Crowded planet guides

Adult Mortality in Developed Countries - Population and the Environment - How Many People can the Earth Support? - The Stork and The Plow - The Politics of Population
March 8, 1996

There is a plethora of books on population. Rightly so. It is the single most pressing issue of our times, and the population explosion has yet to enter its most explosive phase. In 1996 the earth is expected to take on another 90 million people, the largest number ever - and this annual increment is not likely to fall for another ten years. Demographers project that the global total today, 5.7 billion, will virtually double within the lifetimes of many readers of this paper.

All the more pertinent, then, are five new books on the issue. Population and the Environment is an edited version of lectures presented at Linacre College, Oxford, during 1993-94. Alas, the book is already a trifle dated, not citing any of the remarkable breakthroughs at the Cairo conference on population and development, even though it claims to be a "comprehensive exploration of population issues for the 21st century." Not that the book would ever have ranked as contemporary cutting-edge stuff. Despite its title, it contains all too little on such prominent environmental issues as deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, and species loss, nor on such strongly associated issues as poverty and consumerism. Fortunately there are illuminating chapters on food, women, climate, and the religious pros and cons of contraception.

In his introduction the editor launches into a strictly demographic commentary on population increase. But what counts is not only sheer numbers of people, but how they live. What affluence they achieve or what poverty they suffer; what kinds of technology they use; how many resources they consume; and how much waste and pollution they cause. Britain increases its population by 114,000 people a year, Bangladesh by 2.9 million. But because an average British person uses 30 times as much fossil fuel as the average Bangladeshi, this country's population growth causes more carbon dioxide emissions than does Bangladesh's population growth. So who has a problem?

The Politics of Population is a history of the Cairo conference by that prolific chronicler of United Nations affairs, Stanley Johnson. The book starts with a review of preceding conferences in 1974 and 1984, before documenting the build-up to the 1994 conference with its political pushings and shovings. Johnson then goes on to the Cairo conference itself and the manoeuvres of the Vatican and certain Islamic nations to eliminate all talk of abortion, whether as a right or merely an option. Fortunately the campaign proved, so to speak, abortive, as befitted a conference where the overwhelming focus was on women and their individual rights, their reproductive health, and above all their status within society. This happy outcome was a far cry from the occasionally coercive spirit of the two preceding conferences. True, we must still bend exceptional efforts to curb population growth. But Cairo underlined that this most public of issues depends on the most private decisions of individuals.

As it happens, there is a growing convergence between the public good and the private weal: if we were to cater for the vast unmet need for family planning (120 million couples are deprived of this basic human right), we would be well over halfway to attaining the goal of the two-child family.

All this and much more is set out by Johnson in splendid detail. In particular he presents the Cairo Action Programme with much of the political drama that went into the creation of one of the most significant documents of our time. Regrettably, several developed nations, including the United Kingdom and the United States, are already reneging on their financial commitments, even though the money for international population activities amounts per UKtaxpayer to the price of a pint of beer every six months.

As a historical record, Johnson's book is valuable indeed. As an analytical assessment of the population metaproblem, it is less probing than the next three books under review. Adult Mortality in Developed Countries looks at an emergent problem for countries where there is a "greying" population over 65 years of age. In Germany, Italy and Japan, these "oldies" comprised aound 20 per cent of the population in 1990 and are projected to reach 35 per cent by 2030. In these three countries, state pension obligations will eventually amount to 15 per cent of GDP, compared with only 5-10 per cent today.

These and many other associated problems are addressed by 23 contributors from 11 developed countries (alas, none from Eastern Europe or Japan). They look at the seismic shifts during this century when average longevity has increased by a full two decades; and they ask why there are marked differences between sexes, regions, socioeconomic groups and other determinants.

How Many People Can the Earth Support? is by Joel Cohen, a multidisciplinary scientist of eminent expertise in the US. The book is posited on the idea of carrying capacity: the maximum number of people who can be supported by the earth today without reducing the number that can be supported in the future. While easy enough to define in principle, it is difficult to calculate in practice since it is a moving target. Plainly we can feed far more people now than 50 years ago - but at a fast-growing cost in terms of overloaded croplands, eroded pasturelands, overexploited fisheries, etc, all of which undercut the potential to feed the present total of people, let alone still more people in the long run.

Similarly, the concept of carrying capacity applies in socioeconomic as well as environmental senses. Consider unemployment in developing countries, where the present job famines are likely to be soon overtaken by "job starvation". These countries need to create 40 million jobs every year merely to hold the line on unemployment (not counting underemployment). The US, with an economy half as large again as the entire developing world's, often has difficulty in generating two million new jobs a year. Developing countries could probably meet the challenge if they had plenty of time to think about it. To do it while their populations are doubling every 25-35 years is surely impossible.

Probably the biggest threat to future carrying capacity lies with our ability to feed ourselves. The fall in world grain reserve stocks between 1992-95 could well mark a lurch from a buyer's market to a seller's market in which the politics of surplus are replaced by the politics of scarcity. Instead of a situation with a few exporting countries competing for insufficient markets, there could soon be more than 100 importing countries competing for insufficient supplies. 1995 witnessed the steepest rises in prices of wheat, rice and corn seen in many years. Does this mean that carrying capacity is actually declining at a time when the world's population is annually increasing by more people than ever?

All these questions and many more are tackled by Cohen in extensive detail. If you want an overview of how we stand - or rather, how overcrowded we are already - this is a first-rate book. For me, however, Cohen is altogether too phlegmatic. He suggests that while there is no room for complacency, there is no need for urgency either. Consider, for instance, the prospect for Nigeria. In 1990 it had 119 million people. If it had set out to achieve the two-child family by 2010, it would still have ended up with a population of 7 million people. But if it were to defer the two-child family for just another 25 years, it would eventually end up with 617 million people. Nigeria is only the size of France and Germany, and half of its territory is dry if not semi-desert.

The best of the five books in many respects is The Stork and the Plow. Unlike most of the population books by the Ehrlichs (joined here by one of the more luminous of the young leading lights, Gretchen Daily), the book invokes equity as a prime factor in the population debate. How can it be - or rather, continue to be - that just one fifth of the world consumes four-fifths of the world's resources and causes an even greater share of global waste and pollution? The United States possesses 5 per cent of the world's population, yet it causes 23 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Meantime Americans protest that gasoline is too dear at 70p a gallon.

A still greater equity issue resides in the status, or lack thereof, of women. As long as they rank as fifth-class citizens, they will be less inclined to heed the benefits of family planning. Women account for 65 per cent of the world's people living off an income of 70p per day, and on average they make 40 per cent less money than men for the same work. Their illiteracy rate is twice as high as men's, and it is falling less rapidly. Yet in developing countries they grow more food than do men, as well as undertaking virtually all child rearing. They hold only one tenth of the world's government posts and of its bank loans. On this last point, however, there is a glimmer of better news. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has made loans averaging $100 to almost two million women since 1976, with a virtually unheard-of payback rate of 96 per cent.

The book goes on to discuss other equity issues such as racism and religious prejudice. Fortunately there is some better news on the latter front: the countries with the smallest families are two leading bastions of Catholicism, Spain and Italy.

A good part of the book centres on that most basic of human activities: our capacity to put supper on the table. Alas, the green revolution has run out of steam. After prodigious successes from 1950 to 1984, it has failed to maintain its momentum in the past ten years - ten lean and hungry years for the 900 million extra people added to the global total since 1985, meaning that the 800 million people chronically malnourished (jargon for semi-starving) are receiving 20 per cent fewer calories even if the maldistribution of food has grown no worse. The 1995 grain harvest was the lowest since 1990, and world food reserves are now smaller than since records began 30 years ago.

As usual, the authors present a doom-laden message in sprightly style, making this a very readable book. Still more important, they balance the facts of breakdown with the potential for breakthrough. The closing chapters are replete with first-rate solutions, most of them already implemented in a few local situations. So we know what to do and we know how to do it. All that remains is for us to get on with the job. Some "all".

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, Oxford, and senior adviser to Nafis Sadik, secretary general of the 1994 Cairo Conference.

Adult Mortality in Developed Countries

Editor - Alan Lopez, Graziella Caselli and Tapani Valkonen
ISBN - 0 19 823329 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 361

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