The scale of problems from overpopulation will increase as the population grows. The Christian Science Monitor, long a bastion of sound journalism that has never followed the corporate main stream media (one of few), ran an article recently (link) explaining how a lack of agricultural development in the Philippines is combining with their rapidly growing population (and that of other less-developed nations) to create food shortages. The clearest evidence of the shortages is in the doubling of rice prices in the past year (2007-2008). While most people in North America, for instance, won’t think that is a very big deal, there are hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the planet who depend on rice as a staple – a major part of their diet – and for whom any price increase is seriously bad news. I remember reading in the news a month or two ago that the price rise has caused people who used to get two bowls of rice per day to cut back to one. (Try living on that diet, you in the developed countries, if you want a dose of reality.) The important realization is that, as energy shortages and population growth exacerbate food shortages, there will be more food riots and unrest in the fastest growing and least-developed countries. In response, the developed countries need to put more family planning, education, and economic aid, all proven to reduce birthrates, into the poorest areas of the globe for the good of all. Here’s a more detailed analysis.
The Philippines have been carrying more risk than most other countries (though perhaps not a great deal more). When you combine world price increases with the fact that the population of the Philippines, at the current rate of growth, will double within 30 years, the size of the problem becomes more apparent. The Philippines are already importing 15% of their rice because they can’t grow enough today, and most of their major suppliers in Southeast Asia have begun hoarding rice, worried that they won’t have enough for themselves. This has only driven the price higher still and shown where the shortage will lead: if the Philippine government doesn’t change its agricultural policies and take action to reduce the birthrate, increasing numbers of people will go hungry until food riots and political unrest will become a major factor in the country. This is just an example of how overpopulation will play out in the next several decades as energy prices increase and take the cost of food with them. A higher birthrate only increases the risks and issues.
The overpopulation problem, like other large human issues, has a political side. Problems such as the Philippines is experiencing have important political elements. I think most governments of poor countries have been more concerned with building housing, skyscrapers, and industry in recent years than with reducing their birthrates and improving agricultural systems. Also, in democracies where election cycles drive short-term planning and ecological near-sightedness in government, badly needed long-term planning and programs are difficult to accomplish.
Both the Philippines and the United States are prime examples of a vicious cycle of over-growth. In poorer countries like the Philippines a high birthrate drives the need for housing, which inevitably eats up the best farmland but is easy to justify because it increases tax revenues. Construction provides jobs and boosts the economy. Larger populations consume more, which is good for businesses, who lobby the government to approve more construction and promote growth. This creates a vicious cycle that justifies the growing population, intensifies the development of a consumer culture, and generates urban sprawl. Unfortunately this makes maintaining good municipal, agricultural, transportation, and other infrastructure increasingly difficult (see my other entries on infrastructure). Interestingly, this happens in developed countries like the United States also, but their standards of living are higher, their birthrates are lower, and their agricultural systems are more developed. In effect, they have more more financial and agricultural reserves, more “cushion”, so they feel the effects less severely. They still must face the risk that those reserves will eventually be eroded, however, but by then the poorer areas will be in much more serious straits as well.
Rising energy costs exacerbate the situation. Another common factor is the sharp rise in global oil prices, which impacts transportation costs and drives up the cost of pesticides and agricultural equipment, among other commodities. This is having differing, but noticeable effects on countries both rich and poor, and is compounding the problems of countries like the Philippines due to their relatively thinner “cushions”.
Large scale problems require large scale approaches to solutions. The solutions to such problems not only must be large, but must be systemic. In effect, government, the business sector, and individuals will need to change the way they think about the situation, and about the actions they take daily. Hopefully this can be accomplished with forethought, development of new understandings and knowledge, and long range planning and action, as opposed to “necessity being the mother of invention” – a principle that has sustained the human species through the present but may not be good enough in our overpopulated present and future.
Individual action is needed now. I hate to keep repeating myself. Our governments have the capability to make meaningful and almost immediate progress towards solutions, but we need to each be telling our government representatives what their priorities should be. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, the old saying goes, and we each need to be that squeaky wheel, and then vote for the representatives who listen and take our most important issues seriously. Abortion and similar issues, I feel compelled to note, will only preoccupy our government officials with far less essential matters. We need them to understand that overpopulation underlies many of our current problems, will be felt increasingly in all parts of the world, and that addressing it should be a primary theme in the legislation and other actions they carry out.
As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim