Let's move beyond the “population vs. consumption” debate
In response to my post about the multitude of challenges posed by rapid population growth in developing countries, Jason Scorse replies, “there is plenty of food to feed everyone in the world already, but many go hungry. There is probably five times the amount of food to feed everyone in the U.S., but we have hungry people here.”
That’s like saying, “Severe poverty is not a problem. There is plenty of money in the world. We just need to redistribute it.”
For better or worse, we don’t live in a Marxian world where it’s “each according to their need.” Those living on $1 or $2 in the shantytowns of Manila or Mumbai are forced to skip meals when the prices of corn, flour, and rice shoot up to unaffordable levels as they did during the food crisis of 2007-2008. When grain reserves shrunk to near record lows in 2008 and food riots broke out in more than two dozen countries, diners in America and elsewhere didn’t save the scraps and ship them off to the impoverished corners of the world. And they won’t do it when the next food crisis arises.
Right now there is a serious drought in the African Sahel. The World Food Program is desperately trying to raise $100 million to feed 4.5 million people in Niger and elsewhere in the region. Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Program, warns that, as a consequence of widespread hunger, Niger is in danger of “losing a generation” of young people due to stunting and malnutrition. Should we be shipping in external aid to ease the existing food crisis in the Sahel? Of course we should. But that doesn’t mean that the world will be able to feed Niger in 40 years; its population is on track to jump from an estimated 15.3 million in 2009 to 58 million by 2050.
It’s even more ludicrous to suggest, as Scorse does, that the availability of drinking water, “while affected by population, is not determined by it.” Yes, there’s plenty of water in the world. Unfortunately, 97 percent of is seawater. As for the world’s freshwater, it is in increasingly short supply. About 75 percent of the freshwater we use is “wasted” on agriculture. Another 10 to 15 percent is “wasted” on industry. And while we can and must increase the efficiency with which we use water for those purposes, there’s no guarantee that we will do so in time to avert the growing water crisis. In the meantime, the populations of some of the most water-stricken countries in the world, like Yemen, are on track to double or more within the next 30 to 40 years.
I said it in my previous response to Fred Pearce and I do so again here: In addressing issues related to impending shortages of energy, food, and water, we have to reduce both consumption and projected population growth. Reducing population growth, however, is a lot easier. If the U.S. and other donor nations spent an additional $3 billion to $4 billion a year on voluntary family-planning services and information, it would go a long way toward reducing fertility rates and lessoning the chances that food and water shortages will create a global humanitarian crisis.
With respect to climate change, the oceans, and the global commons, the challenge is to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies in the U.S. and other developed nations, where the consumption rates are so much higher and the ecological footprints so much larger. But that, too, could be accomplished with a comparatively small investment.
I fervently share Scorse’s hope that people in the U.S. and other developed nations will trim their exorbitant lifestyles, eliminate wasteful consumption, slash their carbon emissions, and shrink their ecological footprints. I just don’t see it happening any time soon. Not soon enough to ward off more humanitarian disasters in the developing world.
In the meantime, can’t we please give all women in the world the information and family-planning services they need to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies? Is that too much to ask? Or do we have to endlessly repeat the “population vs. consumption” debate?