Friday, September 08, 2006

The myth of overpopulation

Whenever politics or environmentalism is discussed, the “fact” that the world is overpopulated is bound to come up. It is a central tenet of groups like “Earth First!” and “ZPG”, and has even been an issue agreed upon by GA vote of the UUA... but these votes don’t make it true. The arguments are based on two things: world hunger, and mankind’s “footprint”. Let’s discuss hunger first.

Is hunger caused by there being too many people for the available food supply? Not according to the United Nations! George McGovern, (U.S. Senator, 1963-1981; Presidential candidate 1972; first Director of the United States Food for Peace Program, United States Ambassador to the United Nations agencies on Food and Agriculture in Rome) writes in the United Nations Chronicle : “Hunger is a political condition... the world now produces a quantity of grain that, if distributed evenly, would provide everyone with 3,500 calories per day, more than enough for an optimal diet. This does not even count vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, poultry, edible oils, nuts, root crops, or dairy products.” I took the initiative of counting those foods he left out (the numbers are readily available from the UN and the US Dept. of Agriculture): including protein cakes and edible oils from soybean, rapeseed, cottonseed, groundnuts, etc; fish; eggs; meats, including beef, lamb, pork, and poultry; milk and cheese; vegetables; and fruits: 2.59 billion metric tons per year! That’s .43 metric tons per person per year, or 2.6 lbs of meats and vegetables per day- on TOP of 3,500 calories worth of grain products! That’s enough to make every man, woman, and child on Earth morbidly obese- so why is there world hunger?

Is it because the developed countries refuse to share? Not according to the U.N.- again quoting Ambassador McGovern: “...78 per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses.” What he doesn’t say, and again is readily available information, is that nearly all the rest live in countries bordering those with surpluses. The answer is politics. War. Dictators routinely withhold food to punish provinces that revolt. Civil wars prevent food distribution. Remember the famines in Ethiopia and Eritrea? Remember those commercials with Sally Struthers telling us that pennies a day would save those starving children? What she didn’t say was that even as she was begging for pennies, the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea were spending millions a day on a twenty year long war!

So much for food- what about the damage Humankind is doing to the Earth? Again, it’s a matter of mismanagement, not necessity. For example, outside of the G-8 nations, agricultural practices are- and let’s be generous- 100 years out of date. In large portions of the third world, agriculture still means a wooden plow pulled by an ox, with the ox providing the fertilizer as he goes. Production per acre in the U.S. has increased twenty-fold in the last 100 years; if the third world were to build tractors and combines instead of tanks, and processing plants instead of nuclear weapons programs, world output could easily be increased three-fold in the next ten years. As there is already enough food, that means we could reduce the number of acres under cultivation by two thirds, allowing tens of millions of acres to return to nature! That means enough vegetable protein to replace most fish production, giving the beleaguered oceans a break! And if we used modern mass hydroponics technology, even those acres needed for farming could be moved to the deserts and badlands, where there’d be plenty of solar power to run them!

How do we get there from here? Not by unencumbered foreign aid- only the oligarchies in the countries involved will ever see any benefit of that. If there’s any lesson to be taken from the last half-century, it’s that one. Even though McGovern does call for some money in the article I referenced, he stumbles into the real necessity: “Education and democracy may be the most powerful combatants in the war on hunger and poverty.” That’s George McGovern talking, not the much-hated neo-cons. Democracy is the answer. During the 1930s, there was real hunger in both the US and the USSR... Stalin solved it liquidating the kulaks; FDR started government food programs and the WPA. If the North Korean people were allowed a vote, I’m guessing they’d prefer food to nuclear weapons.

Blaming the world’s problems on overpopulation is, it seems to me, a cop-out. Since population cannot be reduced in the short term, blaming overpopulation allows you to think that passing a resolution about zero population growth is actually doing something about hunger. If you blame overpopulation, then you don’t have to do anything about the evil regimes that starve their populations into submission. It allows you to be non-judgmental about other cultures, while assuaging those faint nagging doubts by denouncing excessive consumption in the West instead.


Jamie Goodwin said...

OK, I'll bite. While I don't disagree with what your your saying, how do we make democracies in countries like North Korea without fighting a 20 year war ourselves?

Joel Monka said...

That's the hard part, isn't it? One method would be something that's been discussed for half a century, but never actually attempted- world embargo. Not circling them with warships to prevent trade, but each and every nation simply refusing to deal with them. North Korea is not selfsufficient in anything but nuclear weapons- she simply cannot withstand even a short boycott.

The problem, of course, is that we never actually permit any such nation being "embargoed" to really suffer- we always permit food and medicine and housing materials to go through so the peeeepuuul won't suffer for the sins of their leaders... conveniently not noticing that all this aid is siphoned off the top by those same leaders, the people still suffer, and nothing changes. We allow "oil for food" which is really "oil to bribe UN officials and build 72 palaces". There's not a nation on Earth- not even the US- so self sufficient that it could withstand even a single year of TRUE embargo; most couldn't manage six months, North Korea couldn't go 60 days without food aid.

powderblue said...

The cover story in the October edition of The Atlantic is “The Menace of North Korea.” In it Robert Kaplan points out the Kim Family Regime was fighting for its survival in the mid-90s. Threatening fiefdoms of power within the country arose as resources were depleted and infrastructure collapsed as a result. Countries were quick to come to its aid, primarily South Korea and China but also the US, because they feared the implosion of a government with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons; and the millions of refugees who undoubtedly would have pushed in a panic across the borders.

Joel Monka said...

Exactly so- we always bail out the dictators because we fear the consequences... without considering the consequences of the bailout. The old Soviet Union lasted a half century longer than it deserved to because we continuously bailed it out with food aid and interest free loans- had we allowed it to fold and accepted the consequences early, we would have avoided all the cold-war Central America and Afghanistan adventures, which led directly to most of our current foreign policy problems.

There is an old military maxim that any resolution short of victory is defeat, and North Korea is the first in a long line of utter defeats the Western world has inflicted upon itself. Kim Il Jung exists because we were defeated fifty years ago; the current Iraq conflict was made inevitable when Sadam defeated Bush the elder in the first Gulf war. The world's dictators know that real sanctions will never be allowed to be effective, because we fear disorder more than we want to end the suffering of a billion people. They know that all they have to do is shed blood- anyone's blood, even their own- and we'll quit because we cannot bear the sight of dead bodies on television.

This sounds like I'm arguing in favor of war, but I'm not- I'm arguing in part that if you enter a war you MUST win it... but primarily I'm arguing that we sanction nations like North Korea with GENUINE sanctions, and let them work. You fear the cost of the chaos that would ensue? I give you the words of George McGovern: "What is the cost of 800 million hungry people dragging through shortened and miserable lives, unable to study, work, play or otherwise function normally because of the ever-present drain of hunger and malnutrition on body, mind and spirit? What is the cost of millions of young mothers breaking under the despair of watching their children waste away and die from malnutrition?" We have the ability to end hunger forever TODAY... but we haven't the moral courage to do so.