Thursday, October 8, 2009

Each birth brings a pair of hands, not just another mouth to feed


Prof Paul Ehrlich, an American entomologist with specialisation in Lepidoptera (butterflies) published what to me is a foolish book — The Population Bomb — in which he predicted that a fifth of humanity would starve to death by 1985.

In 1980 he bet $1,000 that the prices would skyrocket because of the exploding population. By 1990, the prices had declined sharply, although global population had risen by 800 million.

In 1999, the six billionth child was born, and the Malthusian nightmare has not happened. “The power of population,” the Rev Thomas Malthus proclaimed in 1798 as the world neared a billion people, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

“FORGET UTOPIA”, HE ARGUED. “HUmanity is doomed to exist, now and forever, at the edge of starvation... Forget charity, too: helping the poor only leads to more babies, which in turn produces increased hardship down the road.”

Understandably, the Industrial Revolution had fostered widespread unemployment and European cities swarmed with beggars. Hit by one bad harvest after another, Britain was tottering though a series of economic crises, which led to poverty on a frightful scale so that by 1803, local parishes were handing out relief to one out of every seven people.

But according to early “doom-sayers” people are a resource — “the most fundamental and precious commodity” on earth, as William Petyt put it in 1680. While Plato argued cities with more than 5,040 landowners were too large, ancient Chinese philosophers, even Mao Zedong, fretted about the need to shift the masses to under-populated areas, saying “of all things people are the most precious.”

Friedrich Engels wrote: “We are forever secure from the fear of overpopulation”. As proof of this theory, he pointed to 17th century Netherlands, which was strong, prosperous and thickly settled. In contrast, the poor, sparsely inhabited British colonies were begging immigrants to go and swell the work force.

The most logical argument came perhaps from Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosopher best known for his worship of reason and technology. “When hunger threatens,” Marquis wrote, “new instruments...” will continue to appear and “a very small amount of ground will produce a great quantity of supplies”.

Malthusians resurfaced in the late 1960s when Nobel laureates started advising US Congress and the World Bank that unless population growth stopped, a New Dark Age would cloud the world and “men will have to kill and eat one another”.

They worry about exceeding so-called “world’s carrying capacity” — a view deduced after observing the imminent collapse that occurs when populations of squirrels, gypsy moths, or Lapland reindeer exceed local carrying capacities.

But the notion of “demographic transition” teaches us that no such collapse has occurred in history. I understand the sentiments on the recent population census, but not those that seem to inform our policies (see for example, Ngugi’s view, Nation, September 25: “Population Boom Bad for Kenya”).

Keep the country’s resources intact and miraculously hand this government (or any other in the foreseeable future) just 3 million people. That new lean Kenya, I can bet, will be worse off. We fool ourselves when we think of population “growth” as “explosion”. We should address the real problems of “peoples”.

WHY DO WE LOOK AT EACH NEW birth as the arrival on earth of another hungry mouth? Why are we incapable of seeing that along with each new mouth comes a pair of hands? The world does not have six billion mouths to feed — it has six billion hard-working human beings whose creativity and ingenuity must be unleashed.

In the next decade India and China will each add to the planet about 10 times as many people as the US. But the stress on the “world’s carrying capacity” caused by the new Americans will far exceed India’s and China’s combined.

In any case even if, as predicted by the UN, Asians and Africans will make up 80 per cent of humanity by 2050, they will simply have returned to being proportionately as numerous as they were before the Industrial Revolution.

Dr Kalambuka teaches physics at the University of Nairobi.