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June 22, 2006

We should be worried by the Third World population explosion, argues William D. Rubinstein

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - explains why he believes that we should be worried by the population explosion in the Third World. The views expressed are those of Prof. Rubinstein, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Everyone has heard of the "population explosion", but what does this mean in actual fact at the national level? We are used to hearing that the total population of the planet has doubled in twenty years, but what has that done to countries most affected by this growth?

When one examines the extent to which countries in the Third World have increased in population in the past few generations what instantly becomes clear is just how important and (although in one sense widely discussed) neglected a factor the near-incredible increase in the population of the Third World has been in explaining some of the major trends - many of them highly disturbing - in today's world.

Somewhere or other I once bought a copy of the World Almanac for 1946 - the World Almanac, published since the 1880s, is the American equivalent of Whitaker's, an annual, reliable reference work. I cannot now remember where or when I bought it, but one can never tell when knowing the name of the President of Costa Rica in 1945 might not come in useful. Among many other things, this volume provides recent population statistics for all countries and colonies.

I also make a point of buying, every few years at least, today's equivalent reference works. One can never tell when knowing the name of the President of Costa Rica in 2005 might not come in useful. One such work is the Time Almanac for 2006, another very reliable annual American reference work which, of course, lists the populations of all countries today.

Comparing the populations of several important and randomly-selected Third World states then and now is so startling that only a table can do justice to the scale of the increases. The dates in parentheses are the dates of the censuses or estimates given in the World Almanac; all Time Almanac figures are estimates for 2005.

Afghanistan: 12,000,000 (1939); 29,929,000 (2005)

Brazil: 44,460,000 (1943); 186,113,000 (2005)

Chad: 1,433,000 (1931); 9,826,000 (2005)

China: 457,835,000 (1936); 1,306,000,000 (2005)

Colombia: 9,523,000 (1942); 42,954,000 (2005)

Congo (ex-Zaire): 10,384,000 (1942); 60,085,000 (2005)

Ethiopia: 12,100,000 (1945); 73,053,000 (2005)

Honduras: 1,106,000 (1940); 6,975,000 (2005)

India - includes today's India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka: 388,998,000 (1941); 1,407,000,000 (2005)

Iran: 15,055,000 (1935); 68,018,000 (2005)

South Africa: 10,709,000 (1942); 44,344,000 (2005)

These levels of increase are, of course, simply staggering. They are greater, both in absolute numbers and almost certainly in percentage terms, than anything known before in a relatively short period in human history. They have occurred despite losses in wars and civil wars, such as have occurred in India -Pakistan, the Congo, Ethiopia, and Iran-Iraq, among other places, despite totalitarian mass murders as in Communist China, despite immigration abroad, and despite losses through AIDS and other illnesses. In just over sixty years, Brazil's population has increased by 318 per cent; Colombia's by 352 per cent, and Ethiopia's by 503 per cent - and so on, with, in general, the most impoverished of these nations showing the most unbelievable increases.

While everyone knows that the population of the Third World has increased dramatically, how many realize that there are now 73 million people in Ethiopia - more than the population of Britain or France - or 43 million in Colombia? The supergiants of China (1.3 billion) and the Indian subcontinent (1.4 billion) will be less surprising, perhaps, than the current size of several countries not on the above list, such as Indonesia (242 million), Nigeria (129 million), or Mexico (106 million).

The causes of these vast increases are obvious enough: Western medicine, applied to the eradication of communicable diseases and epidemics and to a decrease in infant mortality, in countries which have not undergone the "demographic transition" to smaller family size and lower rates of population growth, such as Britain experienced after about 1870, and in cultures where birth control and family limitation are shunned.

The consequences of these increases are numerous and are almost always extremely deleterious and dangerous. They include:

- The chronic inability of many of these countries to escape from the "Malthusian trap" via economic growth exceeding population growth. Many Third World countries simply lack the economic or infrastructural base to provide a rising standard of living for most of their people, especially in Africa, the Arab world, and parts of Latin America;

- Illegal (and legal) immigration to the developed world on an unprecedented scale, creating an unprecedented demographic and political problem in Europe and the United States. Even the controlled and legal migration of talented and well-educated people from the Third World to the developed world denudes it of its limited skills base.

- Reinforcement within the Third World of extremist and fundamentalist religious and political ideologies and of terrorism. Given the discrediting of Communism and of other secular universalistic ideologies, these now almost always take the form of religious fundamentalism with a strong anti-Western, anti-modernist, violent core, most obviously in the Islamic world. Endemic corruption in the Third World, already ingrained in most, but not all Third World cultures, obviously grows among bureaucrats in chronically impoverished states.

- Marginalisation within the Third World of its small Westernised elite and the values - liberalism, pluralism, equality for women - these represent.

- The growth of vast Third World urban conurbations at rates of increase even greater than the population of the Third World as a whole. The population of metropolitan Mexico City, for instance, is now 19 million; of Mumbai (Bombay) and Sao Paulo 18 million each; of Karachi 12 million; of Lagos, Nigeria 11 million. Many of these places are notorious for their violent crime, gangs, and drugs, prostitution and child sex, and extremist religious demagogues, in addition, of course, to their endemic poverty and inadequate infrastructures.

- Extreme pressures on natural resources, the denuding of forests and rural areas, the slaughter of wildlife, and the threat of deadly epidemics.

Another important consequence of this growth has been the relative diminution of the developed world in terms of its share of the world's total population. At its peak around 1910, probably one-quarter of the world's population lived in Europe or North America. Today the percentage has probably declined to about one-eighth or one-tenth, bearing in mind that some places like China and India have arguably joined at least the economic fringes of the developed world.

None of this presents a pretty picture, and it is genuinely difficult to know what can be done about this situation, especially in the short term. While self-correcting mechanisms might emerge - most predictions of the world's population do show a slowing in the rate of increase over the next fifty years (but not, of course, a decrease in the total populations of these places, which will continue to grow), it is difficult to believe that the negative consequences of this situation, from terrorism to politically-charged illegal immigration, will not be seen in abundance over the next few decades. The Israelis might have the most realistic response: Build a wall. Fill in the moat, pull up the drawbridge, and hope for the best.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. The Social Affairs Unit is publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.

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Increasing numbers of people have survived to adulthood & continue to live thereafter. This means they got the food necessary to survive & continue living. This means a corresponding vast increase in food. This food was produced. This means the economy was growing correspondingly. So which came first -- population growth, _sans_ the food needed to sustain the people? Or increased food production, i.e., economic growth?

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy at June 23, 2006 05:21 AM

Populated economies have got more potential productive manpower; hence they can work for a prosperous future. China is an example. Why are some western economies paying incentives to the masses in order to see a population growth?

Each human being is promised sustenance by the Creator. We only need to strive for it. None of anyone’s share can be snatched away by anyone else. Criminal gains (at whatever scale) are only illusions. The criminals get according to their destiny; only choosing the wrong medium/means. If they had chosen the right path same wealth was supposed to be their only through the right means.
Man should only work to make life easy on this planet for all. Sacrifices do not mean loosing. Sacrifices create a better world.

We need not stop the population growth but we should spend resources spent on such causes on creating awareness of the reality that everyone will get only their destiny not a penny more, not a penny less.

Posted by: Bilal Mian at June 27, 2006 10:31 AM

If I may answer Bilal Main :–

Populated economies have got more potential productive manpower

That sounds like an economist talking. Population growth cannot bring more rain on the earth, or put more fish in the sea.

Each human being is promised sustenance by the Creator.

It was in the unfallen world that

God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth

and even so, I am not sure that “replenish” means to over-pack it with more people than it can sustain. In the West we have discarded the blessing of fertility in running after the gods of wealth and sex-for-fun. But we are living in a fallen world, where:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

This is a curse in several parts, and in this life we should always seek to mitigate the effects of the curse. It is said (truly or falsely) that in Victorian times there were those who, worse than barbaric in their thought, took “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” as ground for opposing the use of anaesthetics in childbirth. To us that kind of thinking is perverse and rebarbative. But note that “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” is also a curse. Much of population growth is simply driven by the desire of, and subjection to the male.

Sacrifices do not mean loosing. Sacrifices create a better world.

Who is supposed to sacrifice what, may I ask?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 28, 2006 07:13 PM

I would argue that many of those listed aren't 3rd world countries.

I'm not worried about that specific demographic's population growth. I myself am worried about the general growth in our population. I'm only 20, and we can very well see the 10 billion mark broken in my lifetime. All organisms have a carrying capacity. Although we can manipulate it, I'm not sure how much longer we can do so.

Posted by: wom at July 2, 2006 02:25 PM
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