WHAT EVERYBODY NEEDS TO KNOW
by Lete Kidane
with Tesfaye Ghebremariam & Wolde Beraka
The "conventional wisdom" of the west is known to just about everybody these days -- in fact, the advice of foreign governments has been promoted so extravagantly that it has become an incessant drumbeat that never changes. When it comes to population, the opinion heard around the world is really very simple: There are too many people in the world. Population is growing too fast. Family planning methods must be made available to every couple on earth.
This point of view has been stated so often, so force- fully, that some people are beginning to wonder if it isn t really true, after all. But behind all this propaganda are some strange contradictions and some fascinating puzzles.
First of all, one might ask: if the world is truly over- populated with five or six billion inhabitants, why are some rich countries trying to increase their birthrates?
It is odd, but true, that most people in the industrial world are living under population policies. But these policies are not those that are found in developing na- tions. Rather they are intended to increase birthrates.
If you were a German in Germany and had a baby there, you would receive a cash "birth bonus" which was approved by the government for the sole purpose of increasing the number of births by 200,000 per year. France, Switzerland, Greece, and the Scandinavian countries have all adopted "incentive" measures to en- courage larger families. These include housing benefits, state maternity allowances, and a wide variety of regulations and subsidies making large families more attractive and affordable. The rest of the developed world is likewise working on tax breaks to large families and other measures which are believed to have a positive impact on fertility.
Yet these are the same countries (with the exception of Greece) that are contributing money for reducing population size in the developing world. Developed- country funds have financed the most repressive population control schemes in the world. They bankrolled the "state of emergency" declared in India during the mid-1970s that resulted in millions of men being hauled away in trucks and forcibly sterilised, and inspired the notorious "one-child" population policy in China which is enforced through compulsory sterilisations and abortions.
Next, you might ask: If population continues to grow, won t the environment suffer? The answer is probably not. It depends on other factors. Indeed, populous coun- tries tend to have greater resources available for environ- mental projects than do nations with fewer people. This is because there are more workers to pay for preservation and clean-up, research, etc. In fact, the pol- icy of boosting fertility in rich societies makes the whole environment argument seem ridiculous: donors of popu- lation "assistance" want faster population growth at home -- among the very people who already are consuming nearly 80 percent of the world s goods.
What about the "carrying capacity" of the planet -- are some countries becoming too crowded? This is a more complicated question. Calcutta might be called "crowded." Mexico City could be considered the same, and so could Manila or Lagos or Cairo. But the word "crowded" is almost never used to describe cities in developed countries, like New York, London, or Tokyo - - despite the fact that these cities are even more densely inhabited than are their counterparts in developing nations.
Population "density" measures "crowding." It works like this: Netherlands, for example, consists of 37,466 square kilometers of land. The country s population is 14.9 million. Therefore, Netherlands has 397 people per square kilometer of territory. In other words, if all of the nation s inhabitants were spread evenly throughout the country, each square kilometer of space -- every parcel of land measuring one kilometer one all four sides -- would contain 397 residents. Thus 397 is the population density of Netherlands.
England consists of 245,778 square kilometers with a population of 57.4 million, giving that country a density of 233 persons per square kilometer. In Germany, there are 221 people per square kilometer. And all of these countries want their own populations to increase.
Now look at the population figures for the countries that are being required against their will to slash birthrates by foreign aid donors and lenders. In Pakistan, for example, there are just 142 people for each square kilometer of territory. China, the most populous nation on earth with some 1.1 billion people, has a total land mass of 9.6 million square kilometers, giving it a surprisingly low population density of 116. Indonesia and Thailand -- two countries that have been subjected to particularly ruthless population-reduction campaigns -- have densities of only 99 and 108 respectively. The ratio of people-per-kilometer in Mexico is barely 45. In Ethiopia it is 42, meaning that Britain is more than sixteen times as crowded as Ethiopia.
Elsewhere the figures are even more startling. In Senegal, for example, there are 37 people for every square kilometer of land. In Brazil, there are fewer than 18. Somalia s population density is a mere 13. And in some places -- Namibia and Mauritania, for example -- there are less than two people for every square kilometer of territory.
Still, we have not completely answered the "carrying capacity" question. The debate implies that less-deve- loped countries cannot "sustain" as many people as rich countries can. But why not?
The nations of the north became wealthy through in- dustrialisation -- and industrialisation was made possible by raw materials extracted, mainly through the construction of vast colonial empires, from the southern half of the world. Even today, the natural resources on which the powerful countries depend must be imported from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
The other half of the "sustainable population" question is food. Most of the 549,146 square kilometers of land that make up France can produce crops for only about half the year. But in tropical Kenya, with roughly the same amount of space, the land can produce year- round. In other words -- at least in terms of food -- warm climates can sustain about twice as great a popu- lation density as the temperate regions (and we do not count other needs like fuel for heating that are disproportionately used in the north).
Unfortunately, however, there is a lack of basic justice in the world. Most of the usable land in France is cultivated, French technology is advanced, and the French can afford to import what they cannot grow. In Kenya, however, only a small percentage of fertile land is in cultivation, and the country is so poor that it must export most of what it grows.
But poverty is essentially a political experience. In terms of potential wealth, Kenya is way ahead.
In light of these facts, talk about "carrying capacity" appears little more than a new, sanitised way of speaking about "the white man s burden." People of European descent (or at least their governments) feel "burdened" by people of colour, and therefore would wish the earth to carry fewer of them.
Now we come to the matter of stability: Will population growth in the developing world lead to conflict? Birth control advocates are quick to use this argument as a last resort. It is part true and part false. Yes, urban areas as a whole tend to have more crime than do rural villages -- at least within a particular society. But when you compare across national borders, the picture changes dramatically. The crime rate (number of serious crimes reported compared to total population) in Shreve- port, Louisiana, U.S.A. (with 200,000 people) or Gary, Indiana (population 120,000) is immensely higher than it is in Addis Ababa (with 1,500,000 people) or in Cairo, Egypt (which has 20 million people).
But western strategic planners are more worried about international conflict than they are about car theft. They fear that as populations grow in the less-developed areas, pressures will mount for a redistribution of wealth from north to south. In this respect, they are undoubtedly right. This explains why such enormous effort is expended by the powerful nations of the world to gather census figures, project population growth rates, and evaluate political-demographic trends.
Data published by the U.S. government reveals, for instance, that there are some 21,790,956 males between the ages of 18 and 49 in Nigeria; of these, exactly 3,986,084 are "fit for military service." And another 1,297,790 male Nigerians -- no more and no less -- are likely to reach military age within the year, says the latest published country report.
In Sudan, slightly more than half of the 6,488,864 males between 18 and 49 are considered fit for military duty, and another 301,573 are expected to be added to this number over the coming year. India is reported to have 143,008,471 men suitable for the military, with more than 9 million added to that number each year. Brazil s potential troop strength of 28,721,849 today is expected to reach 30,377,767 within the year. And fully 71 percent of males in the Philippines between the age 15 and 49 are fit for combat, with over 700,000 more expected to join their number annually.
This is the nature of the population and conflict equation. It explains the eagerness of certain densely- settled western countries to encourage births at home, while demanding, at the very same time, that less- peopled territories on the other side of the giant, global divide take outrageous steps to prevent fertility. Simply stated, current population trends -- rapid growth in the south, and potential decline in the north -- hint at a shift in the balance of power at some time in the future.
This also explains otherwise inexplicably-cruel programmes of structural adjustment, the conversion of agriculture to export production, and other policies that impoverish the emerging states of the south. These actions are intended to make population growth difficult -- and thus to contribute to the development of national de-population policies.
The "over-population" propaganda may be simple. And it may have been freely circulated around the world for so long that it has come to be taken for granted.
But hearing is not believing. The contradictions are not invisible. And suspicions of evil motivation do not die. Rather, they grow in proportion to pressures from the overseas.