam freely around his home. He is currently recovering from an elephant attack.

"Four of my neighbours have been killed by elephants, including my two friends Naduthu and Mukabi," he told Against Nature through an interpreter. "I am the first to survive an elephant attack.
"Tourists think that elephants are wonderful and harmless, but they are dangerous animals. They trample our farms and eat our crops, leaving us to starve. We cannot graze our animals or collect firewood when they are on the loose."

Wild animals like elephants are regarded as pests by most Africans. Eighty-three per cent of crop damage in Kenya is caused by elephants, and last year 3000 people were attacked by them. Since 1990, wild animals have killed 350 Kenyans.

"Personally, I think wild animals should be kept in cages," says John Fuchaka.

The perception that environmentalists care about wildlife but not people has led to a tremendous backlash against environmentalism in the developing countries.

"This whole idea of man being dispensable is something that is logical to their way of thinking," says Dr Ogola.

Dr Ogola's view certainly seems justified in the case of the environmental group Negative Population Growth, which is advocating holding back food aid to Africa in order to keep the numbers down.

"It seems very brutal to think that we might refuse that aid," concedes Donald Mann, President of Negative Population Growth. "But any time that we send food aid to countries that need that to avoid starvation, we are feeding more and more people, and eventually, if that cannot be sustained, the tragedy will be even greater than it was before."

The immigration bogeyman
Greens have also been criticised for using immigration as a bogeyman in their fight against population growth.

"When poor societies can't export anything else," says Alan Hammond of the World Resources Institute, "they'll find ways to export their misery — as violence, as crime, as migration. And those will affect us probably in ways we care far more about than the loss of a piece of nature."

Brent Blackwelder puts it differently, though the point is essentially the same.

"If you're forced into conflicts over farmland and fisheries, what do people do? They cross borders seeking a better life or some place where they can get food. Do we need any more instability like this in the world?"

Donald Mann is also worried about the problem.

"It would take really stringent measures for the developed countries to stand at the border and push back the millions of people who are attempting to get in — and many of them starving."

America's largest Green organisation, the Sierra Club, has decided to ballot its members on whether to adopt an anti-immigration policy on the grounds that they believe population is the biggest environmental problem and, they say, immigration is the main cause of population growth in the US.

"What's interesting about the Sierra Club," comments Frank Furedi, "is that it calls into question the presentation of environmentalism. As far as I'm concerned, environmentalism is today radical in form but conservative in content. In the past it was also conservative in form, and it's only because radical movements are fairly weak or conspicuous by their absence that a movement such as environmentalism has managed to gain radical credentials. The Sierra Club tells us about an important theme in environmentalism, which is the dislike for people and for human action. And the majority of the Sierra Club take that a step further by targeting not just people, but foreign people. There's a very strong streak of racism in environmentalist discourse."

The romance of the land, the beauty of the metropolis
In the Third World, the countries with the highest population densities also enjoy the highest rates of economic growth. Indeed, economic progress is most rapid in urban areas that are very densely populated, such as in Hong Kong and Singapore. But for environmentalists, the concentration of people in cities is exactly what we should be avoiding.

According to Brent Blackwelder, for example,

"What we've got to do is to look back at how we can get people on the land, in healthy world communities, not having them all crowded together in cities that are hellish places to live."

But others argue that such attitudes are really based on escapism and fear.

"It's quite sad that the most dynamic part of human civilisation is now often regarded in such negative terms," says Frank Furedi. "This nostalgia for the countryside, the desire to escape into the middle of nowhere, actually represents a statement about the future. You're saying: "I'm scared of the future, I'm scared of change, I'd rather hide out somewhere where there are fewer people.""

People congregate in big cities because they are the most interesting places to live, argues the economist Professor Steven Landsburg.

"New York, for example, has galleries, it has theatres, it has symphony, it has cafés, it has bars, it has diversity, cultural diversity," he says. "People come to New York to share in these things. Nobody goes to the middle of nowhere in the Midwest to find those things, because those things aren't there. New Yorkers may complain about the crowds, but they forget that without the crowds New York would be like that middle of nowhere in the Midwest."

Frank Furedi agrees. "Cities are where we learn, where we get transformed, where new things begin to take off," he says.

Looking to the future: the positive and the negative
The expansion of the world's population over the past 200 years has coincided with an historic improvement in the quality of life for almost everyone. We are living longer, we are eating better and we are more educated that ever before. Indeed there are those who believe we should be concerned not that there are too many people, but that there may soon not be enough.

"Fertility rates are declining in the developing world much more rapidly than demographers projected a generation ago," says Gregg Easterbrook, author of A Moment on the Earth, a critique of environmentalist thinking. "Fertility is already at a negative level in the Scandinavian nations and close to a negative level throughout most of the developed world. If industrialisation brings to the rest of the world the same decline in fertility rates that we've observed in the Western world, 200 years from now there will be fewer people alive than there are today."

The consequences of this could be costly in both the rich and the poor countries.

"Population is a critical resource," says Rachel Musioki. "Our development in the world wouldn't have occurred without people. So it's about time we started focusing on people — how we can harness the people-power, their brains, their ideas, their willingness, their being fair— because development is about people, and the people are the only means towards development. So I think we have to shift from talking about problems due to numbers and rather ask how can we utilise these numbers."

So should we be celebrating procreation and creativity rather than prophesying doom? Julian Simon thinks so.

"Lovers of humanity should rejoice, because the romance and the economics go together just perfectly," he says. "Governments should get out of people's lives and couples should have the children that they themselves want, secure in the knowledge that those children will not only be wonderful for them but good for the rest of the world as well."
« NEXT » « Against Nature » « Environmentalism» « Impact Of Decline » « Our Decline » « Home »