Too Big Not To Fail?

February 19th, 2013

Published on Dissidenet Voice, by John Andrews, February 17, 2013.

I recently started to have an interesting conversation with David Cromwell, author of “Private Planet” and “Why are we the good guys?”, and co-editor of the superb British website Media Lens. I had just finished reading his latest excellent book (good guys) and wanted to congratulate him on his efforts. I also had a couple of points I wanted to discuss with him, one of which concerned a chapter titled “Global Climate Crime” … //

… An African field-trip:

I went to school in Rhodesia. I was not a great scholar. I always referred to school as prison and resented the amount of my time it demanded. My reports show that I usually whiled-away the long, long hours at the bottom of most classes, and the only thing I excelled at were the number of beatings I received for various disciplinary offences (my best friend Alan was my only close rival). I can count the useful things I learnt at school on the fingers of one hand. One such very rare event occurred sometime around 1970, when our geography class went on a field-trip.

We spent the day on a farm, a farm owned by a white person. Now white-owned farms in Matabeleland at that time were very different from what most Europeans understand the word “farm” to mean. Here in England almost every square inch of farmland has some utilitarian purpose. Back then European farms in my home province of Matabeleland were more like national parks – mostly virgin bush, with relatively little land being actively farmed in any serious way.

Now the part of the farm where we went that day bordered an area known as Tribal Trust Land (TTL). TTLs were areas of land that were allocated to the majority of the country’s native African population to live in – a bit like reservations in the United States where American natives were,  and still are, confined. In the deeply racist society that imperial England had designed for her African colonies, and which I grew up in, black people couldn’t live in the same areas as white people (unless they were working for whites as domestic servants, in which case they were permitted to live at the bottom of the garden in tiny little sheds called “kias”); and white people couldn’t live in areas reserved for black people (not that many wanted to).

This situation was, of course, a deeply political issue. The foreign media made much of the fact that most of the land in Rhodesia was owned by a relatively small percentage of the population (the 99% – 1% argument of its day). This was, of course, absolutely true – every bit as true as it was (and is) right here in the UK, and in most other parts of the planet – but the media never bothered to point that out. Furthermore, according to the media, not only did the whites own a disproportionate amount of land, they also owned the “best” land. Now this was not quite so true, as our little school field trip was about to prove in quite spectacular fashion. I doubt very much that this was the purpose of the trip – it certainly wasn’t taught in that way – but it was one of the very few lessons I clearly remember from my time at school.

The white-owned farm we were visiting was separated from the TTL by a single barbed wire fence. The fence ran in a fairly straight line. On the white-owned side the land was mostly covered with natural grasses and all sorts of wild trees and healthy blooming shrubs. On the TTL side of the fence you could have been looking at a desert. The land was hard sun-baked ground with scarcely a blade of grass to be seen. There were fewer trees than on the other side of the fence and the shrubs were sparse and bedraggled. Now here’s the really important thing: the earth on either side of the fence was exactly the same. This was not a case of white people having the best land; it was exactly the same land – with a barbed wire fence running down the middle of it. If we could have travelled back in time a mere hundred years or so to that exact same spot the land all around us would have looked identical – wild, healthy savannah. The reason for the very obvious differences between the two sides of the fence was not about any natural qualities of the earth, it was about how the land was being used.

On the white-owned side the land was hardly used at all. It probably looked pretty much the same way it did a hundred thousand years earlier. On the TTL side, however, the land had been hugely overgrazed by cattle and goats. One of the simple little tests we did that day (the only one I remember) involved using a small metal cylinder about four inches in diameter and about two inches high. You simply put the cylinder on the ground and filled it with water and timed how long it took for the water to seep into the earth. On the white-owned side of the fence it disappeared pretty quickly. On the TTL side it took much, much longer. What this showed was that when it rained water would be retained on the white-owned land but would quickly run off into streams and rivers on the TTL side – helping to produce drought conditions.

The many critics of the day would have said the answer was obviously to remove the fence so the Africans living in the TTL would have more land to graze their animals. This would indeed have provided a short-term solution; but the long-term effect would not have been to convert the TTL into land that resembled the white-owned land, but to convert the white-owned land into overgrazed semi-desert.

This was possibly the first time the reality of human overpopulation began to dawn on me; although I did also attend an eye-opening lecture at about that time by some visiting “expert” who spoke about the effects of overgrazing and overpopulation in other parts of Africa – and that was over forty years ago.

What is overpopulation?

Sometime in the 1960s US President Johnson was addressing American GIs at Camp Stanley in Korea. He said the following:

Don’t forget, there are only 200 million of us in a world of three billion. They want what we’ve got and we’re not going to give it to them.

The comment is relevant to this essay for a couple of reasons, but for now I would just like to focus on the number he gives for the size of the planet’s human population – three billion people. Today it’s over seven billion. For the last four decades the human population has been growing by about a billion people every thirteen years or so.

In my opinion, and a slowly growing number of others too, our planet is overpopulated. In my e-mail to David I mentioned that I sometimes wonder at what point in our history the point of overpopulation was reached. Of course, we’ll never know the answer to that for sure – but it’s interesting to think about it. I reckon a fairly good contender would be sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when European colonialism was just hitting its stride. You could put a case for an even earlier date, when the first empires were carving out sizeable chunks of the planet’s real estate for themselves by butchering or enslaving the people already living there.

David, and many other people too, are not at all convinced the planet is overpopulated. It’s a view I find surprising. I don’t understand how anyone can argue that human beings are a major contributory factor to climate change at the same time as appearing to believe that the quantity of those human beings is irrelevant. To me that view defies all logic. I mean, if the total number of human beings on Earth was just ten, say, I think it’s fair to conclude they couldn’t possibly affect its climate very much. A trillion human beings on the other hand would be a rather different story. So there must be some sort of optimum figure for human population that would not impact significantly on the planet – not just its climate, but on its many precious and fragile eco-systems too. What might that number be? A billion? Ten billion perhaps? Twenty billion? A hundred billion? A trillion?

I do not doubt for one second that it would be possible to cram many more human beings onto the planet than we currently have. I don’t doubt that it would be possible to provide food, water and energy for many billions of human beings; scientists are very clever, they could surely do that. But what would be the cost to the rest of the planet – the rapidly diminishing rain forests, over-fished seas, disappearing wilderness areas and, as my own school geography field-trip showed, disappearing savannahs? Of course, we could fill up wilderness areas with corporate factory farms, desalination plants, and easily power it all with nuclear energy; but is that really what we want for the planet? And, an even bigger question… why should we even do it? What on Earth is the point? How would it possibly benefit the planet if the human population was so huge that the only other forms of life that were allowed to exist were those in factory farms, being processed for human survival? Is human life really that important?

The over-population deniers say: … //

… (full text).

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