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The Population Question

Monday, June 21, 2004
The NYT times article today about the Bush efforts to undermine U.N.-sponsored population control efforts really got me thinking. Not about abortion rights- I'm sure my fellow bloggers will deal well with that angle. No, I mean about the whole population question, which increasingly looks like one of the THE questions of the 21st century.

There are two interrelated issues at stake: the environment and economics. To put matters in context, let's lay out briefly the demographic history of humanity since the middle ages. There was population stability in most of the world in the 15th-18th century, except for India, China and Europe, where the population doubled. By 1800, there were 300 million Chinese, 200 million Europeans (in the Americas and Europe proper), and about 200 million Indians. In the 19th century, the whole world went through a population boom, roughly doubling. China and India grew more slowly, and Europe much faster but a lot migrating to the Americas, which zoomed from 20 to 140 million people. Now in the 20th century, the population of Europe has almost doubled again, the U.S., India, China have tripled, and the rest of the world increased by a factor of TEN.

The contemporary population increase in the third world (outside China and India) is simply unprecendented. The U.S. experienced similar growth in the 19th century, but it was in a low-density temperate zone and much of the increase was due to inmigration from Europe. Also, whereas the European surge of the 19th century was accompanied by industrialization (and greater wealth), the current 3rd world rise has not. With their economies reliant on extraction of natural resources (oil, timber, etc), and requiring more agricultural land, they are devastating their local environments (which are inherently low-yield food regions anyway) and causing mass extinction of flora and fauna. And the fact that they have extractive economies means that they have no long-term economic gains (one the trees are gone, they are gone), and that their current gains are low-value.

The first world did a great thing by improving agricultural and medical techniques, bringing down the infant mortality rate. But the birth rate did not fall in tandem, leading to disastrous economic and environmental consequences. Just to explain what has happened, let's assume that the 3rd world population had just doubled and they exported only half of their natural resources: per capita incomes would be 2 and 1/2 times what they are now. Outside africa, this would mean average family incomes of just under 10,000, which is a major improvement of what we see today- it would qualify as what we once called a "second world" economy.

So you could say that the Bush administation's policy is helping to condemn the developing world to continued poverty and environmental degredation. Typical.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:49 PM
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