Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project

Feeding the Population Monster
c. Ronald Bleier; March 1997

(about 3,800 words)

by Ronald Bleier

A review essay based on a new book by Michael Tobias entitled:
World War III: Population and the Biosphere At the End of the Millennium,
Bear and Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1994, 609 pp., $29.95

The World War III of Tobias' title refers in the first place to the war that humans have been waging against the environment. Secondly, Tobias is thinking of the war that humanity must undertake if we are to rescue the earth from irremediable ecological damage. Writing in the tradition of Malthus and Ehrlich, Tobias provides massive documentation to support his thesis that overpopulation is the driving force behind a global crisis that is devastating our environment. In his chapter on "Demographic Madness" Tobias concludes:

"... the current size of the human population has wreaked unprecedented damage on the biosphere, and is going to accelerate that damage. Millions of plant and animal species have been driven to extinction. ... A billion people are hungry, morning, noon and night. The ozone layer is thinning, with consequences that are lethal for every living organism. The air, water, and soil across the planet have been fouled. The forests in many countries are gone or nearly gone. And the mammary glands of every mother on Earth are now infiltrated with DDT and other harmful chemicals. These essential facts -- truths that distinguish this century from any other in our history -- are all the byproduct of uncontrolled human fertility and thoughtless behavior. Even if we should manage to merely double our population size by the next century [to reach] 11 billion [1] the ecological damage will be catastrophic, unimaginable (p. 426)"

In crucial chapters, Tobias examines the environmental situation in China, India, Indonesia, Africa and the U.S. (mostly California), documenting the pressure humans place on the environment and calling into question some of the current notions about how best to deal with our current environmental crisis.

For example, many believe that we can grow our way out of our problems; that is to say, if we implement policies that will raise the standard of living of the poor, natural incentives will reduce human fertility and the world's population will achieve a self-correcting balance. But Tobias points out that prosperity in many countries such as China, Turkey, Cuba or Algeria, instead of lowering, has "actually increased the total fertility rate." (p. 447) And in countries where the fertility rate has decreased, the population is still growing, albeit at a lower rate. The only countries in the world where the population is actually decreasing are Russia, Bulgaria and Germany.

In addition, Tobias argues that by raising standards of living "one may well be setting the preconditions for greater exploitation of the environment." Tobias points to the ongoing deforestation of India which may have as little as 9% or less of its forests left. Nevertheless it is a country where the government is forced to allow 400 million of its more than 900 million people daily use of the forests amounting to about 190 million tons of fuelwood every year. Tobias quotes Kamal Nath, the Minister of Environment and Forests on what would happen if the Indian people were brought up to a Western standard of living. "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West....If an entire nation...took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts!"

Writing in The New York Times Magazine (July 23, 1995), environmental author Bill McKibben agrees that reducing fossil fuel use -- a pre-condition for removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere -- is impossible while "we are simultaneously doubling and tripling our economies...So the sweet dream that we'll all grow rich enough to turn green is simply that -- a dream, and one that will turn into a nightmare if we try to follow it."

Sandy Irvine, a British environmental writer, similarly contends that two hectares (about 5 acres) per person are required to feed the typical diet in a rich country. In order to feed the 6 billion people who are expected to be here by 1997, 12 billion hectares which is roughly eight times the available cropland, would be required.

Environmental writer Paul Ehrlich, well-known for his books on the population explosion, has argued that even if we could generate a massive switch to a vegetarian diet (which Michael Tobias and others advocate), such a change would only be a short-term fix if nothing was done to control population growth because the amount we would save would soon be overwhelmed by new mouths to feed, and house, and employ. Irvine adds that we should not to be fooled by apparent food surpluses since such surpluses are only temporary and because we are eroding our resource base by paving over agricultural land for other human uses. Irvine points out that in the U.S. alone, more than half-a-million hectares of mostly good farmland, is paved over every year.

Returning to Tobias's book, we find that he highlights the difficulty Americans would face if all the people in the developing world wielded the economic power of the West. Tobias says Nath asserts that if Indians could afford oil or if the forests were rendered off-limits to Indians (a political impossibility says Tobias), -- then the price of a barrel of oil would jump to a hundred dollars worldwide. Thus it is in the interest of the North to help the South conserve its resources. According to the "principle of shared responsibility" the developed countries would make substantial contributions to developing areas.

But Tobias notes that "the language of `obligations' is an unwelcome one to Western ears." The operative principle is not responsibility but power. In his chapter "A Global Truce," he says the "real development aid may not be traveling from North to South, but the other way around." Tobias cites economist Manfred Max-Neef's claim that developing countries have been subsidizing the industrialized countries to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars of year.

Max-Neef estimates that $400 billion net goes from Latin America to the industrialized nations; and Tobias quotes a UNDP estimate of total "aid" from the South to the North of $500 billion a year; while combined aid to Third World countries from the North is about $50 billion.

These figures point to a fundamental principle relating power to economics: the rich live on wealth created largely by the poor. Marx built on this principle when he postulated that capitalists appropriate the "surplus value" created by workers. Such "appropriation" did not begin with capitalism; rather, it goes back to the organization of humans into groups and indeed resembles animal hierarchies as well. Whenever resources are finite or perceived as scarce, the social group creates hierarchies in order to distribute the available wealth and resources.

The crudest, clearest class division based on rank and privilege that humans have established is that of slavery. The caste system, alive in India today also clearly demarcates access to wealth by rank. Every civilization has its own unique ways of delineating and maintaining rank and privilege. Tensions arise when one class is dissatisfied with its access to wealth or when a higher class becom es fearful of a challenge from a lower class. Depending on local circumstances, these tensions may lead to hostility and open violence.

How does environmental degradation and resource scarcity contribute to human conflict? Tobias in World War III limits himself to an analysis of the harm humans are doing to the environment. For an analysis of the interplay between resource scarcity and human conflict we must turn to Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, a Toronto based academic who has written extensively on the subject. Here is how he described the situation in his 1994 article, "Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases."

"Within the next fifty years, the planet's human population will probably pass nine billion, and global economic output may quintuple. Largely as a result, scarcities of renewable resources will increase sharply. The total area of high-quality agricultural land will drop, as will the extent of forests and the number of species they sustain. Coming generations will also see the widespread depletion and degradation of aquifers, rivers, and other water resources; the decline of many fisheries; and perhaps significant climate change.

"If such "environmental scarcities" become severe, could they precipitate violent civil or international conflict? ... In brief, our research showed that environmental scarcities are already contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world. These conflicts are probably the early signs of an upsurge of violence in the coming decades that will be induced or aggravated by scarcity. The violence will usually be sub-national, persistent, and diffuse. Poor societies will be particularly affected since they are less able to buffer themselves from environmental scarcities and the social crises they cause. These societies are, in fact, already suffering acute hardship from shortages of water, forests, and especially fertile land.

"Social conflict is not always a bad thing: mass mobilization and civil strife can produce opportunities for beneficial change in the distribution of land and wealth and in processes of governance. But fast-moving, unpredictable, and complex environmental problems can overwhelm efforts at constructive social reform. Moreover, scarcity can sharply increase demands on key institutions, such as the state, while it simultaneously reduces their capacity to meet those demands. These pressures increase the chance that the state will either fragment or become more authoritarian. The negative effects of severe environmental scarcity are therefore likely to outweigh the positive." [2]

While Homer-Dixon is a leader in the study of the political effects of environmental change, even he views overpopulation as but one of the contributing factors leading to scarcity and conflict. Others however, including Michael Tobias and this writer, believe that human overpopulation must be at the root of environmental, social, and political ills. At the most basic level, if there were fewer people there would be less human-caused environmental degradation and scarcity.

Viewing social and political conflict through the overpopulation lens helps to explain such intractable issues as rising nationalism, and ethnically based conflict; continuously exorbitant rates of military spending, the recrudescence of racism; growing environmental despoliation; the increasing power of corporate monopolies; and the growing gap between rich and poor. Moreover, an analysis based on the continuation of current trends in population growth predicts an inevitable increase in worldwide turmoil, social disintegration, anarchy and conflict. As we add about 800 million people every decade, it's becoming clearer that our environmental problems and political problems are becoming more and more intractable and insoluble.


Homer-Dixon has pointed to the persistence of sub-national conflicts all over the world. By one count between 1990 and 1994 there were at least 50 states at war. In 1994 more than 30 wars were ongoing with about an equal number in 1995 and no prospect of an end. Refugee numbers -- an excellent indicator of our local and our international political health -- are the highest they have ever been.

According to Hal Kane ("What's Driving Migration," Worldwatch, Jan/Feb 1995), the world's official refugee population has grown from 15 million people at the beginning of the decade to 23 million people. In the mid-1970s there were only about 2.5 million refugees, about the same number as in the 1950s and 1960s.

Kane says that in addition to the world's official refugee population there are an estimated 27 million "internally displaced migrants" plus probably another 10 million "illegal" immigrants. And in the largest category, Kane estimates that there are around 100 million "economic migrants: people leaving their homes because their local economies have broken down.

Clearly staggering, the numbers begin to outline the nature of our current and ever-growing crisis. But perhaps because the problem of environmental scarcity linked to security issues is so huge and so fundamental, and a solution would require such a revolution in our patterns of living and thinking, people turn away from the underlying issues and react only to worsening surface symptoms such as local unemployment and crime. However counterintuitive, the rule seems to be: the bigger the problem, the harder it is to address. But the public is not alone in its inability to confront a challenging reality. Even Lester Brown, the director of Worldwatch, an organization at the forefront of highlighting trends in resource and security issues, tends to frame the discussion in terms of what ought to be done rather than what actually happens in the real world. In recent books and articles Brown has been pointing to the looming world food shortage due to decreasing per capita production.[3] In "Facing Food Scarcity" he writes:

"As the difficulty in feeding 90 million more people each year becomes apparent, FOOD SECURITY MAY REPLACE MILITARY SECURITY as the principal preoccupation of governments. For many countries, security now depends more on protecting their territory from soil erosion than it does on protecting it from military invasion." (emphasis mine)

Certainly Brown is correct in thinking that responsible government policy would place a high priority on ensuring adequate food supplies. But instead of attending to the pressing problem of food scarcity by controlling population and guarding precious arable land, political leaders typically turn their attention to less intractable higher profile national security issues and military adventures.

As it happens, the world's most populous countries, China and India provide unfortunate examples of turning to military adventures instead of confronting their social and environmental problems. In the case of China, the political leadership is facing pressure from the military to discipline Taiwan and force it to reunite with the mainland -- a policy which could bring it into conflict with the U.S. and with its regional neighbors like Japan and Vietnam, with unforeseeable ramifications. In the case of India, in December 1995 the U.S. revealed satellite evidence indicating that India was preparing to test a nuclear weapon. There is open speculation in India that the impetus to prepare for such testing may be coming from a challenge to the ruling Congress party from the right-wing Hindu nationalists.


Many people who deplore our current path of environmental destruction and increasing militarization are nevertheless committed to the paradigm of continued growth, sometimes disguised in green terminology as "sustainable development". One way they avoid confronting the problem of continued growth in a world of limits is to look to technology as a savior. Technology indeed has enabled us to squeeze in nearly a tripling of the world's population since the 1930s. For example, our ability to develop fossil fuels for our energy needs has been so successful that we may have about a hundred years' supply at current and projected rates of use.

But the environmental costs of using fossil fuels are already too great to go unnoticed. By the end of 1995 a scientific consensus had emerged that human-generated global warming had begun and must be growing progressively worse. We have long understood that acid rain has had terrible effects on forests all over the world. And there is evidence that the growing ozone hole is having a destructive effect on some of the world's forests and possibly on the food chain.

Many in the environmental movement advocate switching to a mix of solar, hydro and wind power to replace reliance on fossil fuels. But "clean" energy (and hydropower has proven to be immensely destructive of human, animal and plant habitat) cannot provide for more than a fraction of our ever-growing needs. Nor has nuclear power proven to be a practical alternative. Even with huge government subsidies, the nuclear industry cannot overcome its financial and safety limitations, not to mention the intractable problem of radioactive waste disposal.


Not fossil fuel but rather the growing world food shortage is shaping up as a much more immediate limiting factor to continued human population and economic growth. By the end of 1995, world wide grain prices had already climbed by 50% as world grain reserves had plunged to a low of 49 days -- the lowest since 1973 when reserves were down to 55 days. Nor can we look to the sea for help since the world's major fisheries are all depleted and the per capita catch is declining as population continues to grow. Moreover, we are confronting a world fresh water shortage as population pressures force countries to divert water to domestic use and away from agriculture. Such water diversion has an immediate impact on food supplies as countries which used to grow virtually all their own food now must rely on imports as irrigated acreage declines.

The seriousness of the world food and water situation should help to dispel the notion that the problem is one of distribution rather than lack of supplies or that the problem would be remedied if everyone could escape poverty. In 1995, the World Ecology Report estimated that 79% of the world's population, 4.47 billion people, lived in less developed regions. As grain stocks plummet and we reach the limit of our fish catch, it's becoming clearer that our world food distribution system follows the logic of the market: food goes to those who can afford it. The underlying reason that wealthy countries are becoming more and more stingy with their food aid is because at current consumption levels there is no longer enough to go around.

The dire example of North Korea is perhaps indicative of the way political decisions about food distribution are made in today's world. The disastrous floods in North Korea in August '95 led to tremendous suffering and the threat of mass starvation as the international community was slow to come to the rescue. By mid-December 1995, no more than a tiny fraction of the estimated $8.8 million necessary to purchase sufficient foodstuffs had been raised. In February '96, the Japanese government announced that its decision to decline assistance to North Korea was because it wasn't convinced people were actually starving. In an emergency appeal in April 1996, the North Koreans begged the U.N. for relief aid, stating that they had an urgent need for 1.2 million tons of grain by October 96. The U.S. responded that it would not make additional contributions over and above the $2 million in emergency food aid it had already donated.

Why were potential donor states slow to help? It's possible that they had in mind that world grain prices in 1995 had already risen by about 40% to their highest levels in 15 years (in part due to Chinese purchases), and potential donors preferred not to push prices even higher. North Korea's political isolation may have served as a convenient excuse to remain on the sidelines. Other countries experiencing a food crisis in 1996 are Ethiopia and Afghanistan.


The allure of space travel seems to have an extraordinary hold on the imaginations of many. Yet even Carl Sagan, one of the most passionate proponents of space exploration, has opined that it will take several hundred years to develop the technology necessary for interstellar expeditions. We have seen how India's environmental minister Nath warned of humans stripping the earth bare like locusts. Already environmental destruction due to burgeoning population is proceeding so rapidly that, if we don't change our present course, much of the earth that now supports human and other life will, in a matter of mere decades, become useless and unproductive. If we keep adding humans at our present rate, the world's population will grow to 9.2 billion by 2035. If we cannot today feed our 5.7 billion people, how will it be possible to feed more than a third more while we continue to lose our productive capacity?

If we continue in this way, in a short time, humans will have virtually no wealth left for the minimum requirements of a modern society, much less will there be the resources necessary to fund forays beyond our planet. The sad demise of the Super Conducting Super Collider Project in Texas is a sign that we can no longer afford to do the basic research necessary to learn more about our universe. Ironically, our present multi-billion dollar effort to build a space station is considered a terrible misdirection of funds by many experts because it is empty of any practical or theoretical science that is likely to further our progress into space.


Perhaps the first step in a solution is to recognize that most government policies, with their emphasis on short term goals and satisfying tiny elites, are irresponsible and exacerbate conditions of scarcity. For example: None of this takes into account the potentially disastrous effects of the deterioration of the ozone layer, global warming and acid rain or our apparently increasing vulnerability to infectious diseases and such deadly viruses such as AIDS.

Clearly we are heading very quickly in the wrong direction if we mean to preserve some of the best fruits of human culture, science and civilization along with a minimum amount of biological diversity. Does this mean that concerned people must give up the fight? Certainly not! We must continue the battle for a smaller human population, a world more in harmony with its limits. We must fight for social justice where disparities of wealth are narrowed. But I suspect that the first precondition of achieving such a world is a clear picture of where we are now and what we are doing to our earth and what is likely to happen if we don't change course.



  1. If we were to maintain our present rate of population growth, by 2095 the world's population would reach almost 13.7 billion. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the world's population reac hed 5.8 billion on November 5, 1996 and was increasing at a rate of 6,624,108 a month and 79,489,298 a year after deaths of 4,487,669 and 53,852,022 respectively were subtracted from births.
  2. Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, "Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases," International Security, Vol. 19, No. I (Summer 1994), pp. 5-40. In his perhaps more accessible article on "Environmental Change and Violent Conflict," in Scientific American for February 1993 he wrote that: "Growing scarcities of renewable resources can contribute to social instability and civil stri fe"; and that "scarcities of renewable resources are already contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world."
  3. An article in World Watch [Magazine] in October/November 1994 on "Who Will Feed China" and an expanded version in his book of the same name in 1995; and a follow-up article on "Facing Food Scarcity" in World Watch, November/December 1995.