Broadcast by Channel 4 in the
As the world's population
nears six billion, most of us believe that there are
already too many people on the planet. The second
program in this series presents arguments that there
Although many Greens believe the entire world to be overpopulated,
the problem is always considered worse in the Third World, where,
they say, humans are encroaching on the habitats of trees and
animals. The program also shows that environmentalists have
legitimized pressure on Third World countries to reduce population
as a condition for aid.
Western measures to control population in Africa are highly
controversial. US AID has this year given Kenya $13.5 million for
family planning, compared to $4 million in humanitarian assistance.
One environmental organization is even suggesting withholding food
aid to Africa in order to keep numbers down— letting people starve,
in other words.
However, it can be argued that Africa is underdeveloped precisely
because it is under-populated. How can you justify building schools,
hospitals or roads if there are not enough people to support them?
And if there are more people, there will be more ideas, which in
turn will lead to better technology and an improved quality of life.
In the West, every indicator of quality
of life has improved as the population has grown.
superfluous four million— and the rest
Over the last 35 years, the population of the Earth has doubled.
Next year it will expand by 86 million people— that's three babies a
second, or another Birmingham every four days, or another UK every
Today there are almost six billion people in the world, and
environmentalists argue that this is already unsustainable.
Professor Norman Myers, of Green College, Oxford, puts the optimum
world population at two billion or less.
Further population growth over the next
few decades, it's argued, will be disastrous.
"If you took our planet and just put
one human being on it," Lord Melchett, President of
told Against Nature, "that human being would be consuming
resources which otherwise would be available for nature— for
wildlife, for wild animals, plants, whatever. Two human beings
consume twice as much, and a million consumes a million times as
much. At what point do you start to say: this is not
sustainable? Everything we do impacts on nature and to my mind
what we need to concentrate on is limiting that impact."
Brent Blackwelder, Chairman of
Friends of the Earth, agrees, arguing that many of the world's
conflicts are caused by scarcity of natural resources.
The Greens say that the population problem is worst in the Third
"People live longer, child mortality
is lower— and all those are good things," says Barbara Maas of
the Pan African Conservation Group. "I don't want people to
suffer and I don't want people to lose their babies. But some
restraint in terms of population control is inevitable if we are
not to destroy our very life support system. There just is not
enough to go round."
What's more, according to the Greens, if
we don't manage to stem population growth in the Third World it
won't be just the environment that suffers.
There will be mass starvation.
But are the environmentalists right, is the world really
Dr Frank Furedi, author of Population and
Development, doesn't think so.
"Just a couple of years ago, my
partner and I went to South Africa," he says. "Everybody told us
about the tremendous population problem in South Africa, the
lack of land and lack of resources. We were driving from
Johannesburg to Natal, and at one point my wife and I looked at
each other and started laughing, because for the last 35 to 40
miles we hadn't seen one single human being."
"I think that it's important to
realize that there is always a disjuncture between the
perception of population density and the reality. The reason why
so many Westerners regard Asia as a continent of teeming masses
is because people feel very uncomfortable with Asians. The
reality, of course, is that Belgium has got a higher population
density than China. You'll find that many Western societies have
far higher population densities than Asian or African societies.
But we don't talk about those insects in Belgium, those teeming
masses. The reason for that is that we're quite comfortable with
Environmentalists say that people are
the problem: too many of them can only lead to famine and
environmental degradation. But critics of the Greens point out that
people in countries with high populations are by and large better
fed and live in nicer environments.
The Netherlands, for example, has a population of 381 people per
square kilometer. This is more than three times as high as China's
population density of 126 people per square kilometer. Africa is
very sparsely populated indeed. Even discounting desert and
semi-desert areas, there are still only 48 people per square
kilometer, compared with 238 people per square kilometer in the UK.
Despite what the Greens suggest, the result of all these people in
the First World has not been environmental degradation.
Some of the most densely populated parts of the world also happen to
be growing more trees than ever before. In Europe, for example,
there are 30% more trees than there were 50 years ago.
"Trees and forests provide a good
example of how it's possible to have a growing economy and a
growing population and a thriving environment," says Steve
Hayward of the Pacific Research Centre. "The lesson from trees
really applies across the environment. We have cleaner air
today; we have cleaner water; we grow more food at less impact
on the land; we have more wildlife diversity— and we've done all
this while having a growing economy and a growing population."
rewards of technology
The densely populated First World is growing more trees because of
modern high-yield farming techniques.
"In the United States," continues
Steve Hayward, "we use less land to produce more food than we
used 50 years ago. We're able to use less land precisely because
of chemical agriculture and some of the very sophisticated
techniques that we have. That allows you to preserve more land
for wildlife habitat, for open space, for forests and other
"If you look at Africa, where they use very primitive
agricultural techniques, which means they have to use very large
amounts of land— that reduces the amount of land for endangered
species like elephants and lions and tigers. It's also usually
very bad agriculture— there's more soil erosion. So the
environmental benefits of technological agriculture are really
"It flies in the face of green theology," adds Dennis Avery,
Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, "but man-made
chemicals today are helping to give us the most productive, most
sustainable farming in the history of the planet. The best
yields, the best soils, the more earthworms, the most soil
bacteria, the most food for people, the most land left for
wildlife— all of it being achieved because of chemical
fertilizers, pesticides, weed-killers."
Of course the climate in Africa is not
as friendly to agriculture as it is in the Western world. However,
scientists argue that with high-yield farming and irrigation Africa
could feed itself many times over.
The problem is not overpopulation, they
say, it is backward farming techniques.
revolution, Green reaction
But environmentalists are opposed to high-yield farming, which they
say produces poor, contaminated land and food, and will lead to
other problems in the Third World.
"You can have yields that are quite
good without industrial agricultural methods," says Brent Blackwelder. "Some people say, 'Why shouldn't we copy the
agriculture of America, because you're so productive. Why
shouldn't we utilize all those pesticides, all that farm
machinery?' Well, one answer is to look at what it's actually
done to farm communities in the United States.
They started up here with millions
and millions on the land, and now there are only a couple of
million left. Who's going to pay for all this in developing
countries? They're going to be in an incredible debt trap, far
worse than they're in already. So it's exactly the opposite
direction that the world should be heading in."
The Green dislike of high-yield farming
has had an enormous impact on Africa and other Third World regions.
Over the last 10 years, such groups as Greenpeace, The
Environmental Defense Fund and The Environmental Protection
Agency have transformed the policies of international aid
agencies. The World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have
now all officially adopted Green policies restricting the use of
pesticides and other chemicals, despite opposition from Third World
governments and farmers.
As a consequence, over the last four years fertilizer aid to Africa
has fallen by two-thirds. Fertilizer use by African farmers today is
just 1.6% of that found in The Netherlands. Indeed, there is more
fertilizer used on American lawns and golf courses than in the whole
In 1970 Professor Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize
for his efforts to modernize farming techniques in the Third World.
He is known as the father of the green revolution which saw
agricultural output in India increase five-fold in only 30 years. He
has spent the last ten years trying to do the same for Africa.
But he has come to the US Senate
Committee of Agriculture to complain that his work has been hindered
"One of the big dangers that's been
going on in the last 10 years is that there's been a tremendous
erosion of the gene for common sense," says Professor Borlaug.
"We aren't being poisoned out of existence; we live longer,
better lives in the affluent nations than ever before. And if we
don't bring to Africa in the next five to eight years an
improvement in the food situation, we will see an ever
increasing volume of hungry, miserable people.
"When I come back from Africa after spending time seeing hungry,
miserable people, and I hear these outrageous criticisms about
the use of high-yield technology that will spoil the
environments in Africa being spouted out philosophically by
privileged people, it makes me angry and sick."
Heading for a
stable 11 million?
Environmentalists argue that population growth will soon lead to
widespread famine. However, according to the UN, the Third World
alone would sustain a population of no less than 32 billion if
agriculture was modernized to Western standards.
As it happens, most demographers believe that the world's population
will stabilize at just 11 billion people in the next few decades,
since women in the Third World are having far fewer children than
they used to. There are parts of the Third World that have high
population densities, such as Singapore, the Bahamas, Bangladesh,
Taiwan and Korea.
However, they tend to be small nations
or city-states, and all have rapidly declining fertility rates. Over
the past 20 years, Bangladesh, which is self-sufficient in food, has
seen its fertility rate fall from six births per woman to only
three, and women are getting married a lot later. Forty years ago,
77% of women married in their teens.
Today that's down to 30%.
According to Frank Furedi, the pattern in the Third World
should be familiar.
"What's happening in the Third World
is not so much that population growth is going on, but that more
and more children are surviving into teenage hood and adulthood.
And that's a process that all industrializing societies have
gone through. What's very interesting is that once you have
urbanization and societies begin to gain greater control over
their circumstances, families begin to have fewer and fewer
children. You can already see this happening in Asia."
In Africa, fertility rates have actually
been falling for the past 10 years. In Kenya, Africa's most densely
populated country, the United States government predicts that
population will stabilize at around 44 million people at about the
year 2050— that is, 20 million fewer people than there are in
Britain today, in a country twice Britain's size.
people: population growth and prosperity
While environmentalists regard the Third World as overpopulated,
many of the people who live there have a different perspective.
"Most of the [African] continent is
under-populated," argues Dr Margaret Ogola, who runs a
health centre in Nairobi. "The evidence of the world so far is
that countries with a lot of people with high population
densities tend to be the richer ones. I believe that this is why
you are having the phenomenon in some of the Asian 'Tiger'
countries, as I believe they are called— people create wealth
and ways of using it more effectively."
Machakos is a thriving district
in southern Kenya with a growing town and a green hinterland. But 50
years ago there was no town and the hinterland was almost a desert.
Few people lived here and the soil was typical of most sub-Saharan
Africa: red, short of nutrients and hostile to crops.
Then, in the 1940s, the population began to rise, and as the
population grew, so did the town, creating a market for food.
Farmers used the income from selling their produce to buy
fertilizers and pesticides and to improve irrigation and water
storage. Today there are five times as many people in Machakos
as there were in the 1940s, and far from destroying the land, the
use of chemicals has enormously improved the quality of the soil,
which is now comparable with that of southern Italy.
agricultural production has increased tenfold and Machakos
has 10 times the number of trees.
The lives of the people have been transformed. They now have more
shops, markets, schools and hospitals. Having more people has made
them healthier, better fed and better educated.
"When you have low population
densities, as in north-eastern Kenya, for example, you find it's
very expensive to provide schools and health centers," says Dr
Rachel Musioki, an economist and adviser to the
government. "So this is one area where sufficient density of
population is essential."
control: more of us; less of them?
While many Africans believe that they need more people,
environmentalists are concerned there are already too many. They say
that if disaster is to be averted, population growth must be
drastically reduced. One way of doing this is to link aid with
In Kenya, the government had been opposed to population control. But
in 1982 they were forced to introduce such measures when the World
Bank threatened to withhold financial assistance.
"Very few of the African leaders
were involved in setting the agenda for global population
policies," says Dr Musioki. "And that's why they saw it as
someone else's agenda."
Population control centers have been
established throughout the Third World with money from Western
donors. Their purpose is to distribute contraceptives, perform
vasectomies and sterilize women.
"Women are encouraged to have the
'final solution', they call it, by getting sterilized in their
twenties," says Dr Ogola.
Sterilization is, after the pill, the
most widely used form of contraception in Africa. By 2020, according
to the US government agency US AID, two million women will have been
sterilized in Kenya.
In the Third World as a whole, no fewer than 123 million women have
been sterilized in the past 25 years, thanks to Western population
control help. That accounts for 90% of all sterilizations worldwide.
This year US AID will give Kenya $13.5 million for population
control. This compares to only $4 million for humanitarian
assistance. Dr Ogola finds that the only medical aid she can get is
aimed at population control.
According to Elizabeth Liagin, author of Excessive Force:
Power, Politics and Population Control, this is a very
"Again and again we're hearing
complaints coming from all over the southern hemisphere," she
says. "Women will take a sick child to a clinic, or someone will
have an injury and go to a clinic, and there are no Band-Aids
there, no antibiotics, nothing to relieve suffering, only
condoms and intra-uterine devices and contraceptive pills."
And in their efforts to meet population
control targets, Third World governments have been known to use
Through an interpreter, a local woman
told Against Nature:
"They inserted me a coil. I stayed
with the coil for three months. I went to the clinic; they told
me to stay with the coil for one year. Before that year ends, I
started getting sick. From there I went to the hospital. I was
injected with some injections, but I was not getting anywhere. I
went to the family planning clinic— I told them to remove it
because I was getting sick. They refused.
"I had to remove it myself. There was pus and blood. From that
time I never had a baby. So I think it's because of that coil
that I never had a baby."
According to Dr Ogola, women are also
being sterilized without their consent after caesarean sections or
other forms of abdominal surgery.
Like Dr Ogola, Elizabeth Liagin feels that this is a question of
"The right of a couple to make love
and to make a baby, to have a family as large as they want or
small— this is the most intensely private and important freedom
that we as human beings have," she says. "To violate that is an
absolute abomination, and we would never put up with it in the
Inevitably, many people now ask why it
is that Western countries, which have high population densities, go
to such lengths to impose population control on African countries,
which are sparsely populated.
"Nobody considers himself as the
superfluous person, as one too many," explains Dr Ogola.
"Somehow it is always the other person who is has too many
children or is too poor and therefore should not have children."
Dr Julian Simon, author of
Population Matters, has a still more simple and disturbing answer:
"It's the inevitable human tendency
to want more of us and less of them— more of us whites, less of
good, two legs dispensable?
Just as environmentalists are worried there are too many humans in
the Third World, they are also concerned there are not enough
"Elephants are reduced to about 17%
of their historic distribution range today," says Barbara Maas,
"and it is humans who are expanding. In the front line, where
human expansion meets the remaining wildlife areas, of course
there will be conflict. But to say, "Oh well, let's just push
animals further back"— if you take that argument to its logical
conclusion, you will elbow every other species off the face of
John Fuchaka lives in the
district of Nyeri, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Wild animals
like lions, black rhinos and leopards roam freely around his home.
He is currently recovering from an
"Four of my neighbors have been
killed by elephants, including my two friends Naduthu and Mukabi,"
he told Against Nature through an interpreter. "I am the first
to survive an elephant attack.
"Tourists think that elephants are wonderful and harmless, but
they are dangerous animals. They trample our farms and eat our
crops, leaving us to starve. We cannot graze our animals or
collect firewood when they are on the loose."
Wild animals like elephants are regarded
as pests by most Africans. Eighty-three per cent of crop damage in
Kenya is caused by elephants, and last year 3000 people were
attacked by them.
Since 1990, wild animals have killed 350 Kenyans.
"Personally, I think wild animals
should be kept in cages," says John Fuchaka.
The perception that environmentalists
care about wildlife but not people has led to a tremendous backlash
against environmentalism in the developing countries.
"This whole idea of man being
dispensable is something that is logical to their way of
thinking," says Dr Ogola.
Dr Ogola's view certainly seems
justified in the case of the environmental group Negative Population
Growth, which is advocating holding back food aid to Africa in order
to keep the numbers down.
"It seems very brutal to think that
we might refuse that aid," concedes Donald Mann, President of
Negative Population Growth. "But any time that we send food aid
to countries that need that to avoid starvation, we are feeding
more and more people, and eventually, if that cannot be
sustained, the tragedy will be even greater than it was before."
Greens have also been criticized for using immigration as a bogeyman
in their fight against population growth.
"When poor societies can't export
anything else," says Alan Hammond of the World Resources
Institute, "they'll find ways to export their misery— as
violence, as crime, as migration. And those will affect us
probably in ways we care far more about than the loss of a piece
Brent Blackwelder puts it
differently, though the point is essentially the same.
forced into conflicts over farmland and fisheries, what do people
do? They cross borders seeking a better life or some place where
they can get food. Do we need any more instability like this in the
Donald Mann is also worried about the problem.
"It would take really
stringent measures for the developed countries to stand at the
border and push back the millions of people who are attempting to
get in— and many of them starving."
America's largest Green organization, the Sierra Club, has decided
to ballot its members on whether to adopt an anti-immigration policy
on the grounds that they believe population is the biggest
environmental problem and, they say, immigration is the main cause
of population growth in the US.
"What's interesting about the Sierra
Club," comments Frank Furedi, "is that it calls into question
the presentation of environmentalism. As far as I'm concerned,
environmentalism is today radical in form but conservative in
content. In the past it was also conservative in form, and it's
only because radical movements are fairly weak or conspicuous by
their absence that a movement such as environmentalism has
managed to gain radical credentials.
The Sierra Club tells us
about an important theme in environmentalism, which is the
dislike for people and for human action. And the majority of the
Sierra Club take that a step further by targeting not just
people, but foreign people. There's a very strong streak of
racism in environmentalist discourse."
The romance of
the land, the beauty of the metropolis
In the Third World, the countries with the highest population
densities also enjoy the highest rates of economic growth. Indeed,
economic progress is most rapid in urban areas that are very densely
populated, such as in Hong Kong and Singapore. But for
environmentalists, the concentration of people in cities is exactly
what we should be avoiding.
According to Brent Blackwelder, for example,
"What we've got to do is to look
back at how we can get people on the land, in healthy world
communities, not having them all crowded together in cities that
are hellish places to live."
But others argue that such attitudes are
really based on escapism and fear.
"It's quite sad that the most
dynamic part of human civilization is now often regarded in such
negative terms," says Frank Furedi. "This nostalgia for the
countryside, the desire to escape into the middle of nowhere,
actually represents a statement about the future. You're saying:
"I'm scared of the future, I'm scared of change, I'd rather hide
out somewhere where there are fewer people.""
People congregate in big cities because
they are the most interesting places to live, argues the economist
Professor Steven Landsburg.
New York, for example,
"has galleries, it has theatres, it
has symphony, it has cafés, it has bars, it has diversity,
cultural diversity," he says. "People come to New York to share
in these things. Nobody goes to the middle of nowhere in the
Midwest to find those things, because those things aren't there.
New Yorkers may complain about the crowds, but they forget that
without the crowds New York would be like that middle of nowhere
in the Midwest."
Frank Furedi agrees.
"Cities are where we learn, where we
get transformed, where new things begin to take off," he says.
Looking to the
future: the positive and the negative
The expansion of the world's population over the past 200 years has
coincided with an historic improvement in the quality of life for
almost everyone. We are living longer, we are eating better and we
are more educated that ever before.
Indeed there are those who believe we
should be concerned not that there are too many people, but that
there may soon not be enough.
"Fertility rates are declining in
the developing world much more rapidly than demographers
projected a generation ago," says Gregg Easterbrook, author of
Moment on the Earth, a critique of environmentalist thinking.
"Fertility is already at a negative level in the Scandinavian
nations and close to a negative level throughout most of the
developed world. If industrialization brings to the rest of the
world the same decline in fertility rates that we've observed in
the Western world, 200 years from now there will be fewer people
alive than there are today."
The consequences of this could be costly
in both the rich and the poor countries.
"Population is a critical resource,"
says Rachel Musioki.
"Our development in the world wouldn't have
occurred without people. So it's about time we started focusing
on people— how we can harness the people-power, their brains,
their ideas, their willingness, their being fair— because
development is about people, and the people are the only means
towards development. So I think we have to shift from talking
about problems due to numbers and rather ask how can we utilize
So should we be celebrating procreation
and creativity rather than prophesying doom? Julian Simon thinks so.
"Lovers of humanity should rejoice,
because the romance and the economics go together just
perfectly," he says.
"Governments should get out of people's
lives and couples should have the children that they themselves
want, secure in the knowledge that those children will not only
be wonderful for them but good for the rest of the world as