Saturday, December 3

Is human nature failing our world at large?


Albrecht Durer’s ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Death, Famine, Pestilence and War’ (1498).

A PONDERABLE question you may say, yet it still remains, as over the last 50 years there has been an ever-growing concern in more affluent countries about global population growth and its associated problems. Most of us living in urban communities have perhaps shrugged our shoulders with a nonchalant remark such as, “What’s it to do with us?”

Our concerns are more focussed on parochial problems on how diseases and plagues, such as urban rat overpopulations, measles, and rabid stray dogs and cats, can infect or affect us. Thousands of animals die through hunger when scarce food resources are threatened by man’s intrusion into their habitats, while millions of people die annually through starvation, famine and pestilence and will continue to do so as climate change bites ever deeper.

Few, if any, were aware that Jan 1, 2019 saw the arrival of another 395,000 plus babies born around the world. Fifty per cent of these births were in just eight countries, including China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and the USA. The Unicef report of 2017 calculated that about one million babies died the day they were born and 2.5 million within their first month of life through premature births, delivery complications, and infections such as pneumonia.

At the other end of the ‘population pyramid’, an ever-increasing world population of the over 60s is requiring more and more governmental support in medical and social care. More and more young families need both parents at full time work to survive. If birth rates continue to rise globally, albeit slowly, and death rates decline, so more financial stress is placed on those working, in the form of income related taxes.

Growth rates and problems

These can be related to four main factors. Firstly, the world’s population seems to double every 40 years from, for instance, 4.1 billion in 1975 to seven billion in 2000, approximating 8.5 billion in 2020, 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion forecast for 2100. This amounts to approximately 83 million people added to the world’s population annually, assuming that fertility levels will continue to fall. Ninety per cent of these increases are occurring in newly-industrialised and developing nations, which today comprise 80 per cent of the world’s population.

Secondly, this population momentum can be likened to rolling a small snowball down a steep snow-covered slope, gathering momentum and collecting yet more snow to form a giant ball of snow. High fertility rates in developing countries have created their very young population age structures.

Thirdly, man’s inability to combat pollution has led to flooding, drought, air contamination, and land and ocean poisoning, and thus to greater environmental deterioration. The role of population growth in the management of the environment is a simple equation: I = PF, where I is the total impact of a society upon an ecosystem, P is the population size and F is impact per capita. Undoubtedly, when P and F increase simultaneously, as in our modern world, the effect can be huge.

Debate continues today on global population-growth, ranging from ‘Malthusian pessimism’ to ‘technological optimism’! Who was Malthus you may ask?

Revd Thomas Robert Malthus (National Portrait Gallery, London).

Revd Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 to 1834)

Malthus was an English clergyman, scholar and tutor at Cambridge University, who became very influential in the areas of demography and macroeconomics. About 50 years after the start of the industrial revolution, in 1798, he published ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. Later, Charles Darwin, in correspondence to Alfred Russel Wallace mentioned Malthus’ name. Both evolutionists had read Malthus’s doctrine.

Malthus postulated that population increases geometrically and food increases arithmetically; thus when food supply increases, population rapidly grows to devour the abundance. His earliest writings conveyed images of Durer’s (1498) woodcut of ‘The Four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ of Death, Famine, Pestilence and War.

To maintain a balance between population and food supply, population was inevitably checked by ‘Misery’ – famine, disease, pestilence; and ‘Vice’ – abortion, sexual perversion and infanticide; and ‘Moral Restraint’ – the preventative checks of sexual abstinence (or contraception today) and late marriages. These he saw as mortality-reduced positive checks and the basic regulators of population growth, together with improved education, and poor health and economic conditions.

What Malthus could not foresee, at the time of his writings, was the extent of global industrialisation to improve the lot of wage-earners. Today we see falling death rates through ever-improving public health and hygiene, fresh water supplies and proper sewage disposal, and an improved diet related to more regular food production as well as ever-increasing advances in microbiology and genetics.

To this catalogue must be added a gradual fall in birth rates caused by medical advances in contraception, more children surviving into adulthood, less need for child labour in agriculture (alas, not in industrial ‘sweatshops’), an extension of school leaving ages and ever-increasing laws to counter the employment of children. It is the latter two factors that have meant that parents had less to gain from having children.

To this must be added senior citizens’ pension rights and the increased social and physical mobility of the population in developed and developing countries.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, we still face world crises in man’s greed for landownership, the vast loss of life of soldiers and civilians in wars, inter-tribal wars, together with climate change. Since Malthus’s time pristine forests and grasslands have now been exploited as areas of so called agro-industrial farming. Atmospheric pollution is rife, related to concentrations of vehicles in urban areas together with ever increasing electricity needs through fossil fuel. Modern diplomacy and technological development, we are told, will overcome a population catastrophe. Certainly, Malthus’ thoughts are provocative today and will echo for many years ahead.

How do 21st century economists view our world’s ever expanding population?

Not unexpectedly, many view countries in terms of ‘emerging markets’ which are related to a nation’s population size and to industrial output. The world’s biggest economies in 2050 will be in rank order: China, USA, India, Indonesia, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, UK, and Russia. China will have an estimated Gross National Product (GNP) of nearly RM250 trillion, larger than the USA at RM171 trillion, while six of the countries listed above and seen as emerging markets in 2019 will have totally emerged!

It is these emerging giants, to which I add Nigeria and Vietnam, which must unlock the potential of their large and young populations to provide employment opportunities for their huge national consumer market. The transition from a populous but poor country to an economic giant requires political stability, and excellent educational and human welfare systems, to include free hospital treatment. The infrastructure of these ‘giants’ must ensure that enough governmental expenditure is related to food production and agricultural prosperity, especially in rural areas.

‘Carrying capacity’

Catastrophes, as Malthus alluded to, can hit us at any time but as for climate change all nations need to pull together to avert disaster in the long run. Earthquakes and potential volcanic eruptions and even tsunamis are more predictable with warnings. However, wars are less predictable, as we witness today in Yemen and in Syria, where the loss of innocent civilian lives is criminal.

We have witnessed the worldwide ‘Green Revolution,’ with ever developing hybrid crops but sadly with little educational advance for the farmers and their rural communities to understand the ‘package instructions’ that go with the ‘miracle seeds’ in terms of the amounts of fertiliser and pesticide applications, how and when. In agriculture, we see massive food-wastefulness of livestock products in feeding cattle, pigs, poultry, and sheep, which consume seven times more energy than these animals provide in their edible products.

In developing countries, governments see food production related to monetary market demands and not to the real needs of human beings. I quote a former USA Agricultural Secretary, who in the 1970s stated, “Food is a weapon. It is now one of the principal tools in our negotiating kit!”

Certainly, marketable surpluses to feed urban consumers do exist in our world, but in distribution this has exacerbated inequalities between rich and poor regions. It has been a small but politically powerful group of large, rich and literate farmers, at the expense of the majority of small farmers, who are able to interpret the instructions on hybrid seed packages. Governmental land redistribution plus the establishment of co-operatives for small farmers, together with the provision of agricultural loans at low or no interest rates, may well be the answer in feeding our ever-growing national populations.

Hunger and famine cannot always be attributed to the vagaries of climate or caused by population pressure on limited resources but sometimes by inadequate socio-political structures. As human beings, we should not only be concerned with the conservation and protection of wildlife but also insuring that famines, wars, pestilence, and diseases are eradicated in order that hunger is no longer acceptable on a global scale. There are logistical transport problems and costs but it is not beyond the wit of man to solve these.

I have watched with disgust on TV the billions of dollars spent in capitals around the world in grandiose firework displays on the dawning of a New Year. How much better these monies could be spent in contributions to UNHCR, Unicef, Red Cross, and Red Crescent, and NGOs such as Hope Place in Kuching? Those organisations are at the forefront in the distribution of food to the destitute. It is possible in the 21st century to cope with increasing population growth but only if nations will give unto nations.