Third World Fodder for First World Greed : Population pressure often gets blamed for evils that have nothing to do with birthrates.

<i> Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications. </i>

Cairo’s teeming millions will be augmented early next month by thousands participating in the huge U.N. conference on world population and development.

Even the U.N. environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 did not see the contending passions that will be unleashed beside the Nile on Sept. 5.

Beyond such disputes as that between the Vatican and various national governments on birth control and abortion are the vast rifts in interest and perspective between the First World and the Third, between the rich nations and the poor.

Insight into these fissures is offered by a “Call To Reason” now being circulated for signature by Nobel Prize-winners in chemistry, economics, literature, medicine, peace and physics.


At first sight, the “Call” seems straightforward. If current fertility rates remain constant, global population is expected to grow from the current 5.7 billion to 11 billion in 31 years. “The continued growth,” the statement says, “in the number of people who inhabit this planet will inevitably increase the substantial damage that the atmosphere, the water table and the arable soil have already suffered.”

To First Worlders this properly evokes the population crisis: burgeoning populations in Africa, Latin America and Asia placing impossible burdens on the environment. Forests fall, as subsistence farmers slash and burn. The air is fouled by forest fires and shantytown stoves. Slum sewage poisons the waterways.

To Third Worlders, the “Call to Reason” is nefariously naive in equating population increase with degradation of air, water and arable soil. Indeed, any summary of world population problems that does not include consideration of world divisions of wealth, First World consumption of resources and global corporate economic patterns of exploitation is simple-minded and rightly opposed by developing countries.

To put the issue anecdotally:


* It is no population explosion that is currently devastating the Indonesian forests, but the operations of Japanese logging corporations.

* One of the most polluted sites on the planet is Cubatao, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It has the most toxic soil, water and air, plus a life expectancy among local residents of 32 years. This is a zone developed by subsidiaries of international industrial and pharmaceutical companies.

* Severe soil depletion and water contamination are now occurring in California’s Central Valley, which is hardly overpopulated.

In other words, population pressure often gets blamed for evils that have nothing to do with birthrates.


Huge problems are posed by world population growth. But hysteria and misallocation of blame will do nothing to alleviate the crisis.

Take the case of the West African nation of Cameroon. The government of that country has just told international conservation groups that in order to service its international debt, it will have to cut down its forests. In the words of one official, “We can either sell our timber or starve!”

And so the forests of Cameroon will fall; peasants in the forest will be expelled, trek to the cities and add their number to the pool of slum dwellers who find no employment in the country’s sagging oil industry.

But the cause will not be overbreeding Cameroonians but the First World banks that extort from Africa more capital than they put in.


It is an axiom among demographers that poverty pushes birthrates up. Economic security stabilizes them. When people give up all hope, the birth rate--as is now happening in the former Soviet Union--can slump drastically.

And so Third World nations, chastised for their birthrates by the First World, retort that any discussion of population must include a realistic agenda for economic development. They also say that it behooves First World countries to examine their own prodigal wastage of resources and to stop making population/resource equations that presume an equality between, say, Germany and Chad, as if the inhabitants of each had equal demands on water, soil, timber, metals, and so on.

These are the Third World’s arguments against those First World Malthusians at Cairo who will be pressing the rapid development of contraceptive vaccines, such as have been researched by the New York-based Population Council.

Indeed, in a world as rich in ethnic strife, social fissures and exploitation as ours, the perfection of a quick-fix vaccine for population control is nothing but a well-mannered version of Zyklon-B, as used by those wartime population-controllers at Auschwitz.