Seven Billion … And Rising

walden-belloThe world’s population surpassed 7 billion on October 31. But except for perhaps the anti-family planning lobby, this was a milestone that few were in a mood to celebrate.

Concerns about overpopulation were present when the world hit the 6 billion mark in 1999, but they were subdued in that era of growth and — at least in the North — optimism. There was a sense then that although there would be major hurdles along the way, the world’s future could only get brighter.

Globalization, according to its apostles — foremost among them then-U.S. President Bill Clinton — was inevitable, and could only bring about a better life for all. The Kyoto Protocol had just been adopted, and although it had its flaws, it seemed to be the first step in an increasingly coordinated global effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Earth Policy Institute valiantly issued its “State of the World” warnings against overfishing, desertification, and an emerging water crisis. But many were persuaded by corporate agribusiness’ propaganda that it had developed the technological capacity to more than feed the world, and that the only remaining problem was the distribution of food, which was a logistical as well as political matter.

Malthus’ Specter?

Today’s mood could not be more different, and it’s not only because of unease over the speed with which we added another billion people since 1999.

Global capitalism is in a deep, deep funk, with the center economies caught indefinitely in the iron grip of stagnation and high unemployment. Extreme weather events have become a fact of life, yet any move towards a successor to the Kyoto Protocol continues to elude the world’s governments. Agriculture seems to be at the limits of its productive capacity, prompting many to ask: Have we walked into the Malthusian trap?

Malthus, that enigmatic Victorian figure, predicted that population growth would outstrip the capacity of the soil to produce food, leading to a demographic cataclysm that would eventually result in a smaller population in equilibrium with the soil’s productive capacity. While Malthus’ views were adopted — uneasily — by many ecologists and environmentalists, he became the bête noire of both progressive and neoclassical economists. Progressives saw his theory as an elitist, conservative effort to blame the poor for their misfortunes, while some neoclassical economists, most notably Julian Simon, saw him and his followers as underestimating the human capacity to innovate to surmount limits to production and economic growth.

The food price crisis of 2008 was, to many, a wakeup call that agriculture might be reaching its productive limits — that the problem in agriculture was no longer just distribution, but production. That crisis saw the food import bills of the least developed countries rise by 37 percent in 2008, adding 75 million to the ranks of the hungry and driving an estimated 125 million into extreme poverty.

In accounting for the causes of the rapid rise in the price of food, analysts pointed to the convergence of a number of developments to create the perfect storm: among them, World Bank- and IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs in developing countries, which severely cut government support for agriculture and reduced agricultural production; the subsidized diversion of vast amounts of corn land, especially in the United States, to feedstock for biofuels rather than food production; speculation in food commodities in financial markets; and the growing resistance of insects to pesticides and the refusal of soils to respond to more applications of fertilizer.

Food Crisis Redux

After registering lower increases for two years, prices began again to rise markedly over the last year, underlining that the 2006-2008 crisis was no fluke. In July, the average price of wheat was 45 percent higher than it was earlier, while that of corn was 89 percent higher.

This time around, though, extreme weather events caused by climate change were the central factor, reminding people how extremely fragile the links are between the soil and the atmosphere. In the last year, massive wildfires in Russia devastated hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, forcing the government to impose a ban on grain exports; a stubborn drought in China ravaged 14 million hectares and left 14 million people short of water; unremitting rains in Pakistan devastated the country’s croplands for the second year in a row; practically the whole Australian state of Queensland, including its capital, Brisbane, was submerged by floods, with billions of dollars worth of grain, vegetables, and livestock swept away; and in the last few months, the Horn of Africa has been paralyzed by a drought that has placed some 12.4 million people at risk of famine.

In the last few weeks, it has been the turn of Southeast Asia’s rice bowls to suffer nature’s revenge for human beings’ inordinate carbon consumption. Some 1.5 million hectares of rice land have been inundated in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, with 1 million hectares in Thailand, the world’s leading rice exporter, alone. An estimated 1.3 million metric tons of rice in Thailand have been lost, while in the Philippines, more than 103,000 metric tons of the standing rice crop were wiped out by the recent typhoons. Already the price of Thai rice in the international market is 26 percent higher than it was in May, and is expected to rise even more steeply.

Things can only get worse over the next few years, say climate experts.

Progressives and Population

The crisis of agricultural production has led many to give a fresh look at the population issue. Among them are people on the left. In the past, progressives tended to be lumped together with the Catholic hierarchy and Christian fundamentalists as population skeptics, though for different reasons. Some of them saw family planning as a U.S. plot to keep developing countries under its thumb, while others argued that the main problem lay in the concentration of wealth and the means of production in the hands of a few. Ending this stranglehold, they asserted, would open the way to egalitarian redistribution, which would address the problems brought about by the rise in population.

At the global level, progressives argued that overconsumption by the 20 percent that lived in the North, not population pressure from the 80 percent that lived in the South, constituted the main social and environmental challenge.

Once in power, however, progressives acknowledged that even without class inequalities, unrestrained population growth would foreclose the possibility of economic growth and development. Thus, concern over population growth outstripping food production and economic growth led China in the 1980s to institute its one-child policy, which, for all the abuses connected to it, has appeared largely positive on balance — resulting in as many as 300 million fewer births and providing the breathing space to channel significant resources from consumption to investment.

Vietnam followed suit, promoting a two-child policy that, unlike in China, was implemented non-coercively. The results have been equally positive. The country’s population growth rate is down to 1.2 percent per annum. The total fertility rate (TFR), or the average number of children per woman of reproductive age, has dropped from over 6 in 1961, when the program first began, to 2.1, a figure that demographers tag as “replacement-level fertility.” Vietnam has 88.2 million people; had there been no family planning program, it would now have 104 million people.

18.6 million fewer births has meant that Vietnam could devote more resources to upgrading the quality of education, alleviating poverty, and increasing investment. The country registered a growth rate of 7.2 percent per annum in the period from 2000-2010. By 2010, average per capita income in the country had tripled, reflecting economic growth outpacing the population growth rate.

Population Management and the East Asian “Miracle”

In adopting family planning, the post-revolutionary societies of China and Vietnam most likely drew inspiration from their East Asian capitalist neighbors. Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan had found it necessary to implement strong preemptive family planning programs to create the space for economic takeoff. Although effective family planning was not the only factor explaining their rapid growth, it was a major one.

By providing access to contraceptives, state-supported family planning programs in these countries enabled women to have greater control over reproduction. The proportion of women using contraceptives in East Asia is four times the rate in Africa, and surveys have shown that the difference is largely explained by the state provision of contraceptives in East Asia. And when access to contraceptives was joined to greater access to education, the trend was for women to limit their births in order to accumulate the resources to improve their families’ living standards. Such were the dynamics of the demographic revolution in East Asia.

The End of Growth?

Yet the success of these societies in achieving high growth by managing their populations may be wiped out if the era of growth is over, as some analysts contend.

Most of the East Asian economies, and some other developing economies in Latin America and Africa, followed export-oriented development strategies that were dependent on continuing growth in the North. Yet the Northern economies, bludgeoned by the current crisis of capitalism, now face a future of stagnation or low growth. For the advanced developing economies to now shift and follow an alternative strategy of achieving growth by relying on domestic consumption seems logical, but this is easier said than done. The social classes and enterprises that formed around a 30-year-old strategy can stymie an effective transition, as has been the case in China. This is not surprising since a shift in development strategy is not simply a change in policy, but also involves a redistribution of income and economic power if the rural and urban lower classes are to be equipped with the purchasing power to be the new sources of demand.

But the bigger question faced by all developing economies, whether export- or domestic market-oriented, is whether it is still possible to follow the traditional growth strategy. To analysts like Richard Heinberg, the intersection of the financial collapse, economic stagnation, global warming, the steady depletion of fossil fuel reserves, and agriculture reaching its limits is a fatal one. It represents a far more profound crisis than a temporary setback on the road to growth. It portends not simply the end of a paradigm of global growth driven by the demand of the center economies. It means the “end of growth” as we know it. It is, in short, the Malthusian trap, though Heinberg understandably avoids using the term.

Paradoxically, the so-called least-developed countries in Africa and South Asia may have an easier time making the transition to a post-growth global economy. They are less integrated into the global economy, and many maintain agricultural sectors that have not been totally damaged by structural adjustment and liberalization. They have also been far behind in the institutionalization of the high-growth-dependent western consumption model, owing to widespread poverty. If they can combine effective family planning programs with successful redistribution initiatives and economic strategies emphasizing improvement in the quality of life, they may well pioneer the forging of a post-growth, post-globalization development strategy.

It will not be easy though.


The current dilemmas of our planet of 7 billion are well summed up by Richard Heinberg in his latest book, The End of Growth:

“Perhaps the meteoric rise of the finance economy in the past couple of decades resulted from semi-conscious strategy on the part of society’s managerial elites to leverage the last possible increments of growth from a physical, resourced based economy that was nearing its capacity. In any case, the implications of the current economic crisis cannot be captured by unemployment statistics and real estate prices. Attempts to restart growth will inevitably collide with natural limits that simply don’t respond to stimulus packages or bailouts. … Burgeoning environmental problems require rapidly increasing amounts of efforts to fix them. In addition to facing limits on the amount of debt that can be accumulated in order to keep those problems at bay, we also face limits to the amounts of energy and materials we can devote to these purposes. Until now the dynamism of growth has enabled us to stay ahead of accumulating environmental costs. As growth ends, the environmental bills for the last two centuries of manic expansion may come due just as our bank account empties.”

FPIF columnist Walden Bello represents the Akbayan (Citizens’ Action) Party in the Philippines House of Representatives and is a senior analyst at the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South. He is the author of Food Wars (London: Verso, 2009) and 14 other books.