Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Two Different Demographic Crises -- Some Eco-Socialist Reflections


 

 

I

 

An article entitled Germany: Too Few People? by Daley and Kulish (2013) evoked in my mind several thoughts and old memories:

One of the most serious problems of the life of humankind on the earth, the population problem, is also the easiest to understand. The first time I became aware of the problem of exponential population growth I was just about nine years old. It occurred to me that my parents were just two persons. Then they produced six children, and in twelve years our family became 8 persons strong. I thought it could not go on like this. After all, my father’s income was limited. I expressed my worry to my brother, who was only a year and a half older than I. He said I was talking nonsense. We were standing on the banks of a pond when I started the conversation.”Look at the pond”, my brother said, “When it rains, hundreds of thousands of raindrops fall in it. What happens? Nothing.” He was right, I thought, although I was not quite satisfied.

I could not pursue the topic then. But I never forgot this conversation. Later, as a grown-up person going to college, I came to learn about the population theory of Malthus. Our lecturer in political economy criticized it: A human being, we were told, is not born only with a stomach, he is also born with two hands. He can produce the things he needs.

In retrospect, I think my ten and a half years old brother had actually understood the problem better than our college lecturer. It is true, in a pond in Bengal nothing ever happens that is special. In the summer months the water level sinks due to evaporation. But in the following rainy season a lot of water falls into it from the sky. The pond is again full. There is always water in it. My brother had intuitively understood the principle of steady state, of a dynamic, i.e. cyclical, steady state.

In contrast, the picture of a human born with two hands made me remember a frightening but happy-end fairy tale I had read in my childhood: A demon had descended upon a village and he said he would destroy everything. The villagers despaired. Then a little girl went to the demon and beseeched him to spare whatever was still standing. The demon said, he would accede to her request, but only under one condition, namely, the girl must continuously give him enough work to do. Otherwise he must resume destroying things, because he cannot stop working. The deal was done. The demon stopped destroying and the girl gave him one meaningful work after another: build a good house for every family in the village, build a good school building, build a good road, build good furniture for everybody etc. etc. etc. The demon did everything. But soon the girl ran out of good ideas. The danger loomed that the demon would again begin destroying. Then the girl hit upon an idea. She gave the demon one of her curly hairs and asked him to straighten it. The demon said that was too little work for him. But the girl insisted. The demon began his work. He pulled it and pressed it between his fingers again and again, but to no avail. The hair won’t get straightened. The demon was thus kept working for ever. The village was saved.

The problem of today’s German economy is very much like that of this fairy tale village. My childhood worry about the growth of our family was a miniature replica of today’s worry about the growing world population. And with his picture of the pond, where nothing really changes except the water level, my brother anticipated the steady state ideal of ecologists. Only, 68 years ago, my brother did not know, nor did I, that there were things like torrential rain followed by devastating floods, and years-long drought due to meager rainfall.

 

 

Too Few People

 

Over the decades, Germany’s accumulated industrial capital has assumed a demonic size. The demon wants to work continuously, do something – constructive or destructive, does not matter. It does not matter whether a house is built or demolished, the companies doing the work make profit. The most unbearable thing is machines lying idle. But this demon still needs laborers – despite all progress in labor productivity. And here a serious, frightening problem has come up: German women are producing too few children. After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s laborers.

It is a demographic crisis of a sort that is difficult for most people to understand. Haven’t we been hearing for several decades now that the world is overpopulated? Haven’t the governments in many countries been trying to reduce the rate of births? Hasn’t the first report to the Club of Rome (Meadows et al 1972) warned us of the unwelcome consequences of welcoming the birth of many children?

If it were just a problem of finding laborers, that would be very easy to solve. Laborers can be imported from many countries where there is an excess of young people crying for jobs. In fact, in the 1960s, Germany and most other industrialized countries of Europe solved their problem of labor shortage in this way. But they soon realized to their dismay that the easy solution they had found had a sour note. They wanted to import laborers, but human beings came. Human beings can supply labor, but they can also be a nuisance. The imported laborers soon settled down where their newly found good jobs were; later, their wives and children followed; they married and produced children. The governments and the native people of the host countries (most of them, at any rate) did not like this development. They would have liked an arrangement in which the imported laborers would work for nine months and then go home for three months and come again for nine months and so on. In the beginning, that was the arrangement in Switzerland. But the bosses of the economy did not like this arrangement. And of course, their wish prevailed. Soon there were too many of these immigrants.

When, in the mid 1970s, a recession set in in the industrialized countries of Europe, the governments of the host countries tried to get rid of as many of the immigrant laborers as possible. In West Germany, where the great majority of the immigrant laborers were Turks, Chancellor Kohl offered them a premium for leaving Germany of their own accord. But to no avail.

What troubled the Christian European countries most was that the immigrant laborers were mostly Muslims. When Kohl made his above mentioned offer in the early 1980s, he said in a conversation with Margaret Thatcher, the reason for his initiative was that the Turks had a very different culture, that it was so very difficult to integrate them.

Already in the early 1980s, I could observe xenophobia in Germany. One could read graffiti like “Turks go home”. Black and brown people were often attacked on the streets. There were two cases of arson of houses inhabited by Turks. Several persons were killed in these events. In the 1990s Neo-Nazis attacked foreigners from all poor countries including those coming from Poland. Their slogan: “Germany for Germans, foreigners get out”. Similar xenophobic incidents have been taking place in almost all European countries. There is a fear in some countries, e.g. in Belgium and the Netherlands, that the locals will soon become a minority in their own country. Asylum laws have been tightened. The situation became worse after 9/11.

The point I want to make here is that Germany’s labor shortage problem cannot any more be solved easily by importing foreign laborers from poor countries. The government is willing to allow highly skilled ones to immigrate, for a limited period. But the hundreds of thousands of young and unskilled foreigners who want to come here (or to some other rich European country) to work and earn money are neither getting a visa nor asylum. Germany is not an immigration country, it is argued. But the real reasons are different: Firstly, there is the fear of the country being swamped with foreigners. Secondly, there is also the fear of trouble from xenophobic mobs.

For the leaders of Germany, there are only three possible solutions to this urgent problem: (1) let all the unemployed people of the crisis-ridden European countries – Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy etc. –  come to Germany, get some training if possible, and then work. That is already largely possible under the terms of the EU treaties; (2) somehow motivate German women to produce more children; (3) accept a stagnating economy.

The first solution requires one to assume that the said crisis-ridden countries will never recover from recession and stagnation, that they would not need the labor of about half of their young population in future. Given the prevailing economic ideology, that is difficult to assume. Everybody is hoping that the crisis would soon be over. Moreover, the German economy simply cannot offer opportunities to so many unemployed Southern and Eastern Europeans, even if they are prepared to be trained. Of course, many middle-aged women from Eastern Europe are working in Germany as skilled or unskilled low-wage nurses caring for the rapidly growing number of highly aged Germans. Recently even young Chinese women came to Germany to work in this trade. But soon the Eastern European and Chinese populations will also be aging. In this context, Daley and Kulish mention Latvia and Bulgaria, the populations of which are diminishing faster than that of Germany. As for energetic young people, already now, many Portuguese, Spaniards, and Italians with qualification, skill and entrepreneurial ability needed for working in modern industries are feeling compelled to emigrate or migrate back to the Latin American countries; the Portuguese even to Angola and Mozambique. The rest without sufficient qualification or skill would rather live off their national welfare benefits and reside in Hotel Mama than try their luck in Germany. For even German workers at comparable rungs of the labor hierarchy-ladder cannot live off the low wages they get and hence have to apply for supplementary welfare benefits.

The second solution has little chance of success. Modernity and emancipation have had the effect of reducing the desire to have children. Also the prevailing neoliberal capitalism makes it hard to combine motherhood with a fulltime job, because it severely saps the energy of all workers, especially women workers. And many of those women who want to have a child simply cannot find a man willing to start a family with them. Total lack of job security simply discourages men from bearing responsibility. A very large percentage of German mothers are single mothers. In comparison to the rest of Europe stuck in an endless economic crisis, Germany as a whole is an island of prosperity and low unemployment. One can therefore imagine how difficult it is in the other countries to decide to start a family with a plan to have two or three children.

The third solution, accepting a stagnating economy, is an anathema to most people – not only in Germany, but in the whole world. Unfortunately for such people, however, that is the only realistic, I even think inevitable, solution to the demographic crisis of the sort we are here talking about. In rich developed countries, where the demographic transition has already taken place – in Germany it was in 1972 –, it is not likely that the population will grow again. Statistics quoted by Daley and Kulish show that it is shrinking and will shrink further, while it would simultaneously be aging. It may at the most be kept from shrinking – through desired and/or undesired immigration from countries suffering from overpopulation. But given the fear of being swamped by poor black, brown, and yellow or Muslim foreigners, given the fear of the country losing its white Christian identity, more and more rigorous laws and rules will be put into effect for preventing immigration. In the USA they are building longer and higher walls along the Mexican border; Ceuta and Melilla – two Spanish exclaves situated in Morocco – are protected by two rows of high barbed wire fences.

It is convincing to argue that for the rich industrialized countries a stagnating economy – better still, a shrinking economy – is a good solution to their demographic crisis because it also constitutes a contribution to solving the world’s ecological and resource crises. So, downscale the economy deliberately (if it is not being downscaled by the current economic crisis) in order to adjust it to the demographic reality. The white European peoples experiencing the demographic crisis will not die out. Their women, in spite of being modern and emancipated, do want to become mother – on average of two children – as the examples of France and some Scandinavian countries show. At some point of the now ongoing decline the birth rates will again rise – probably with the coming of a more humane social system, an eco-socialist one, and a labor-intensive economy when the resource crunch becomes acute. That would bring about a steady-state population. So there is no need to worry on that score.

 

 

Too Many People

 

But there are reasons to worry about the demographic crisis in the less developed countries, which is of the opposite kind. In many of these countries, the population is bursting at the seams. There are too many young people desperately trying to find a job, and too few new jobs can be created. India’s population, already over 1.2 billion, is growing at the rate of 18 million every year. The Prime Minister says India’s economy must create every year 8 to 10 million new jobs in order to integrate the young people in the work force. For some time, in the years in which the Indian economy was booming, growing at the annual rate of 8 to 9 per cent, its bosses welcomed the population growth as a guaranteed source of cheap labor. They even called it India’s “demographic dividend”. But despite this dividend, India’s economic growth rate has recently been falling. The inexorable logic of limits to growth cannot be defied after all.

For reasons stated above, advanced industrialized countries are using all means to prevent large-scale immigration of cheap surplus laborers from the less developed countries. Even the huge resource-rich Russia, the population of which is also shrinking, is closing its doors to laborers from Central Asia. Therefore, also for the overpopulated less developed countries there is no easy solution to their demographic crisis. If they do not want to see that their citizens die of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, they must at least now seriously begin the work of downsizing their population.

 

 

II

 

The Factor Environment

 

But the problem is not just creating jobs for the growing number of young people. Also the environment must be saved from further degradation – not only the global and regional environments, for which the rich 20 percent of the world must do more than the others, but also the environment of each and every country, which is the task of the government and people of the country concerned. The roots of much of the present-day political turmoils in the world can largely be traced back to these two interwoven problems. For the more the population grows, the more it degrades the environment, and the more the environment is degraded, the less it can provide livelihood to the population.

    Take for example Egypt. In 1979 its population was 40 million; in 2011, when the revolt against the Mubarak regime took place, it had reached 85 million. On the state of the environment in Egypt we read: “Soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually” (Friedman 2013A).

    Take further the example of Iran. Its population in 1979, when the Islamic republic was founded, was 37 million, currently it is 75 million. We remember, in 2009 the youth of the educated middle class revolted against the regime. Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, recently said:

 

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran.” … “It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. ... Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, … .” “I am deeply worried about the future generations. ... If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. … All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up, … deserts in Iran are spreading. … people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances” (quoted in Friedman 2013A).

 

    Also the current civil war in Syria was partly caused by a mixture of growing population, worsening environmental situation, and bad economic policy. Syria’s population grew from 8.7 million in 1980 to about 23 million at present. The discontent began with a drought, which soon became the key driver of the uprising against the regime. An American journalist paraphrased as follows what a Syrian economist told him:

 

“ ‘The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war’, said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.

    In an age of climate change, we’re likely to see many more such conflicts.” (Friedmann 2013B)

 

 

Opposition to Population Control

 

In the past there has been and there still is too much opposition to any policy or activity to stop or at least check population growth. The opposition comes mainly from traditional leftists (communists, socialists), third world solidarity people, conservatives, nationalists, feminists, and deeply religious people. Often the same person may represent two or more of these types.

    Let me first summarize the arguments and positions of these people: (1) One of them, a documentary film maker from Austria, who recently made a film condemning the whole idea of population control, said recently: " If one would accommodate the whole world population in the area of Austria, then every citizen of the world would have eleven square meter at his/her disposal. The rest of the earth would then be empty“ (quoted in Weitlanger 2013). Some years ago, also a representative of the Vatican had said similar things at a conference. He said, the whole world population of those days could without problem live in the state of Texas, USA. (2) There is no need to worry; firstly, because the world population will soon level off and, secondly, because there is enough food in the world and food production can be increased to many times the present production level. (3) What appears to be an overpopulation problem is actually a distribution problem. There would not be any poverty anywhere, if the wealth and resources of the world were distributed equitably. There is not only enough food in the world, but also enough of the other needed resources. (4) The rich industrialized countries of the world with just 20 percent of the world population consume 80 percent of the world’s resources. Only 20 percent of the latter remain for the rest of the world population, the 80 percent. (5) The said 20 percent of the world population also generate 80 percent of the total pollution and ecological degradation of the earth. (6) The discussion on overpopulation is just a horror scenario. It is only a maneuver of the ruling classes of the world to deflect the attention of people from the real causes of poverty, resource crisis, global warming, environmental pollution etc. Betsy Hartmann, a prominent critic of the overpopulation discourse, is reported to have said that it is not by chance that the topic of seven billion world population is being discussed just now, when people are at long last becoming politically active and paying attention to unjust distribution and the chaos in the finance market (cf. Weitlanger 2013). (This however is wrong, inasmuch as calls for population control are at least 40 years old.)

 

 

The Fallacy of One World

 

At first sight, such arguments seem convincing, but on looking more carefully, they do not hold water. They suffer from what one may call the fallacy of one world. An ideal is here being mistaken for the reality. “The earth is one, but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others” (WCED 1987: 27). Ideally, we should be thinking of ourselves mainly as humans, and not as Indians, British, Chinese, Ugandans, Russians etc. And, ideally, the interests of the whole humanity should be one of the chief concerns of every human. That should, of course, remain our goal for the future. At the moment, however, in the real world in which we are living and in which we must be acting, we are so far away from the ideal that mere tribal solidarity is considered to be great.

    Against this real background, at a time when the Austrian government would not even give asylum to 7000 economic refugees who are fleeing their problem-ridden countries, it is utter nonsense to get us to believe that there are still many thinly populated areas in the world where large numbers of people from the densely populated countries could be settled (see quote above). No state of the world would accept this suggestion, not even the continent-state of Australia with its merely 25 million population. There are no empty lands any more as in the previous centuries. Everywhere, more and more barriers are being built to prevent mass immigration of the world’s poor.

    Of what use is it to say that there is enough food in the world and that, distributed equally, the current world food production would be sufficient to feed the whole world population? Farmers in the surplus producing countries would gladly sell their products to anybody who can pay, but they will not give away for free what they have produced at the cost of hard work and much investment. Where will the growing number of poor people in the less developed countries get the money from to buy imported food? Moreover, there may be enough food for now, but what about the future with a much larger world population?

    As for the resources that the economies of the world need, the opponents of population control do not appear to know that most of them are limited in supply, are nonrenewable, and are being exhausted rapidly, while the world population is continually growing. As for resources that are renewable – water, wood and other organic resources – even their supply is limited by their renewability rate. Although land area remains the same, fertile land is disappearing under concrete jungles or are becoming infertile through soil erosion, water-logging, salinization etc. The opponents of population control do not appear to have heard of limits to growth and the problem of sustainability. Moreover, essential resources like fertile land, water, and fossil fuels are unevenly distributed over the globe. Fertile land cannot be imported at all, and water only very limitedly.

    That means, at present at least, nations of the world will have to solve their problems by themselves.

 

 

Faith in Technological Solutions

 

Opponents of population control hope that food production can be increased to many times the present level. It is well known that the Green Revolution in agriculture closed the food-population gap in the 1960s–70s and thereafter. However, it is also known that the price paid for this technological solution – in terms of resource consumption and environmental degradation (biodiversity loss and soil degradation, for example) – has been very high. This price will continue to rise as the population continues to grow. As Nafis Sadik of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) wrote in 1990, "Population is always part of the equation. For any given type of technology, for any given level of consumption or waste, for any given level of poverty or inequality, the more people there are, the greater is the impact on the environment"  (Sadik 1990: 10). Must we first create a problem or worsen an existing one by increasing our numbers and then seek a technological solution to it, this time perhaps through the production of genetically manipulated food with potentially dangerous impact on nature and our health?

    There are some old studies, in which it was asserted that enough food for a growing world population could be produced without resorting to new high-level biotechnologies. In 1982, it was said in a study of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UNFPA that there was enough land in the less developed countries (without China) to feed 33 billion people – however, only if every square metre of cultivable land and large quantities of fertilizers and other chemicals were used for the production of a just sufficient quantity of vegetarian food (cf. Sadik 1990: 7). But there was also a model for the production of sufficient food for 15 billion people with a moderate use of fertilizers and other chemicals. This model, it was asserted, permitted an ecologically careful handling of nature (cf. Simon 1991: 30). It was generally assumed in those days that the world population would stabilize sometime between 2050 and 2100 at 11 to 14 billion.

    Both these models should be rejected. If people in the less developed countries (without China) want to produce enough food for their share of the prognosticated 9 billion people who would live in the world in 2050, with just a moderate use of fertilizers and other chemicals because they do not want to damage the environment too much, then agriculture must become very extensive. They would then need more land for food production while, at the same time, as a result of growing urbanization and industrialization, they would be rapidly losing cultivable land. This is not only a future scenario, the second part of this process is already now manifest. This imbalance between future demand and future supply of land has already attracted the attention of international investors. For the last five years or more, they are rushing to buy up fertile land in the less developed countries, especially in Africa and South America. Also investors from China and oil-rich Arab countries are participants in this rush. According to media reports, a Chinese state-owned company has recently leased 100,000 Hectare cultivable land in Ukraine, where it wants to produce wheat for Chinese citizens (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 23.09.2013).

    Moreover, that would mean that a very large portion of the remaining forests (including the precious rain forests) would be lost. Of course, the demands of the luxury industries could be radically rejected. But even satisfying the basic needs of 9 billion people like building timber and firewood (because oil would become exceedingly scarce and costly and coal is bad for the climate) would lead to continuous destruction of ever more forests. Apart from the fact that we humans ourselves need a certain proportion of land covered with forests, these forests are the habitat of many other species (whom also, by the way, we need for our mental and spiritual wellbeing). Does the human species have the right to conquer more living space at the expense of the other species of nature?

    If we opt for more intensive agriculture, it is important to know that there are also limits to increasing production by using more and more chemicals. Already in 1984, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute wrote that response of crops to the use of additional fertilizer was diminishing, particularly in agriculturally advanced countries. During the fifties, the application of another ton of fertilizer on average yielded 11.5 more tons of grain. During the sixties the figure fell to 8.3 tons, by the seventies it was only 5.8 (Brown 1984: 179). And around 1980 it was ascertained by scientists that returns to technology were generally falling (cf. Trainer 1985: 211)

    Surely, today, any reasonable person would agree that it is easier to reduce birth rates than to increase growth rates of food and industrial production.

 

 

The Politics of Overpopulation

 

The rest of the arguments of the opponents of population control presented above fall under the category of cheap politics, which has all along been played in an emotionally charged atmosphere. Thus, a feminist activist of Bangladesh accused Western politicians, NGO-activists, and institutions like the World Bank, who advocated and supported population control measures in her country, of trying to depopulate Bangladesh. Two other similarly harsh expressions that have been used are: “genocide”, and “doing away with the poor”

    Let us suppose that the present unequal/unjust distribution of food and the other resources of the world can be overcome through a kind of world revolution that would abolish capitalism and patriarchy and establish equal distribution. Of course, that in itself would be a great thing, because then not only will all currently living humans be freed from exploitation and oppression, but they would also enjoy a certain degree of prosperity. But that would not help humankind solve the problems of continuous resource depletion, worsening environmental degradations, and global warming with their devastating consequences. Only the blame for these scourges would from that time on be equally distributed. The urgent need to reduce our numbers and total resource consumption would therefore remain even after a revolution. Fortunately, it has by now also become clear to many well-to-do members of the currently living generations that they are enjoying their prosperity at the cost of nature and the future generations. And they are paying attention to more causes of the present miseries of the world than only capitalism and imperialism

    For the opponents of population control, there is no need to do anything in regard to population growth, because world population will, they are sure, stabilize at 9 billion in the year 2050. This assertion is based on the theory of demographic transition, which is based on observations made in Western European countries. It says: after a country has attained to a certain level of prosperity, both the birth rate and the death rate fall and they eventually become equal, so that the population stabilizes.

    Now, it is a fact that in many prosperous Western countries the population is not growing any more. And in many less developed countries the rate of growth is falling. In India, according to my observations, members of the educated middle class are limiting the number of their offspring, on average, to two. But the educated middle class of India number only 2 to 3 hundred million. The rest of India’s 1.2 billion people are not following this example.

    In West Germany, the demographic transition took place in 1972. There is no chance any more that the large number of poor countries of the world will, as a whole, ever reach the level of prosperity that West Germany reached in 1972. For most of them, the dream of development is over. And even if prosperity comes somehow – e.g. through the discovery of large oil fields – that is no guarantee that the demographic transition will set in. In Saudi Arabia, – at least since the mid 1970s a very rich country – the demographic transition has not begun yet. Its population has grown from 9.8 million in 1980 to 29.2 million in 2012. Its current population growth rate is estimated to be 1.5 percent (Data from Wikipedia). So we should forget this peaceful automatic path to a stabilized world population.

    The world population will indeed stabilize at some point. It cannot grow without end. According to some experts, the world population will even start falling in the year 2040 (Weitlanger 2013). What will happen, what is already happening, is that more and more people will die before they reach old age. Malnutrition, bad hygienic conditions, various diseases including those caused by environmental pollution, lack of sufficient medical care, wars and civil wars, terrorist attacks, failed states – all these are already taking their toll. In two and a half years of civil war in Syria, already more than one hundred thousand people have lost their life.

 

 

Objective Obstacles – What Can Be Done?

 

Apart from the irrational political opposition, there are also some objective, real-world obstacles to population control – economic, cultural, religious. In less developed countries like India, where there is no institutionalized old-age security for the poor, sons traditionally have the duty to take care of the aged parents. In order to make sure that at least two of the surviving children are sons, a poor couple must on average produce five children. This is highly rational economic behavior. Moreover, for many farmers, children are cheap farm labourers who "work like donkeys" for just board and lodging. Mahmood Mamdani, who in the early 1970s made a study of the Indian village Manupur after the total failure of an intensive family planning programme there, wrote:

"No programme would have succeeded, because birth control contradicted the vital interests of the majority of the villagers. To practise contraception would have meant to wilfully court economic disaster." (Mamdani 1972: 21)

    Cultural tradition and religious belief, and often competition among religious groups to gain strength through higher numbers are also objective obstacles. But they in themselves would not be insurmountable. Most people are indeed adjusting themselves to modern times. But modern times also demand that everybody takes care of his/her own material interests and nothing else. The contradiction between poor people’s immediate economic interests and the interests of the nation and the future generations is a hard reality and is therefore more difficult to overcome.

    Nevertheless, something must be done soon to check population growth. We cannot wait until a socialist revolution has taken place and power has passed into the hands of revolutionaries, who would abolish capitalism and patriarchy. If nothing is done today, the situation will worsen further, and in the end, in country after country, reactionary forces will make their kind of “revolution” – maybe even through election victories, as has recently happened in Egypt and Tunisia – and set up their republic. They too will fail to bring order in a volatile situation, and then society after society will break down and end up in a reign of terror and chaos. Power will be wielded by local and regional warlords, and they will wage war against each other in order to expand their territory.

    This is not just being pessimistic about the future. Such things are happening today before our very eyes. Think of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Egypt. Tunisia is hanging precariously in the balance. Even in Europe, reactionary forces are gaining ground in Greece and Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, even in France and the UK. In the second group of the above-mentioned countries, the worsening economic situation is the cause of the alarming situation. In the first group, rapid population growth of the past decades has been the most important factor in creating the present situation.

    Here I would like to present three quotes from Paul Ehrlich, who in the 1960s and 1970s was at the forefront of a public campaign to control population growth. Addressing socialists, he wrote:

 

“In the long run, the progressive deterioration of our environment may cause more death and misery than any conceivable food-population gap".

"The battle to save our planet is not just a battle for population control and environmental sanity, it is also a battle against exploitation, against war, and against racism.”

[But] "whatever your cause, it's a lost cause unless we control population." . (all quotes from Weißmann 1971: XI & XV).

 

    I fully agree. Advocacy of population control must not be left to Western imperialist forces. That means, all kinds of socialists must revise their antiquated programmes. In addition to their continuous and long-term efforts to create a society free from exploitation, oppression, war, and racism, they must also, in the short and middle term, give priority to policies and programmes for stopping population growth and environmental degradation. Such policies too can help ameliorate the material condition of the poor and working classes, not only economic growth.

    In less developed countries like, for example, India, in the framework of a kind of short- and middle-term social-democratic policy, a popularly elected government can offer the poor, only the poor, a guaranteed social and old-age security financed by the state. In return, the beneficiaries must limit the number of offspring to two. The state can fully finance all measures required for effective birth control, so that the targeted section of the population would not have to worry about the costs. It can pursue a strong policy for women’s emancipation and empowerment through education. It can effectively ban child marriage by raising the minimum age of marriage to, say, 21.

    Such welfare policies will not of course be enough to be called socialist policies. But they will, if implemented in the problem countries, save their societies from utter ruin. Moreover, they will pave the way for a future ecological society.

 

 

Literature

 

Brown, Lester (1984) "Securing Food Supplies"; in Brown et al. (1984).

 

Brown, Lester et al (1984) State of the World 1984. New York: W. W. Norton.

 

Daley, Susanne & Nicholas Kulish (2013) “Germany: Too Few People?” In The New York Times, 13.08.2013.

 

Friedman, Thomas (2013A) “Mother Nature and the Middle Class”, in The New York Times, 21.09.2013.

 

Friedman, Thomas (2013B) “Without Water, Revolution”, in The New York Times, 18.05.2013

 

Mamdani, Mahmood (1972) The Myth of Population Control. New York: Monthly Review Press.

 

Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers & Dennis Meadows (1972) The Limits to Growth. New York: Signet.

 

Meek, Ronald L. (ed.) (1971) Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb. Berkeley: The Ramparts Press.

 

Trainer, F. E. (1985) Abandon Affluence!. London: Zed.

 

Sadik, Nafis (UNFPA) (1990) The State of World Population 1990. New York: UNFPA.

 

Simon, Gabriela (1991) "Wie viel ist zuviel?"; in: blätter des iz3W (November).

 

Weitlanger, Wolfgang (2013) "Population Boom": Film widerlegt Überbevölkerung. http://www.pressetext.com/news/20130917002

 

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our Common Future (better known as „The Brundtland Report). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Weißmann, Steve (1971): "Foreword"; in Meek (1971).

 

Wikipedia.

 

Written in September, 2013

 

Saral Sarkar

Karl-Begas-Str. 3

50939 – Cologne

Germany

saralsarkar@t-online.de

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Tragedy of Lampedusa -- What to do?

What happened on 3rd October 2013 at the coast of Lampedusa has roused sympathy and stirred the conscience of Europeans. They are of course at a loss to know what they should do. But sympathy is in any case good.

    What should the Europeans do in order to avert frequent recurrence of such tragedies on their doorstep? Can something be done at all? I am very dissatisfied with what I have heard and read in the media and in my friends circle. Sympathy and rescue operations testify that we haven’t become totally cold-hearted yet. But solving the problem is a very different matter. There are two prerequisites to that – firstly, an in-depth analysis of the causes of the problem and, secondly, the will to solve it.

    A deep analysis of the causes of the problem on our hands requires the knowledge that it is a global problem. In connection with the last few boat disasters in the Mediterranean See we heard of refugees from Somalia, Eretria, Syria and, generally speaking, North Africa. But such refugees come from all over the world, even from the emerging economic powers such as China and India. And their destination is not only Europe, but also North America and Australia. In case of refugees from Syria and Somalia, partly also of those from Iraq, the main cause at present is clearly the on-going civil wars there. But seen globally and generally, most of them are neither political nor civil war refugees. They would not want to go back home when the civil war is over or when the dictatorship in their country is replaced with a democracy. They are also not fleeing from dire poverty, from hunger. The really poor and their families cannot pay the price the refugee smugglers demand. In truth, they are economic refugees, young people who want to try their luck in the highly developed rich countries. In this enterprise they run high risks, they may fail, they may even die. But youth is simply like that. In their native country, they cannot bear the dreary life without any hope.

    For really understanding this global problem, it is necessary to understand in some depth the whole state of the world today. Even in the apparently clear case of Syrian refugees, it is not enough to mention the immediate cause, namely the civil war. We must also understand the cause of the civil war. It was caused by a combination of growing population, worsening state of the environment, and a bad economic policy. Syria’s population grew from 8.7 million in 1980 to about 23 million today. The discontent among the people began with a drought, which soon became the main driving force of the rebellion against the regime. American journalist Thomas L. Friedman recently paraphrased in the following words what Samir Aita, a Syrian economist, told him in this connection:

 

“ ‘The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war’ … but, … the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened … was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.” (The New York Times, 18.05.2013)

Friedman commented: „In an age of climate change, we’re likely to see many more such conflicts.”

    The roots of many such conflicts and rebellions of the present time lie in these two interwoven problems. The more the population grows, the more it degrades the environment. And the more the environment is degraded, the less it can help the population earn its livelihood. Let us take two more examples: 

    In 1979, Egypt’s population was 40 million. By 2011, the year in which the people rebelled against the Mubarak regime, the figure had risen to 85 million. On the state of the environment there, we read:

 

In Egypt, soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually.” (Article of Friedman in NYT, 21.09.2013)

    Let us also take Iran as example, where in 2009 the middle class youth rebelled against the theocratic regime. In 1979, 37 million people lived in Iran. Today, the figure is 75 million. But what is more dangerous for the future of the country is the worsening state of its environment. In July of this year, Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, an adviser to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, said in a newspaper interview:

 

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran.… It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. ... Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this. … I am deeply worried about the future generations. ... If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate. … All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others.”

 

Kalantari concluded:

 

“… the deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. ... If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.” (quoted from ibid).

    Kalantari’s question, where the environmental refugees of Iran could in future migrate to, was a rhetorical question. He meant to say, there was nowhere to go. The world’s economic refugees of today know the answer: to Europe, North America, and Australia. Their attempts mostly fail, often ending in a tragedy, as we recently witnessed at the coast of Lampedusa. Another consequence of these attempts is the rise of racist and xenophobic extreme right forces in the rich countries, where black, brown and yellow refugees are totally unwelcome, where they regularly become victims of fascistic pogroms.

    Can something be done at all to solve the problem? What most certainly will not work is opening all national boundaries, which many good people, radical leftists included, have been demanding for many years now. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when the West European and North American economies were booming, there are today hardly any jobs there for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unskilled economic refugees who would storm the job markets there if the borders were to be totally opened. The economies of the rich countries have been stagnating for quite a few years now, and in future, they would continue to stagnate, most probably even contract. Moreover, most labor-intensive branches of industry have in the past been outsourced to cheap-labor countries, or they have been radically automatized, both leading to rise in unemployment in the rich countries. Nobody would profit from such an open-border policy except racist and xenophobic extreme right forces. And most certainly, no government of the rich countries would pursue such a refugee policy – not the least for fear that extreme rightist and xenophobic mobs would take violent actions.

    The countries the economic refugees come from would, therefore, not be able to solve their overpopulation problem by promoting emigration of their surplus population of unemployed and unemployable young people. In the previous centuries, some of today’s developed European countries solved their overpopulation problem by encouraging emigration to the then relatively thinly populated countries, and the first immigrant-inhabitants of the latter welcomed the new immigrants. “The first nations”, the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines had of course never been asked for permission. But today, there is hardly any thinly populated country left in the world. „Thinly populated” is, of course, a relative term. Australia, one may argue, is one such country. But that does not help. The present-day inhabitants of the country simply do not welcome thousands of non-white unskilled immigrants.

    The overpopulated countries of today must therefore themselves solve the problem, and that must be done at home. There is no dearth of good ideas for the work. The most important of them is to quickly reduce the birth rate. The medical-technical possibilities are already there. The necessary political and socio-economic innovations also do not constitute a big hurdle if the will is there. The rich countries cannot help, and it is not their task. They may help a little with money but the greater part of the task and the burden must be borne by the leaders and people of the problem countries.

 

Written in Oktober 2013. Translation of the German original.

 

Saral Sarkar

saralsarkar@t-online.de