Will Food Shortages Be The Trigger For A World Wide Population Armageddon??

By Donald A. Collins | 5 March 2014
Church and State

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Recently, I had the profoundly impressive experience of watching Hans Rosling’s optimistic view of our world’s population crisis. He postulates that while our planet will have a human population of 11 billion by the end of this century, the number of children will hold steady at their present numbers of about 2 billion and hence, voila!!, population will decline and we will start back around 2100 to manageable numbers in decades.

It’s great TV and if you are feeling concerned and need a happy boost, watch it!

In thinking about it, I had deep reservations about his optimism. While watching his presentation, I took notes. Then I interspersed my comments in my notes, particularly at the end of those notes which start here:

Professor Rosling starts by saying there is gloomy things happening, but that things may not be as bad as we thought.

He recites the history of population growth—at first in 1800 was only one billion—very slow at first, because of the high death rates of new borns and all people.

Then in his life time (mine too)—5 billion added.

Bangladesh tripled to 150 million, very fast growth. New Bangladesh pattern emerging he says and talks about how most families now have only 2 kids. Uses a family as his thematic example.

Says Bangladesh government now heavy into family planning and it is having a great effect on behavior (how true?)

Number of babies born there has changed dramatically—from 7 to 2. At the time of its 1972 independence women were having 7 kids and a life span averaging 50, now 2.2 babies and life spans up to 70. A miracle.

Now to the world. 1963—Rosling shows how population growth has changed and the total birth rate or TBR—the number of children born to a woman in her life time, now shows a huge drop in TBR to 2.5 worldwide!!!! Down from 5 per in 1963.

Fascinating also to look at Asia. Africa not so good. But the main point all are down in numbers all over the world.

In Addis Ababa women are now down to 3!!”

Having been there on a fact finding mission with Pathfinder International several years ago, I learned that the population had exploded by tens of millions in the past 30 years, making Ethiopia the 2nd or 3rd largest country in Africa, after Nigeria.

Continuing my comments on Rosling’s TV:

The drop in Ethiopia is unprecedented in human history, Rosling cackles.

Education in Bangladesh is encouraged; the government there gets it. (Wish USA’s leaders did!!) More education, more jobs for these young women there. Very rosy point of view in my view.

Early deaths no longer a fact. Bangladesh has made huge progress in health, etc. No reason now to have surplus kids to help old people in their last years.

Now he talks about the high death rates in the past, but now of course, as aided by chemical fertilizer and miracle rice, there is now more food, prompting him to say that in 1953 one in 5 died, but not true anymore.

The future: UN projection—goes to 11 billion by end of the century and then it will decline. Uncertainty as in any projection, but likely.

Why, number of kids only 2 billion kids in 2100. So the decline is inevitable.

Now, one billion in US, Europe, Latin America, 2 in Africa, 4 in Asia.

By 2100 Africa 80 percent in Asia and Africa, the others the same.

30 years ago Rosling was a young MD who worked in Mozambique; now he shows on TV the major changes from then with only 2 foreign doctors including himself. Now where he was working there is a new hospital with 15 physicians. Still a very poor country but improving.

Hopes that we can live together in peace because they will have a booming economy with “lots of new jobs”. Most people now in cities. But things in rural areas are getting better. Still high birth rates there; and he admits life remains hard.

Again optimistic that these folks will see their lives improving with economic improvement—carefully saving money for improving their lives, as shown by his tv story of a model family. Says that a key to better life—bikes!!! Faster to market, to clinics to generating income and better health. Shows after selling crop, farmer takes the money to buy bike so he can ride home.

He tells about the income disparity of the planet’s 7 billion people with the rich on average earning $100 a day, then middle range at $10, to the poor at $1. Hard for the rich to see enormously important difference the earning makes for the middle and poorest.

He claims these middle and poor incomes may be small but such improved income is making a huge difference to those people. Seems a big stretch to me!

Education he sees as key—do we live in an literate world? What is answer? 80% comes as a surprise to me and his audience.

Income distribution—50 yrs ago extreme—still 1 billion in poverty.

He believes Africa can work out of this. Rosling seems very growth oriented; grow more in rural fields in Africa. This is already happening in Ethiopia where machinery is being brought in to land leased by other nations such as Saudi Arabia so food can be exported to the leasors!!

Extreme poverty reproduces itself—this is his great line. Most illiteracy and kids in such place.

My comment is that more machines and use of energy will make jobs less and less available and the fact that old people are living longer and with more vigor will clog the upper reaches of the employment ladder even more than today.

Climate change a problem—carbon dioxide measured—oil, gas, and coal.

Not a good situation, and now ½ of total energy use is by the rich.

He makes the highly valid point that rich nations claim poor people affect the world’s future but poor nations do not make nearly the environmental impact the rich nations do.

Not clear to me that rich nations will stop using fossil fuel fast enough to prevent profound change in the Earth’s climate. It has been noted that for everyone to live the Western life style would require 6 planets the size of Mother Earth!

Not clear to me as I took these notes that the violence of the angry poor, religiously impacted by violent jihad behavior will be contained.

To me the main problem is NOW, the current century. If we can, without destroying the planet by 2100, the decline in population and the evolution of better ways to create energy will give us a chance.

The West will have to deal with the rise of a new dominance of the African and Asian populations. We now have the most dangerous weapons and seem bent on a policy of aggression which will inevitably been contested by these other tribal groups.

Thus the potential for the apocalypse which I have written about still exists.

Rosling is a wonderful optimist, a very insightful thinker and communicator. The show is highly useful, but also presents in the minds of the supportive Western mostly white, well fed looking audience to whom he was speaking in his presentation a case for doing nothing. For example, how can we do something about energy when the oil giants etc control our policies? Or provide food for the many who are starving when the population is only 7 plus billion?

Maybe a few more Winters and climactic cataclysms will make the case for urgency. We can hope so, but meantime the need for more family planning, less religious extremism, more energy innovation remains urgent. Implies that governments will be more democratic, less inclined to violence and more willing to avert war as alternatives to negotiation.

Bottom line for me is that I hope Rosling is right, but the jury is still out.

In fact, we, despite Rosling’s optimism, keep getting more dismal news daily, which gets increasingly impossible to ignore as it involves violence and turmoil which could lead to dreadful consequences, even to some rogue group getting access to atomic weapons. Crimea seems by comparison not much of a crisis at all, but an obvious power play over what Russian Federation President Putin sees as a strategic necessity.

On February 24, 2014 Joe Bish of Population Media Center posted two articles which underline my point about the extreme difficulty of surviving without apocalypse as we move through this unprecedented people proliferating century.

Food, these articles tell us, could be the catalyst which these authors see as the trigger for enormous upheaval, now beginning worldwide. The graphs provided are particularly illustrative of their concerns.

As Joe Bish tells us:

Motherboard is a journalistic website, offering in-depth blogging, long-form reporting, and videos that investigate news and current-events already “affecting the years to come” for humanity. Accordingly, Motherboard has been providing a good service of late in following the work of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and their theories around the links between food-prices and social unrest. In the article below, Motherboard gives an update of what is happening presently and during the past 18 months on this topic, including several quotes from Yaneer Bar-Yam, founding president of the NECSI. As for recent social unrest around the world, Bar-Yam says, “The food prices are surely a major contributor—our analysis says that 210 on the FAO index is the boiling point and we have been hovering there for the past 18 months.”

I should point out that the FAO index has dropped somewhat recently. But, at the same time, last Friday U.S. federal officials also announced that many of California’s central valley farmers can expect to receive no irrigation water this year. Of course, the Central Valley is usually one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions.

The Math That Predicted The Revolutions Sweeping The Globe Right Now
By Brian Merchant | 19 February 2014

It’s happening in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Bosnia, Syria, and beyond. Revolutions, unrest, and riots are sweeping the globe. The near-simultaneous eruption of violent protest can seem random and chaotic; inevitable symptoms of an unstable world. But there’s at least one common thread between the disparate nations, cultures, and people in conflict, one element that has demonstrably proven to make these uprisings more likely: high global food prices.

Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index—a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time—and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.

Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient—2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that’s when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sown.

“I have a long list of the countries that have had major social unrest in the past 18 months consistent with our projections,” Bar-Yam tells me. “The food prices are surely a major contributor—our analysis says that 210 on the FAO index is the boiling point and we have been hovering there for the past 18 months.”

There are certainly many other factors fueling mass protests, but hunger—or the desperation caused by its looming specter—is often the tipping point. Sometimes, it’s clearly implicated: In Venezuela—where students have taken to the streets and protests have left citizens dead—food prices are at a staggering 18-year high.

“In some of the cases the link is more explicit, in others, given that we are at the boiling point, anything will trigger unrest. At the boiling point, the impact depends on local conditions,” Bar-Yam says. But a high price of food worldwide can effect countries that aren’t feeling the pinch as much. “In addition, there is a contagion effect: given widespread social unrest that is promoted by high food prices, examples from one country drive unrest in others.”

Here’s the list of the countries Bar-Yam has cited as suffering from unrest related to the rise in the cost of eating:

  • South Africa
  • Haiti
  • Argentina
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Brazil
  • Turkey
  • Colombia
  • Libya
  • Sweden (yes, Sweden)
  • India
  • China
  • Bulgaria
  • Chile
  • Syria
  • Thailand
  • Bangladesh
  • Bahrain
  • Ukraine
  • Venezuela
  • Bosnia

In Thailand, where clashes between mass demonstrators and authorities in Bangkok have claimed multiple lives, food prices have been steadily rising. In 2012, a trend towards rising food prices prompted the UN to issue a warning: the poor will be hit hard, and unrest may follow. The nation’s rampant inflation caused prices to continue to rise further still in 2013. Today, there are fatal riots.

In Bosnia, which erupted into violent conflict last week, high unemployment and hunger are prime drivers of a discontent that’s been simmering for months. On February 9, Chiara Milan wrote “Today, after more than one year of protests and hunger, eventually the world got to know about [the protesters’] grievances.”

Food shortages caused by drought helped spur Syria’s civil war. High food prices helped precipitate the fare hike protests in Brazil. The list goes on.

The food riots in places like wealthy, socialist Sweden and the booming economies of Brazil and Chile highlight the fact that the cost of eating can fuel unrest anywhere; even in nations with robust democracies and high standards of living. With the inequality worsening across the globe, this is worth paying special attention to—lest we forget there are millions of Americans going hungry every year too.

So. The cost of food is high; discontent is raging. Thankfully, Bar-Yam’s model sees at least temporary relief on the horizon.

“As to the trend for the next few months: Grain prices have gone down, starting with corn last summer,” he says. “This has yet to propagate through the food system to lower prices, but they should drop soon. This may help reduce the unrest that is happening.”

However, he emphasizes the structural threats to the global food system haven’t been addressed. Bar-Yam has written at length about what he believes to be the root cause of food price swings: financial speculation and food-for-fuel policies like ethanol subsidies. Both, he argues, artificially drive up prices on the global market and, in turn, cause hunger and unrest.

Whether or not the prices will drop, he says, hinges largely on US and European policy decisions.

“Everything now is very sensitive to what will happen with the ethanol mandate,” Bar-Yam tells me. “The EPA has proposed not following the mandated increase this year, keeping it about the same as last year. There is a Senate bill to repeal the mandate sponsored by Feinstein and Coburn. The European Union has stated that it will implement a regulation of commodity markets (because of the impact on poor populations), and the CFTC is still fighting the market traders in trying to regulate the US markets.”

The way the global food system works right now, with wheat, corn, and rice traded globally as commodities, domestic food production doesn’t necessarily guarantee a population will get enough to eat. Ukraine, for instance, produced record amounts of wheat last year—but exported most of its gains. This web of imports and exports creates a global marketplace that is vulnerable to price shocks. That’s why Bar-Yam believes that speculators and bad ethanol policy are essentially feeding global unrest.

“The main thing is that matters are very much in flux,” he says. “We may still have higher food prices if the policies are not implemented but if they are, we may have a significant reduction in prices and lower unrest globally.”

If not, in other words, the riots will burn on.

It does not require any imagination to see how fragile world conditions are right now.

This is why the restraint and wisdom and division of power in the countries where participatory democracies have taken long root as in the US, the UK and Europe can play such a pivotal role.

It is clear that the switch from authoritarian regimes to phenomena such as the Arab Spring can’t produce such working democracies with broad based human freedoms quickly.

The solid restrained governance such democracies can produce will require these democracies to show much more vision and global leadership than they have done to date. In fact the survival of the world will depend on a level of human behavior by these leaders that again will be unique in human history.

Admittedly many of the world’s wealthy democratic nations and their citizens have shown great generosity. Names such as Gates and Buffett immediately come to mind. But in scale of wealth and understanding required for the world to realize Rosling’s optimistic scenario many more will have to join them and all will have to do much more.

Thus, one crazy leader with a nervous trigger finger could set off this powder keg of explosive circumstances.

While, here at home, our endless daily talk shows keep up the “breaking news” drumbeat on specific events which allow them to bring in “experts” to tell us the learned nuances about attitudes and likelihoods, when do we get to hear the big picture about the broader conditions brewing as described above? I fervently hope it will not be until the first atom bomb gets detonated by some crazy nation.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
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  1. Don Collins brings the sobering reality of overpopulation to the front page. Perhaps Hans Rosling may be a bit too optimistic because humanity remains on course to add 3.1 billion by 2050 which is a scant 36 years from now. While contraceptives give options, most ancient religions refuse them such as catholics and Muslims and Hindus. We need our world leaders to address what we face and what we must do: 1 child per woman worldwide immediately. Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler


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