The Myth Stakes

I am finishing up the final chapter of my book on the politics of food. While writing about the current international aid system, I noticed the population explosion emerging once again as the scapegoat for poverty and famine. The population theory has been discredited and dismissed many times over the years. But the article prompted me to do some research on the population “myth”, how it got started and who is served by perpetuating it. Here’s what I found out.

During the industrial revolution, English parson and economist, Thomas Malthus developed his law of population. He deemed that the class system was a law of nature and that the poor had no one to blame but themselves for being poor. Malthus’ theory bred with Darwin’s natural selection and a new “law” was born that branded third world inhabitants as savages, barely fit to survive, and neatly justified the plundering of their “jungles” by the fittest. Malthus essentially opposed any effort to alleviate poverty because the natural limits (war, famine, disease, tsunamis, etc) that controlled population might be lifted. In other words, let the unfit be killed off by these so-called natural means so that we have no blood on our hands.

Statistics show that when traditional cultures are systematically broken down – “ values, beliefs, cultural patterns and sense of identity crushed – “ population growth rises. And not just in the developing world. It is also happening in inner city ghettos and on aboriginal reserves, where socio-economic conditions mirror the third world. There are often inherently racist tones used when the zero populationists speak; an inference that these minorities have no self-control, breed like animals. But, we should remember that during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the burgeoning population of slum dwellers were in fact all white.

In countries with higher education and incomes, the population rate falls. With higher education, women’s rights also improve and contraception becomes more available. In North America and Europe, birth rates have fallen below the national replacement levels. There is an inverse relationship between income and fertility rates. So it is in fact poverty that leads to population growth.

Malthusianism morphed over the years, but the same basic premise was in tact: that people were multiplying like locusts, devouring the world’s resources and if we didn’t limit their numbers, we would starve too. Of course it is the job of doomsdayers to make dire predictions.

In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich, a prominent biologist and doomsdayer from Stanford University wrote a book called The Population Bomb. He predicted that we would need artificial islands in the ocean to accommodate the increasing densities, that oil would be gone by the end of the century (the 20th), and that nations would be at war over remaining food supplies. He borrowed several military terms and tactics like “triage” and “basket cases” to make his case for limiting growth. These military medical assessment tools became fashionable in some circles for determining if a country in famine could recover or not and whether they’d be useful to “us” politically, economically or militarily. (Are they with us or agin us? Isn’t this all sounding vaguely familiar?) If so, they would be given food aid, the so-called hopeless cases would be allowed to starve. A kind of “lifeboat” ethics emerged, with the first world as the lifeboat obviously (or as some said, a luxury liner) with the power to rescue the drowning or not.

We should not forget the role exploitation has played in this drama. Britain was kicking peasants off the land in the 18th and 19th centuries so that the ruling elite or their “friends” could produce cash crops for export even while their fellow countrymen starved. Centuries of plundering have reduced Asia, Africa and South America to “basket cases”. And just like Ireland during the potatoe famine, the nations of the “third world” today – “ those most affected by famine – “ export to the first world.

In Food First, Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (Ballantine, 1981), Francis Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins wrote that no country could be considered a basket case, that in fact every country had the capacity to feed itself. We have achieved our lifeboat status because of their material resources and cheap labour. The prosperity that helped rich nations “develop” has been at the expense of development in poor nations. And the food supplies we have stored in our lifeboat have been grown on the backs and lands of the countries screaming for rescue in the sea.

Lappé exposed another myth in her earlier book, Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine, 1971). The “production myth” asserts that we need to produce more food in order to feed the hungry – “ more high stakes propaganda tossed around freely by the invested$$$. As Lappé said amid the recent food crisis, “There is still enough food in the world to make every single person chubby.” Even during famines, the people with money can find plenty of food. We have a distribution problem and a very undemocratic system of control over the food supply – “ not a production problem. It was true when her book, was published nearly 40 years ago, it is sadly still true today.

Both myths ignore the fact that poor people and poor countries (because of various trade rules and foreign ownership) often have no access to land, food, clean water, livelihoods, education, sanitation, health care, infrastructure. No one disputes that a growing population is problematic, but it is a symptom, not a cause in the poverty and hunger issue. When the population myth and the production myth wed, you have the ultimate power couple in the free market system.

Many would say it is capitalist economics with its inherent excesses, overproduction and consumption that is the cause of overpopulation. As a vegetarian, I would not risk blaming capitalism. For as Denny Crane, that epitome of excess and conservatism, said on a recent episode of Boston Legal, “All vegetarians are communists.”

I believe there is something deeper behind this unjust and authoritarian model: greed. Another well-known Hollywood character actually glorified it. Who could forget the famous “Greed is Good” speech Michael Douglas gave as corporate raider Gordon Gekko in the 1980’s movie Wall Street? The speech hits home even harder in light of the current global economic crisis and its cast of culprits.

It’s important to ask who is served by blaming the victims; following the money will usually ferret out the answers. But there is another question that haunts me above all others as I ponder these myths. A question posed by Murray Bookchin, author, social philosopher and probable vegetarian, “Would the grow-or-die economy really cease to plunder the planet even if the world’s population were reduced to a tenth of its present numbers?”

Excerpted from soon to be published,  Something’s Rotten in Compost City, by Spring Gillard.

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