Categories
Population

Look Out for the Sahel

Field in Niger, Africa

To Deal with Environmental Problems

“Our common goal is the improvement of the quality of life for all, both now and for succeeding generations…. To deal with the social, economic and environmental problems, we must achieve zero population growth within the lifetime of our children.” 

Joint statement signed by 58 of the World’s Scientific Academies                                (1994, before ICPD)

Last month I wrote about the International Conference on Population and Development that took place in Cairo, Egypt, 25 years ago. That experience inspired me to increase my activism on population and to start writing these essays.

            The primary thrust of ICPD was to turn the global focus away from population and to bend it toward reproductive health. This change was in reaction to the dark side of some past population programs: coercive tactics to get people to accept family planning—especially sterilization. Although the goal was to be more humanitarian, it may backfire.

            After reading my November column on ICPD, a doctor whom I respect highly chided me. Dr. Malcolm Potts wrote “Richard, I was also at the ICPD, which I thought at the time – and continue to think – was a step backwards.”

Feedback

             I appreciate the many comments I receive on my population essays. They help to inform and inspire me as well as keep me honest. Although I gave a positive slant to ICPD last month, I have to agree with Dr. Potts—that conference seemed to ignore that the world was already overpopulated 25 years ago.

            Another friend who was also there wrote: “I gave a paper on population issues and the unsustainability of current levels of population growth. …the attendance was light and nobody really cared.” Although the rate of growth has decreased in the intervening quarter century, we have gained over 2 billion more people. The climate crisis is evidence that our planet is even more overpopulated

             No place reflects the failure of ICPD more than sub-Saharan Africa, and especially the Sahel. It is a band across the center of Africa that has barely enough precipitation to support life. The land is overgrazed already and people are degrading the environment even more. Despite this, some of the world’s highest population growth rates are in the Sahel. The average woman in Niger (one of the Sahelian countries) will bear 7 children during her lifetime!

            Combine the area’s aridity and fast population growth with climate change and you have a recipe for a potential disaster. Add military conflicts and hundreds of thousands of refugees and things look even worse. Already many countries in the Sahel depend heavily on foreign aid for food, but that is not sustainable.

            Developments in the Sahel reminds me of what happened in a country a bit to the south. People in Rwanda had killed each other shortly before ICPD. Although ethnic and political causes are usually cited as the reasons of this genocide, another theory makes sense to me. James Gasana’s “Remember Rwanda” in World Watch magazine paints a different picture. As a former Rwandan Minister of Agriculture and Environment, Gasana felt hunger due to overuse of resources fueled that violence.

            I am alarmed by an article published November 2019 in the journal Nature, “Avert catastrophe now in Africa’s Sahel”. Already there are thousands of people escaping Africa to Europe. We may see another genocide if crowding and conditions worsen in the Sahel.

4 suggestions to Prevent Catastrophe:

Invest in girls’ education and reconsider marriage laws. We all know that educating girls and women is one of the best ways to slow population growth—plus education is good in itself. What is less well known is that the norm in many places is for girls to be subjected to an arranged marriage when they are teens or younger.

Expand access to family planning. I spent time in Northern Ghana where large families are common. A program to increase access to family planning did little to slow growth. Why? Apparently the people there are loath to discard traditions and benefit from small family size. Organizations such as the Population Media Center could help change old practices.

Increase agricultural production. No till farming, mulching and techniques of water harvesting can increase production markedly.

Act now. The best chance to slow emigration from the Sahel and prevent disaster needs international aid to act quickly. However, the Sahel would be less likely to explode if ICPD had focused more on population 25 years ago.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2019

Categories
Population

Combat Overpopulation Denial

“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” 

           Milton Friedman

            I first met people who denied the population problem in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development. They supported their claim that there was no population problem with the statement that all the world’s people could fit into Texas.

            Well, they are correct, however there are problems with this contention. If everybody crowded into Texas we would each have almost a thousand square feet! That’s plenty of room, wouldn’t you say?

            What about food? where would food come from, and how would it get distributed to all those people? What about drinking water? How would we stay warm in the winter? And what would happen to all the waste? Clearly people require more than just a thousand square feet.

            How much land does each person currently use? The best way of calculating this seems to be the Ecological Footprint. The EF has been calculated for people in many countries, and combines the land needed to live on, grow our food on, the area needed to develop natural resources and also the land to dispose of our waste. It is a comprehensive method of evaluating a person’s impact on Earth, although it does leave out one factor. More about that factor below.

            The area of land in square feet, and the world population, are both very large numbers, of course. The EF only includes what is called “bioproductive” land—leaving out mountains and deserts. It turns out that an average citizen of the world is using about 291,000 square feet of land, or about 6 2/3 acres. This is more than 290 times the area allotted if we all squeezed into Texas! The people who deny overpopulation use an argument that is based on drastic misinformation.

            Indeed, not only could we all not fit into Texas for any period of time, but also we don’t really fit into Earth. To be sustainable, with our current population and level of consumption, we would need 1.7 times the land area available to us. We have overdrawn on our global savings account in order to enjoy our consumptive lifestyle.

            We can already see the effects of overpopulation and overconsumption. Perhaps most evident is climate change. Land is eroding, fisheries are depleted and toxic chemicals are ubiquitous. Furthermore, we are killing off other species at terrifying rates—at least 1000 times normal. Although the Ecological Footprint is an excellent tool for comparing what people are using with what is available, it has a major limitation. It does not leave any resources for other species.

            I haven’t read the book “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline”, but I’ve read reviews. The authors, neither of whom is a demographer, maintain that the world is not overpopulated and, indeed, needs more people. They are concerned that the birth rate is falling more rapidly than the UN and other demographers realize. I wish they were correct, but I disagree!

            The Wall Street Journal review of the book uses the term “global population collapse”—but there is little reason to believe that this will happen this century; we’re still adding 80 million people to the planet each year. The review is concerned that the growth of the economy will slow. Only a madman or an economist can believe that perpetual economic growth is possible. 

            What is wrong with this book? There seem to be many errors. The authors don’t focus on subSaharan Africa, where the average woman still has almost 5 children, and parents want large families. The authors seem to ignore demographic momentum, which causes growth to continue for several decades even after a country reaches replacement family size.

            The major problem with “Empty Planet” is that nowhere (in reviews I’ve read) do the authors compare the resources we humans are using with what is available. The Ecological Footprint does that, and the result is not pretty. Unfortunately that book is not alone in not considering the finiteness of our planet. Even though Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize for economics, he was not thinking globally when he wrote the quote at the beginning of this column. Our global “pie” is fixed in size. We in rich countries are endangering people in other countries with our growing population and extravagant lifestyle. We are also endangering our progeny.

© Richard Grossman 2019