cj#878> surprise extra edition: re/Malthus & World Hunger


Richard Moore

Dear cj,

The NY Times article (below) talks about the dangers of over-population --
it is basically a "Malthus was right" essay. Malthus' basic thesis is

 >Although global food supplies increase
 >arithmetically, the population increases geometrically -- a vastly
 >faster rate.
 >The consequence, Malthus believed, was that poverty, and the misery it
 >imposes, will inevitably increase unless the increase in population is

This seems inarguable, doesn't it?  It turns out, however, to be extremely
deceptive as a way of understanding poverty and famine today, and was even
more deceptive in Malthus's day, when population was a fraction of what it
is now. Then, and now, it is basically a rationalization for the famine and
poverty caused by capitalism.

During the Irish famine of the 1840's, British landowners were exporting
tons of food daily from Irish ports. If over-population was to blame for
that situation, it was over-population in Britain that was the problem, not
over-population in Ireland. Malthus' theory was not relevant, however it
served to soothe the consciences of do-gooders in Britain who anguished
over the starving families -- they could then pretend that the famine was
an unfortunate "Irish problem", and one that nobody could do anything

Today's India, where 300 million are under fed, exports "everything from
wheat to beef and government officials agonize over how to get rid of
mounting `surpluses' of wheat and rice -- 24 million tons in 1985, more
than double the entire world's annual food aid shipments in a typical
year." (Quotes from Lappe: "World Hunger"). "...the reallocation of a mere
5.6 percent of [India's] current food production would wipe out hunger...".

More observations from Lappe:

      - The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human
        being on the planet with 3,600 calories a day. That's enough to
        make most people fat.

      - Increases in food production in the past 25 years have outstripped
        the world's unprecedented population growth by about 16 percent.

      - In every region [of the third world] except Africa, gains in food
        production since 1950 have kept ahead of population growth.

      - Surveying the globe, we can in fact find no correlation  between
        population density and hunger.

      - It is the industrial countries, not the third world countries,
        that import more than two-thirds of all food and farm commodities
        in world trade.

Malthus' theory may become relevant in the future, if population continues
to skyrocket, but it was not relevant in Malthus' day nor is it relevant
today. We are in fact unlikely to ever reach the "malthusian limit",
because the capitalist system will starve the poor to death before we get
that far.

Depletion of resources is a function of both population and per-capita

        depletion  =  population  x  consumption

We can break this down into the contribution to depletion from the
industrialized world (i) and the un-industrialized world (u):

      depletion =    population(i)  x  consumption(i)  +
                     population(u)  x  consumption(u)

Which terms in this equation is it possible to do something about?

        population(i):  This has stabilized, and there seems little prospect
                        of the industrialized world undertaking a major
                        population-reduction program.

        consumption(u): This is already too low, causing poverty -- certainly
                        reducing this still further is not a solution.
                        This factor _is, however, decreasing in much of
                        the third world, and that's what we call "famine".

        population(u):  This is the term that malthusians ask us to
                        concentrate on.  Certainly _increase in this term
                        is not a good idea, but is _reducing it really a
                        viable solution? If there were fewer poor Indians,
                        would capitalism be likely to feed the remainder?
                        The evidence is to the contrary.

        consumption(i): This is the factor that would be the easiest to do
                        something about, and it is the term that we in the
                        industrialized world can do something about.

Let's consider a scenario.  Here in Ireland, nearly everyone has been
thrilled with the EU, because Ireland has received considerable "structural
funding" from the EU to bring its economy up to European standards. As near
as I can determine, nearly all those funds have gone to building highways.
In addition, the Irish government implemented a program a few years back
where people got big tax breaks if they traded in their old car on a new
one. Clearly, turning Ireland into a nation of car-drivers is the agenda at
hand, Dublin is becoming insufferable as a result, and newspapers talk
about an alarming rise in auto-related deaths.

If there were any sense of `ecological limits' at work in the EU planning
process, then clearly a major portion of the structural funds should have
been used to upgrade Ireland's delapidated, slow, and poorly scheduled rail
system (such upgrade is much cheaper than widening roadways!).  And good
street-cars in Dublin and the larger Irish towns would enable many people
to leave their cars at home or use them less often.

The fact is that under capitalism, the Western agenda is to _increase
consumption as rapidly as possible -- that's what shows up in the books as
"economic growth". Capitalism _must pursue economic growth, that's what the
system is all about. The fact that MacDonalds can pay more for land than
peasants can, so MacDonalds can grow beef a few cents cheaper per ton than
they could domestically, is why the peasants don't have land.

Over-population in the third world, such that it exists, hurts them, not
us. Our over-consumption, and our production methods, on the other hand,
hurt them.  As a citizen in the industrialized world, it seems to me that
my primary responsibility, as an activist, is to reduce our consumption, or
to overthrow capitalism, not to harrass the third world into sterilization
programs and the like. And there _is a growing amount of
forced-sterilization going on.

Capitalists on the other hand, just like American capitalists in the
nineteenth century, view the indigineous as "redundant".  To them, the best
thing that could happen to all those Bangladeshi's and Black Arican's is
for them to disappear, just like the redskins, making their land and
resources available to support still further growth in Western consumption.
From their perspective, third-world over-population is a burden -- it
represents an impediment to maximization of growth.  The profit-producing
consumption of the third-world's poor just isn't worth the land it takes to
support them.

So what do we have in the third world?  Famines, genocidal civil wars, and
an out-of-control AIDS epidemic -- in some countries 25% of the adults are
infected with HIV. The IMF leads the cavalry charge by systematically
creating famines, and Western military advisors and arms sales follow-up
with civil war.  As for AIDS, there are lots of theories floating around.
Here are a few observations...

The initial major outbreaks of AIDS in the US followed closely after a
special federal "hepatitus innoculation" program in the very districts
where AIDS later appeared. Pharamaceutical companies are focusing all their
research on expensive treatments for Western AIDS victims.  They are not
pursuing research into vaccinations for AIDS, which might be cheap enough
for third-world distribution. Thus the first world, with its greater condom
awareness, and a semblance of a treatment, is somewhat protected from AIDS.
In the third-world, AIDS is allowed to take its course, and statisticians
simply adjust their population projections downward.

There are, reportedly, serious books which establish that AIDS is a CIA
plot from start to finish, perhaps even with genetic engineering playing a
role in the evolution of the virus. I haven't read those books, but I don't
doubt such a project would be feasible. More to the point, it would not be
beneath the ethics of the descendents of those who paid a bounty of $3 per
redskin scalp (men, women, or children), because it was cheaper than
sending in the cavalry.

Buying into the malthusian myth makes one an unwitting ally of capitalist
genocide, just as with the Brits during the Irish famine.


Date: Tue, 08 Dec 1998 08:53:57 -0500
From: Steve Kurtz <•••@••.•••>
To: •••@••.•••
Subject: NY TIMES: Will Humans Overwhelm the Earth?


New York Times

December 8, 1998

Will Humans Overwhelm the Earth? The Debate Goes on


PHILADELPHIA -- Two hundred years ago the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, an
English economist and mathematician, anonymously published an essay
predicting that the world's burgeoning humanpopulation would overwhelm
the earth's capacity to feed it.

Malthus' gloomy forecast, called "An Essay on the Principle of
Population As it Affects the Future Improvement of Society," was
condemned by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and many other theorists, and
it was still striking sparks last week at a meeting in Philadelphia of
the American Anthropological Society. Despite continuing controversy, it
was clear that Malthus' conjectures are far from dead.

Among the scores of special conferences organized for the 5,000
participating anthropologists, many touched directly or indirectly on
the dilemma suggested by Malthus: Although global food supplies increase
arithmetically, the population increases geometrically -- a vastly
faster rate.

The consequence, Malthus believed, was that poverty, and the misery it
imposes, will inevitably increase unless the increase in population is

This contention has prompted endless debate. Malthus' critics have
argued that man's ingenuity will always keep pace with population growth
by finding improved ways to produce food. They cite the success of the
"Green Revolution" launched in the 1950s and 1960s by Dr. Norman Borlaug
and his associates in developing high-yield strains of rice and wheat.

But the scientific descendants of Malthus argue that feeding the world's
masses is only part of the problem. Just as dangerous, they contend, is
the omnivorous consumption of nonrenewable resources, the irreversible
destruction of habitats and species, the fouling of the air and seas and
consequent changes in climate, and many other effects of a growing human

One of the symposiums held at last week's meeting was regarded as so
contentious that a similar conference was banned from the 1994 meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on the
grounds -- said its organizer, Dr. Warren Hern, a Colorado physician and
epidemiologist -- that "you may not ask that question."

The question, posed as the title of the symposium, was this: "Is the
Human Species a Cancer on the Planet?"

Hern, the director of an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo., noticed
nearly a decade ago that aerial and satellite views of urban centers
taken over a period of years bore a striking similarity to images of
cancerous tissue -- particularly melanoma -- invading the healthy
surrounding tissue.

In his presentation last week, Hern argued that in many parts of the
world the increase in human numbers is rapid and uncontrolled, that it
invades and destroys habitats, and that by killing off many species it
reduces the differentiation of nature. All of these features are
characteristic of cancerous tumors, he said.

This assessment was applauded by another member of the panel, Dr. Lynn
Margulis of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, who is the
co-author of another highly debated theory, the Gaia Hypothesis.

The hypothesis, the brainchild of an English theorist, Dr. James
Lovelock and Dr. Margulis, who is a microbiologist, is that the earth
deploys feedback mechanisms to maintain an environment hospitable to
life. In this it resembles a gigantic living organism, proponents of the
Gaia idea believe.

Life on earth has survived many crises, including mass extinctions
caused by the impacts of asteroids and comets, Dr. Margulis said, and
life will continue despite the threats created by humanity -- but with
reduced diversity.

She agreed with the notion that the human race is a kind of
self-destructive cancer.

"For millions of years," she said, "the earth got along without human
beings, and it will do so again. The only question is the nature of the
human demise that has already begun."

Dr. Margulis quoted a line from the German philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche: "The earth is a beautiful place, but it has a pox called

A different but complementary perspective was offered by Dr. Compton
Tucker, a physical scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration's Goddard Space Center. Tucker is an analyst of images of
the earth made by Landsat and other orbiting spacecraft. In particular,
he keeps track of deforestation and other anthropogenic changes in the
global habitat.

"In many regions, we've seen astonishingly rapid change since 1975," he
said. "Vast tracts of both rain forest and dry tropical forest have
disappeared in the Amazon Basin as human communities expand and clear
the land for cattle ranching. This has led to a monoculture dominated by
cattle breeding, with losses of immense numbers of the species deprived
of forest habitat."

Several speakers cited U.N. statistics indicating that population growth
rates in underdeveloped countries averaged only 1.77 percent per year
between 1990 and 1995. The expectation for that period had been for a
growth rate of 1.88 percent.

But since 1930, when the world population was about 2 billion, the
population has nearly tripled, and each doubling of the population has
occurred in a much shorter time than the previous doubling period. The
U.N. report projected that the world population could reach 9.4 billion
by 2050.

Demographers say that the population increase has leveled off in China,
where the government limits family size, and that the rate of population
increase has declined in Bangladesh and other populous countries.

But recent U.N. statistics identified 28 countries -- 20 of them in
Africa -- where fertility rates increased during the past decade. Among
the countries was the United States, which has the third-largest
population after China and India, and where the fertility rate increased
from 1.9 percent to 2.1 percent, largely because of Hispanic

All the speakers at the symposium had expected vigorous criticism from
the audience of anthropologists, but were surprised to encounter few
strongly negative comments.

"Arguments over the accuracy of Malthus' views, future population trends
and the earth's carrying capacity are never-ending and never resolved,"
one speaker said. "Many people prefer to just forget about the big
questions involved, and get on with their lives."

Population pressure is partly a question of perception, said Dr. Bernice
Kaplan, an anthropologist at Wayne State University.

"I ask my students how they feel about being increasingly crowded by the
growing population, and they reply, 'We're not crowded,"' Dr. Kaplan

"That attitude results from being young and not having experienced the
changes old people have seen during their lives. Whatever environment
you're born into is the one that seems normal.

"You don't seem to realize the problems created by population pressure
until you get old," she said, "and then nobody listens to you. We are a
species that doesn't respond to threats until it's too late."

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