Global Conflict Greenhouse gases Population

Question the “People and Planet” Report

Graph from the Club of Rome, People and Planet report, showing the result of business as usual.

            Over 50 years ago the Club of Rome (CoR) made big news with the report “The Limits to Growth”. Last month another report came out that seems more optimistic than “Limits”.

            The CoR is an international think-tank of high-level people who tackle the world’s problems, including poverty, environmental deterioration and human population. “Limits” was based on an early computer simulation that looked at 5 variables: population, food production, industrialization, pollution and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources. The first of these were assumed to be increasing exponentially, while production was thought to be linear. Two of 3 scenarios in the program predicted “overshoot and collapse” of civilization before 2100. This is about as pessimistic as you can get!

            In contradistinction to “Limits”, the CoR has published another report which I fear is overly optimistic. “People and Planet” predicts that global population will stop its growth around 2050, with a maximum of 8.8 billion people. This is very different for the United Nations prediction, which projects continued growth until the end of this century, with a population over 11 billion.

            I first read about this report in The Guardian. The title of that article is: “World ‘population bomb’ may never go off….” This title did what a title is supposed to do—it grabbed my attention. However, it is wrong! The population bomb has already exploded. We are facing problems caused by overpopulation: climate chaos, and the extinction crisis both clearly have as their root cause our high population density. The increase in global aggression may also be related to overpopulation.

            People and Planet has a different way of predicting population. It is based on an observation that increased education (especially of girls and women) is associated with decreased family size. This has been observed many times in many different societies. It makes sense! Girls who are in school are better able to access and use family planning. Women who are in school or college are less likely to get married and start their families. Later, when they join the workforce, they are more likely to want to put more energy into their careers and less into childcare. Perhaps most important, educated women are less likely to be bossed by pronatalist, misogynistic men.

            The hope is that increased attention to education, especially in African countries, will speed up fertility decline. My observations, however, suggest that is difficult to achieve.

People and Planet gives two projections for the future; one of them is hopeful. The current scenario is called “Too Little Too Late” (TLTL), but the CoR advocates for “Giant Leap”. This would entail 5 steps: ending poverty, addressing gross inequality, empowering women, making our food system healthy for people and ecosystems, and transitioning to clean energy.

            “Giant Leap” would not be perfect, although it would get us closer to sustainability. It is also projected to reach peak global population a decade earlier than TLTL. I can see us transitioning to clean energy (it’s cheaper!), and women are already doing a great job of empowering themselves. Unfortunately, the current legal system and capitalism are designed to maintain the status quo; they make it problematic to address gross inequality and to end poverty. Furthermore, it is difficult for me to imagine what it would take to revolutionize the global food production system; again, there are too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  I fear that there is too much greed in our species for us to take the giant leap that is needed for us to live sustainably.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2023

Global Conflict Nutrition Population

Worry over Hunger in Africa

from World Watch magazine

            I have had the good fortune to have visited 5 of the 54 countries in Africa. Each has left me with a strong image.

            When I think of Cairo, Egypt, I think of a man leading a donkey cart with his wife seated inside. After he moved beside the cart to help his wife down, I realized from her contour she had come for a prenatal checkup to the women’s health clinic we were visiting. According to our informant, an English-speaking female gynecologist, over 90% of the women she attended had survived female genital mutilation. I considered the difficulty of this woman, brought by cart, would have when giving birth.

            At dusk Gail and I wandered around Cape Town, South Africa, then walked leisurely to our hotel. A man came from the shadows while passing a park and grabbed my arm with a viselike grip. He asked for money to get home to his “settlement”. When I asked for more information, he produced a neatly typed letter explaining where he lived and how much it would cost to get a ride home. Although usually generous, this smelled of a racket and we walked away after I peeled off his fingers. Many times, especially while reading Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime”, I have wondered if this poor man really was honest in his need.

            Eswatini (formerly “Swaziland”) was my introduction to Sub-Saharan Africa. I accepted an invitation to go there with trepidation, because of the way SSA is portrayed in the media. However, I felt very comfortable while there. I have many competing images from Eswatini: the healthy twins I helped birth while the mother was lying on a gurney outside; the football-sized tumor I removed from a woman’s pelvis after getting permission from her landlord to do the surgery since women couldn’t give their own consent. Perhaps the strongest image, however, is the skinny cattle on the red, barren land. Because only the royal family, the government and a few elites can own land, cattle are the Swazi people’s wealth.

            I became curious while walking past a small building at the Baptist Medical Centre in Nalerigu, northern Ghana. It turned out to be a clinic where malnourished infants and small children were fed. A parent (usually the mother) stayed with each child; sometime older children would accompany them. Fans turned overhead and mosquito nets hung on empty cribs. Breastfeeding was encouraged, and the older kids were fed nutritious food. In addition to their meals, parents received instruction on food preparation and nutrition.

            A friend convinced me to overcome my revulsion of the Rwandan genocide and go to Kigali for an international conference on family planning. Gail and I discovered a peaceful, clean city where people cooperate despite different ethnicities. The image that sticks in my mind is not what we saw there, but a picture from the article “Remember Rwanda?” published in World Watch magazine. “Cutting the last tree on the lot” shows a barren background with 3 people watching, and is emblematic of over-usage of natural resources. One theory of the root cause of the genocide is poverty combined with more people than the land could bear.

            These 5 countries are arranged above in order by current average per capita annual income. They go from $3569 in Egypt down to an incredibly low $798 in Rwanda, according to the World Bank.

            Some individuals worry that White people’s concern over rapid population growth in Africa is motivated by racism. Some point out that the footprint of a person in Africa is much smaller than our own, so Africans should be able to have larger families. However, the average number of children an African woman births is over 4, which means the population will double in just 28 years if growth continues at the present rate. Already there are food shortages in many places in Africa. In order to prevent famine and even possible future genocide, I feel that some African countries need to slow population growth. We can help with education and making contraception available to all. Next month I’ll write about an African success!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2022