Carrying Capacity Global Conflict Population

Population Paradox—Small wars may prevent apocalyptic conflict

Population Paradox—Small wars may prevent apocalyptic conflict—6-2012

            The reason that I became concerned about human population is that I wanted to work for peace. Long ago I believed (and still do) that overpopulation is likely to lead to armed conflict.

Scarce resources are the most common cause of armed conflict. People are hungry and their neighbors have food, so a raid is initiated to steal their sustenance. Another scenario involves a growing group whose land area is limited. They look envyingly to the other side of their border with rich land and few people; invading a neighboring territory is a common cause of war. The Nazis used Lebensraum (living space) as an excuse to invade adjacent lands, thus catalyzing World War II. Recently we fought the Iraqi war over another valuable resource—petroleum.

Religion is also a common cause of war—even though most religions claim that they want peace. We are afraid of Muslims overrunning our beliefs. We have forgotten, however, what many followers of Mohammed still remember—how the Christians tried to exterminate Islam during the Crusades.

We know that a graph of the human population was almost flat for many centuries before the past couple hundred years. Why was there so little growth for so long, followed by such an amazing acceleration?

Many reasons are given for the past slow increase in our population. High infant mortality, poor hygiene, infectious diseases, and meager food supply all contributed. These factors all changed with the industrial revolution.

There is another cause, however, that we don’t usually consider as a reason for slow population growth. Several books give us a clue. The Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Matthew White) lists the world’s largest mass killings. The Roman gladiators (responsible for over three million deaths) and the Crusades (another three million) are listed. The imperialism of Genghis Kahn destroyed 40 million people, the Atlantic slave trade 16 million and the conquest of the Americas 15 million. Overall, about a half billion people died from the hundred cruel calamities described in this book.

Two books put forth a theory that may be a more significant past cause of mortality. War Before Civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage (Lawrence Keeley) and Constant Battles: Why we fight (Steven Le Blanc and Katherine Register) both posit that our ancestors killed each other in very significant numbers. They look at archeological evidence from around the world, especially right here in the Southwest.

In the past there were small bands of people living all over the world. Recent evidence suggests that these societies were more violent than prior archeologists ever acknowledged. Overall, these authors estimate that 10 to 15 percent of people in prehistoric societies died from conflict.

Disease and starvation weren’t bad enough! It seems that homicide and warfare are important reasons human population grew slowly for millennia. Past people destroyed their neighbors to steal their resources. In some cultures there is even evidence of cannibalism; not only did they kill, but also ate their neighbors’ flesh.

War is a terrible way to limit population growth. Unfortunately, battles and cruelty with extensive loss of life seem to have been the way of life in our dark past.

We are living in a period of relative peace according to Better Angels of Our Nature. A reviewer of this book summarizes its thesis: “…our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.” What may not be self-evident (few of us have the long view of history needed) is that the world has actually become less violent.

This book goes further than just to claim that we are living in an era with decreased armed combat. The author, Steven Pinker, is a Harvard psychologist who believes that we have slowly changed our mores to accept less violence in our personal lives—less spanking of children and less persecution of people for their beliefs, ethnicity, color or sexual orientation. With this current “Long Peace” has come longevity—and more people.

Apparently small raids and “horrible things” kept our population small, and the “long peace” is one cause our numbers have increased so rapidly. Relative peace has allowed our population to outgrow the carrying capacity of our planet by fifty percent! I share a concern with a Pentagon document from 2003. “As famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to … climate change, many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity… which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance.”

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012

Carrying Capacity Environment Global Conflict Population

Realize the Tragedy of Demographic Entrapment

Last month’s column was on the “tragedy of the commons”—when people use more than their share of a common resource, leading to the resource’s destruction. An example is overgrazed fields, where unpalatable weeds replace nourishing plants. Overgrazing is a disaster for shortsighted ranchers, because depleted fields can support very few animals.

Can a similar calamity happen to humans?

Yes, that is exactly what devastated Somalia recently. That country in the Horn of Africa is generally arid, and rainfall has been made scarcer by climate change. Human actions make the situation even worse, because cutting firewood leads to deforestation that reduces rainfall.

During the region’s frequent droughts, food production drops below what is necessary for human survival. Tens of thousands died in Somalia during 2011 from starvation.

Unstable politics in Somalia make the situation much worse. Gangs victimize the poor, robbing them of what little food they have. The Somali government is too weak to enforce any sort of rule of law.

Can we help by sending food? That sounds like the compassionate thing to do, but there is a hitch. Food aid arrives at distribution centers in cities so hungry people must leave their land to collect food. Their fields are abandoned and crops die. With no reason to return to their fields, these destitute people are forced into a cash economy. When the short-term food aid ceases these now landless peasants are caught with no money, no skills to make money, and (once again) no food.

This sad situation is made worse by the rapid growth rate of Somalia. Its Total Fertility Rate is 6.4—the average woman will bear more than six children. Only one country in the world has a higher TFR! In a wet year the harvest is good enough to feed all mouths, but not when the monsoon rains don’t come.

But, you might say, what about countries that far exceed their human population carrying capacity? For example the island of Singapore has the world’s highest population density and little land to grow food. Singapore imports its food, paying with money from manufacture and trade.

There are historical examples of human populations that outgrew the land’s ability to support them. I am part Irish, and suspect that my ancestors came to the USA to escape the Great Potato Famine in the mid 19th century. Ireland had become dependent on a single crop—potatoes—for most of its sustenance. This New World tuber allowed the population of Ireland to expand significantly—until a crop failure (from potato blight) caused an estimated million people to starve to death. Another, luckier million were able to emigrate from Ireland—many to the USA.

“Demographic entrapment” is the term applied to human overuse of their land’s carrying capacity. Dr. Maurice King, a British physician who has spent many years working in Africa, has tried to warn people about this tragedy.

Demographic entrapment occurs when a country has a population larger than its carrying capacity, when the country exports too little to be able to import food and when emigration is impossible. Dr. King suspects that much of sub-Saharan Africa will become entrapped soon.

An example of entrapment occurred in Rwanda in 1994. The genocide is generally blamed on tribal conflict, but starvation may have been the real reason. James Gasana, a former Minister in the Rwandan government, has excellent support for this theory. He found that, before genocide, ethnic strife was most likely to happen in areas where people were famished. Violence only occurred where people consumed less than 1500 calories each day. For comparison, the average person in the USA eats more than 2500 calories daily.

“Collapse”, Jared Diamond’s book, gives other examples of societies that outgrew their resources—the Romans, Mayas and Ancestral Puebloans. An intriguing video of Collapse can be found on YouTube in seven parts.

What is the best way to prevent demographic entrapment? There are very few under-populated countries, so massive emigration is unlikely. The poor countries of Africa are unable to compete on the world market, so exports cannot save them. The best way to head off violence similar to Rwanda’s is with small families.

Dr. King has not made friends by publicizing the concept of demographic entrapment. It is so frightening that many people are not willing to contemplate it. To ignore demographic entrapment, however, will not solve the problem. Sticking our heads in the sand could have tragic consequences, sentencing millions of people to death by starvation or by violence.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012