I’m sure that you, dear reader,
are far too mature and sensible to ever watch the satirical (and far too crass)
cartoon programme, South Park. I was
not always as sensible and mature as I am now, and so in my younger years I
often enjoyed watching an episode or two. 
Two of South Park’s characters were a pair of redneck hunters called
Jimbo and Ned who hosted a TV show called Hunting
an’ Killing.  The state of Colorado
(where South Park is set) kept on
passing more and more restrictive hunting laws to stop Jimbo and Ned killing
the state’s fauna. In the end hunters are only allowed to cull wildlife if the
species is overpopulated and overburdening the ecosystem. This leads the two hunters
to go out into the wild to “thin out the numbers” of the local deer population.
Once they have done this – with a flame thrower of course – Jimbo surveys the
charred skeletons and proudly states that “we saved those deer from
extinction.”

I am often reminded of that South Park episode when we talk about an
overpopulated world leading to overburdened resources leading to famine and
starvation. We need less people so that people don’t starve to death.  Of course, no one is suggesting that we take
to people with a flame thrower to “thin out their numbers”…yet.  (I’m joking of course – a flamethrower would
be far too slow and impractical.) In a sense it’s even worse than that. Some
people think that more individuals should be denied the chance to exist at all
through population control, rather than the horror of having to starve to death
in some overpopulated-induced famine. 

There are all sorts of issues
with this approach to the world’s population – perhaps most fundamentally is
the question: should non-existence uncritically taken to be better than a
suffering existence? (A philosophical question that seems perverse of me to ask
as I sit in my comfy office chair in New Zealand, but still a valid one to be answered
I think.) 

However, leaving this question to
one side, this article in Al Jazerra highlights another problem that the
overpopulation argument has – why is it the poorest (and the ones who consume
the least) the ones that have to stop breeding? Aren’t we in the West the ones
who are overburdening our ecosystems? 
Shouldn’t we, to steal a favourite placard, do the world a favour and
kill ourselves? Instead, we wring our hands about those poor people who bring
children into the world that they can’t even feed.

Turning to the article, the
author, William G Moseley, examines the terrible famine that is going on at the
moment in the Horn of Africa.  He states
that to blame the crises on overpopulation rests on “overly simplistic
assumptions” despite the population of the area doubling in the past 24 years. 

“For starters, the semi-arid zones
in the Horn of Africa are relatively lightly populated compared with other
regions of the world. For example, the population density of Somalia is about
13 persons per square km, whereas that of the US state of Oklahoma is 21.1. The
western part of Oklahoma is also semi-arid, is suffering from a serious
drought this year, and was the poster child for the 1930s Dust Bowl.
Furthermore, if we take into account differing levels of consumption, with the
average American consuming about 28 times as much as the average Somali in a
normal year, then Oklahoma’s population density of 21.1 persons per square km
equates to that of 591 Somalis.


Despite the fact that Oklahoma’s
per capita impact on the landscape is more than 45 times that of Somalia (when
accounting for population density and consumption levels), we don’t talk about
overpopulation in Oklahoma. This is because, in spite of the drought and the
collapse of agriculture, there is no famine in Oklahoma. In contrast, the
presence of famine in the Horn of Africa leads many to assume that too many
people is a key part of the problem.”

But why do we instantly react to
famine by assuming that there are too many mouths to feed? Moseley argues that
this thinking is a product of our culture:

“…we assume that reducing the
number of mouths to feed is one of the easiest ways to prevent hunger and
famine. Having fewer or no children may be easy for a middle-class person in
the United States, where raising children is expensive and most of us expect no
economic return from our kids as they grow older. In fact, one could argue that
having children in the American context is economically irrational.”

Why is a smaller family “economically
irrational”?  For three reasons: the
economic benefit of children; the fact that more people means more producers as
well as more consumers; and that food that is produced is not consumed locally.

“…children are crucial sources of
farm labour or important wage earners who help sustain the family. Children
also act as the old-age social security system for their parents. For these
families, having fewer children is not an easy decision….Second, we tend to
focus on the additional resources required to nourish each new person, and
often forget the productive capacity of these individuals. Throughout
Africa, some of the most productive farmscapes are in those regions with the
highest population densities. In Machakos, Kenya, for example, agricultural
production and environmental conservation improved as population densities
increased. Furthermore, we have seen agricultural production collapse in some
areas where population declined (often due to outmigration) because there was
insufficient labour to maintain intensive agricultural production. Third, we
must not forget that much of the region’s agricultural production is not
consumed locally. From the colonial era moving forward, farmers and herders
have been encouraged to become more commercially oriented, producing crops and
livestock for the market rather than for home consumption. This might have been
a reasonable strategy if the prices for exports from the Horn of Africa were high
(which they rarely have been) and the cost of food imports low.” 

So why is Oklahoma more overpopulated
than Somalia but not in the grip of famine?


“Famine in Oklahoma is
inconceivable because it receives a fair price for its exports, it has not
leased its land to foreign countries, the poorest of the poor receive a helping
hand from the government, and farmers and ranchers receive federal assistance
in times of droughts. It is a lack of these factors in Horn of Africa, plus
political insecurity in Somalia, which explain the famine – not overpopulation.”

An excellent article, and one
well worth reading. 

Perhaps instead of saying that
the world cannot feed so many people and that those poor people are doomed (or
that we need to “thin out their numbers”) we should do something about it.  We could start by donating some of our
abundant wealth. There is enough food in the world, let us make sure it gets to
those in need. Please consider donating online to one of the many charities
collecting money for the famine gripping the horn of Africa. It will only take a second. Thank you.

 

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...