Too many, and too hungry

Anthony Lewis

February 22, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

MEXICO CITY — BANGLADESH has a land area smaller than Wisconsin -- and a population of 114 million. Its numbers are growing so fast that by the year 2025 it will outstrip the present U.S. population of 250 million.

"What will happen to those poor people?" M.F. Perutz of Cambridge University asked last fall in a piece in the New York Review of Books. "Even if by some miracle of science enough food could be produced to feed them, how could they find the gainful employment needed to buy it?"

The case of Bangladesh is just one among many stark examples of a profound world concern. World population is growing at a staggering rate, and almost all the increase is occurring in the poorest countries.

The Earth's population was around one billion in the year 1800, two billion in 1920, three billion in 1960. Today it is five billion. By 2025 it is expected to be more than eight billion, and 95 percent of the increase will have been in the Third World.

Prof. Paul Kennedy of Yale makes this demographic outlook -- the overwhelming of already overcrowded and poverty-stricken lands -- a main focus of his new book, "Preparing for the 21st Century." He makes the point that the situation will affect not just those countries but all.

The population explosion in South Asia, Latin America and Africa leads in all those areas to overgrazing, soil erosion and clearing of tropical rain forests. But, Kennedy argues, it also tends to produce regional conflicts, global warming, flows of refugees and great pressure on developed countries to admit emigrants from the underdeveloped.

Anyone who has visited there knows that the pressure of population is taking its toll already, in nature and human psychology, in many places. In the cities of China the crowds can be claustrophobic. In the mountains of India and Nepal people desperate for fuel have denuded forests, so topsoil is being washed into rivers and out to sea.

India has about 880 million people now. It is growing so fast that experts say it will pass China as the most populous country by the year 2035, and the growth may not end until there are two billion people in India. China, with about 1.165 billion now, is expected to reach 1.5 billion.

Mexico is a telling example of population growth and its social and political consequences. It has made dramatic progress in reducing the birth rate recently. But the increase had been so great in previous years that the population is very young and will therefore continue to grow rapidly.

With about 85 million people now, Mexico is expected to have 150 million in 2025. In Mr. Kennedy's vision, that means a terrible strain on schools, health care, the environment. It means the crowding of more and more people into "mega-cities."

Already 20 million Mexicans live in Mexico City, many under appalling conditions. Half the country's people live without sewers and a quarter without safe water. Can anyone be surprised that, despite the country's improving economic record, many Mexicans are desperate to get into the United States?

Rational self-interest, not just humane concern, should make the rich countries do all they can to prevent overpopulation and the suffering and strife it brings.

But rationality has not been the mainspring of American population policy lately. Presidents Reagan and Bush shaped their policy to please the anti-abortion movement and the Christian right.

The Reagan administration sabotaged the world population conference in Mexico City in 1984 by taking the position that rapid growth was a "neutral" phenomenon. That was, ironically, the classic Marxist view of population growth.

Since then the U.S. has drastically reduced aid to population-control efforts abroad, at a time when underdeveloped countries were recognizing the need for restraint. Michael S. Teitelbaum, writing about the policy in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, calls it "self-inflicted blindness."

Here is one problem that President Clinton can address quickly, without great legislative complications. He has ended the Reagan-Bush distortions of domestic policy on birth-related matters.

The need for change in foreign policy is even more urgent: the need to face a reality more menacing in the long run than just about any on earth.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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