Numbers — 4

No one reading this is likely to be suffering from malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of health care, lack of drinking water, and any of the marvels of modern technology such as digital gizmos and jet travel. That is so because we are sitting on top of a very large pyramid at the bottom of which are the toiling thousands of millions. The top of the pyramid is mostly populated by the white people of affluent western advanced industrialized countries but they are not alone. The economic elite in poor underdeveloped countries around the world also rest content on the top of the pyramid.

We – you and I – belong to that elite 20 percent of the world’s population, whether you are in Mumbai or Manhattan.

The gap between us and them at the bottom is wide and becoming wider still. A number of questions need to asked and then answered. How wide is the gap? Is that gap good or bad? Can the gap be eliminated? Should it be eliminated? Will it be eliminated? Whose job is it to eliminate the gap? Which side of the gap does the fault lie? Should the gap be filled by leveling things downwards or should things be leveled upwards? Is it possible to level it upwards?

Before we get to the normative questions, we should have knowledge of what is. We have all come across the usual list of standard laments such as the following from a Cornell University report:

  • One reason for the increase in malnutrition is that production of grains per capita has been declining since 1983. Grains provide 80 percent to 90 percent of the world’s food. Each additional human further reduces available food per capita.
  • The reasons for this per capita decrease in food production are a 20 percent decline in cropland per capita, a 15 percent decrease in water for irrigation and a 23 percent drop in the use of fertilizers.
  • Biotechnology and other technologies apparently have not been implemented fast enough to prevent declines in per capita food production during the past 17 years.
  • Considering the resources likely to be available in A.D. 2100, the optimal world population would be about 2 billion, with a standard of living about half that of the United States in the 1990s, or at the standard experienced by the average European.

I don’t trust projections that talk about the standard of living of people a hundred years hence. Could anyone living in the year 1900 have imagined any of the things lying around your desktop today? They could not have imagined any of the things we take for granted. They could not have imagined that 2 billion people – that is more people than entire population of the earth in 1900 – would be living lives of such unimaginable luxury that their greatest troubles would be due to the excesses of affluence. We too are clearly quite not up to the task of imagining a world 100 years hence because the rate of technological change itself has accelerated.

I don’t trust any projection that talk about the distant future. What concerns me is the present and the near term: of the order of 10 or 20 years. In the long term, as Keynes famously remarked, we are all dead, anyway.

As Joel Cohen noted, “Though the future is hazy, much that is very clear can be known about the present. First, the size and speed of growth of the human population today have no precedent in all the Earth’s history before the last half of the twentieth century.”

Take a look at the figure below from The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA):

In the 45 years since 1950, India added five times as many people as did the US. India added 571 million people, while the US added 109 million. Compare that to the growth in per capita GDP. India’s GDP grew from $180 in 1960 to $463 in 2000 — an increase of $283 in 40 years (figures in constant 1995 dollars). Compare that to the US: from $12,837 in 1960 to $31,806 during the same period — an increase of nearly $19,000, or 67 times the increase relative to India. (Data from the World Bank.)

In the 100 years from 1950 to 2050, India will add 1.2 billion people to reach a total of 1.5 billion. Let’s read that number again: it will be one thousand five hundred thousand thousand. During the same period, the increase in the US population would be about one-sixth that of India. I am not going to go into the projected difference in the per capita GDPs; it is too depressing even for me.

The important thing to note is that no country with large increases in populations has ever been, or is likely to be, a developed country. We have to do a little arithmetic to convince ourselves that there is no way on earth can India move out of the poverty trap without changing its population growth rate, no matter how pretty a song you sing about IT superpower or how nimble a dance you dance about BPO. All this song and dance about India being a superpower in 2020 is merely arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the Titanic band is paying ragtime.

We need to understand what is at stake and wake up to the fact that we are short on lifeboats, that the hull is breached, the captain has ignored the warnings, the builders have messed up the design, and the binoculars were missing.

[Continue on to part 5 of Numbers.]

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Numbers — 4”

  1. Well put. It’s frightening that very few politicians wants to acknowledge the possibility that we (as a species) may be facing fundamental resource constraints. Humanity is facing some serious challenges in the not so distant future.


  2. Whatever you have written Atanu is very correct. I remember school economic textbook of 11 class. All the chapters were about the problems we have in India and reasons for all those problems. I remember, one reason for every problem was POPULATION, there were other reasons also.
    I guess all the politicians, the decision makers and I should say all of the population of India must read 11th class Economics textbook for CBSE (I dont know if the curriculum has changed after I read it in 1997). Then all these people will understand that population is the main reason for all our problems and then they will think to control the population.


  3. Hey Atanu. I love they way you connected the past to our present and near future, it makes a lot sense now…when my teacher says we learn history so that we do not make the same mistakes of the past in the present or future all over again. I completely agree with the fact that places like India and the developed United States also have population problems and if the people in these countries would start to understand that poverty cannot disappear with a few more good roads, or apartments for the poor in the slums but might have a chance of decreasing if the population growth would come under control. I was researching for a paper on Rural development and its role in reducing poverty and i came across your writing; I might actually have to write a resolution on it and I think this idea of population being the main problem to poverty might help. Thank you very much.


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