2/04/2005

Don't Stand So Close To Me

The topic of overpopulation came up in a conversation with my wife this morning, and I thought that it would make for an interesting break from the red-meat political blogging that usually occupies this space.

First, the basic number: 6,416,705,711. This is the estimate of the current world population according to the The United States Census Bureau Population Clock. That number constantly updates, so it will be a little bit larger by the time you read it. For simplicity, we'll use 6.4 billion as our working number.

Our planet certainly has enough real estate to hold this teeming mass of humanity. In fact, you could fit the entire world's population nicely within our own borders. The United States' total land area is 9.1 million square kilometers, or 2.2 billion acres. That's three people per acre. The entire population of the world could fit - comfortably - in the United States, leaving the combined land mass of Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia available for agriculture and wildlife.

Living space is not a problem.

So, what about food production? Certainly there can't be enough food to go around to feed all of these people. According to the United Nations, there is. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is an organization whose primary goal is monitoring and working to end world hunger. In 2002, they published a report entitled "World Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030". From 1990-1999, the number of people in the developing countries suffering from undernourishment went down by almost 40 million. By 2015, it is projected to drop another 160 million. The FAO report says that "there will be enough food for a growing world population by the year 2030."

Available food is not the problem.

So, what causes famine? Why do people starve? In many cases, the answer is simple: human evil. The 1984 Ethiopian famine which inspired Band Aid, USA For Africa, and Live Aid was a tragedy that was primarily caused by that country's government. Embroiled in a civil war, the Ethiopian government bombed crops, destroyed markets, and set up roadblocks to prevent the movement of food into rebel-controlled territories. It was famine as military weapon. What's worse is that 90% of all of the money raised by the international community for famine relief was given to the Ethipoian government - the same government that was starving its own people.

The Chinese famine of 1959-1961 is regarded by many as the largest famine in history, killing somewhere between ten and forty million Chinese. As part of Mao's "Great Leap Forward", all of China's farmers were collectivised into 26,000 communes, each overseeing about 25,000 people and appropriating all their land. Grain output declined from 200m tons in 1958 to 160m tons in 1960, Yet, each commune continued to over-report their grain production so as not to face retribution from the government. As a result, grain that was thought to be surplus was sold abroad, leaving little for the domestic population.

The fact of the matter is that while the Earth's population continues to grow, the rate at which it is growing is slowing down:

Year

Population
(millions)
Absolute increase
(millions)
Percentage
increase
19502,556-------
19603,03948318.9
19703,70766822.0
19804,45474720.2
19905,27882418.4
20006,08280415.2

(source:Overpopulation.org)

So, in summary:
  • Global population growth is slowing.
  • There is enough land to go around.
  • There is enough food to go around, and food productivity is rising.
There is hunger and poverty and suffering in the world; there can be no argument. But, this suffering is not the result of too many people or too few resources. Sadly, it's all too often the result of incompetence, indifference, or evil intentions.