Recognize the tragedy of demographic entrapment

Last month’s column was about the “tragedy of the commons” – when people use more than their share of a common resource, leading to the resource’s destruction. An example is overgrazed fields, where unpalatable weeds replace nourishing plants. Overgrazing is a disaster for shortsighted ranchers, because depleted fields can support very few animals.

Can a similar calamity happen to humans?

Yes, that is exactly what devastated Somalia recently. That country in the Horn of Africa is generally arid, and rainfall has been made scarcer by climate change. Human actions make the situation even worse, because cutting firewood leads to deforestation that reduces rainfall.

During the region’s frequent droughts, food production drops below what is necessary for human survival. Tens of thousands died in Somalia during 2011 from starvation.

Unstable politics in Somalia make the situation much worse. Gangs victimize the poor, robbing them of what little food they have. The Somali government is too weak to enforce any sort of rule of law.

Can we help by sending food? That sounds like the compassionate thing to do, but there is a hitch. Food aid arrives at distribution centers in cities so hungry people must leave their land to collect food. Their fields are abandoned and crops die. With no reason to return to their fields, these destitute people are forced into a cash economy. When the short-term food aid ceases these now landless peasants are caught with no money, no skills to make money, and (once again) no food.

This sad situation is made worse by the rapid growth rate of Somalia. Its total fertility rate is 6.4 – the average woman will bear more than six children. Only one country in the world has a higher rate! In a wet year, the harvest is good enough to feed all mouths but not when the monsoon rains don’t come.

But, you might say, what about countries that far exceed their human population carrying capacity? For example the island of Singapore has the world’s highest population density and little land to grow food. Singapore imports its food, paying with money from manufacture and trade.

There are historical examples of human populations that outgrew the land’s ability to support them. I am part Irish, and suspect that my ancestors came to the United States to escape the Great Potato Famine in the mid 19th century. Ireland had become dependent on a single crop – potatoes – for most of its sustenance. This New World tuber allowed the population of Ireland to expand significantly – until a crop failure (from potato blight) caused an estimated million people to starve to death. Another, luckier million were able to emigrate from Ireland – many to the U.S.

“Demographic entrapment” is the term applied to human overuse of their land’s carrying capacity. Dr. Maurice King, a British physician who has spent many years working in Africa, has tried to warn people about this tragedy.

Demographic entrapment occurs when a country has a population larger than its carrying capacity, when the country exports too little to be able to import food and when emigration is impossible. Dr. King suspects that much of sub-Saharan Africa will become entrapped soon.

An example of entrapment occurred in Rwanda in 1994. The genocide is generally blamed on tribal conflict, but starvation may have been the real reason. James Gasana, a former Minister in the Rwandan government, has excellent support for this theory. He found that, before genocide, ethnic strife was most likely to happen in areas where people were famished. Violence only occurred where people consumed less than 1,500 calories each day. For comparison, the average person in the United States eats more than 2,500 calories daily.

Collapse, Jared Diamond’s book, gives other examples of societies that outgrew their resources – the Romans, Mayas and Ancestral Puebloans. An intriguing video of Collapse can be found on YouTube in seven parts.

What is the best way to prevent demographic entrapment? There are very few under-populated countries, so massive emigration is unlikely. The poor countries of Africa are unable to compete on the world market, so exports cannot save them. The best way to head off violence similar to Rwanda’s is with small families.

Dr. King has not made friends by publicizing the concept of demographic entrapment. It is so frightening that many people are not willing to contemplate it. To ignore demographic entrapment, however, will not solve the problem. Sticking our heads in the sand could have tragic consequences, sentencing millions of people to death by starvation or by violence.

Richard Grossman practices obstetrics and gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © 2012 Richard Grossman M.D.