The Penultimate Result

This blog post is about something that has been weighing heavily on my mind for quite a while, and which reflects my very greatest fear. Criticism is welcome, for I would like to be proven wrong.

Hans Rosling has been a doctor working in the poorest parts of Africa, and also a professor of international health at Karolinska Institutet. The above TED talks video has made him a bit of a celebrity, and he has been dedicated to deconstructing people’s mental “Tintin” image of the world. His ambitions are admireable, but there is something about his thinking that I’m very sceptical of: his general disregard of environmental factors.

From a radio interview with him:

I was four years old when we got a washing machine. I belong to the group of people who have seen my mother wash clothes and blankets by hand. It was completely fantastic when we got a washing machine. And dad took me on a trip to Järlåsa outside of Uppsala and showed me the power lines, “here comes the electricity from Harsprånget, it’s what driving the washing machine”. That was how we got there, now we have time to do something. So mom put in the clothes in the washing machine and said “now we can go to the library and loan books”. […]  Tanzanian families should [also] have access to washing machines.

One must understand how hard it was [in Sweden] 1850, 1880 and how fantastic it was to get to 1920 and 1950. That’s what Tanzania is currently trying to do.

That strikes at the heart of any Swede – after all, we were relatively late to industrialize compared to the countries down on the continent, and the difference between 1920 and 1970 cannot be understated. I recall my grandmother mentioning that the washing machine were one of the new things she was happiest about. Still, comparing Tanzania to Sweden in the latter half of the 19th century can be misleading. Tanzania has 43 million people and is projected to become 80 million in a couple of decades. However, they have no North America to emigrate to.

On a direct question on whether 10 billion people in Earth would be sustainable Hans replies:

Well, it’s what we must plan for. Because I would never consider the possibility of killing 2-3-4 billion people I think the question is pretty weirdly put. […] We will become 9 billion and we must plan for that. The alternative would actually be… to just ask that question is to start planning a mass-murder we have not seen in modern times. So we can forget about that.

Speaking of “overpopulation” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more than just the amount of people, it’s about the carrying capacity of these people. Now, while the UN estimates that population growth will level by 2050 or so, it is also clear that Asian countries have started to catch up on the West, and Hans also wants Africa to do so. It is also clear that Hans is a friend of economical growth, not only in Africa but everywhere, even the West. The results of that can be shown with a hypothetical scenario. Say the world 6000 years ago until this day experiences a growth of a mere 0.1%, and that the material possessions of that world can be represented by a meter. That can be expressed with this mathematical equation:

1 * 1.1^6000 =  2.3^263

Check it out on your calculators. The average distance to the moon, by comparison, is 3.8^8 meters. The sheer vastness of the number 2.3^263 is so great that it is very hard to imagine it. Theoretically growth could go on forever, if the world was infinite. But the world isn’t infinite. What that means is that compound growth is fundamentally unstable, yet it is also a fundamental part of the global economy, both for poor and rich countries.

To quote Kurt Cobain:

Most economic justice work is currently premised on the view that greater economic equality requires continued economic growth.

As such, those operating under this view assume that the natural resources required to attain the needed growth will continue to be available in the quantities required at prices that will make such equality possible. In other words, the seemingly politically impossible task of redistributing wealth will be sidestepped in favor of redistributing current income from future growth. This constitutes a wholehearted embrace of a cornucopian future; it recognizes no limits to growth that are implied by climate change, world peak oil production, and the rapid depletion of other resources including metal ores, water, soil and fish. And, if any of these limits are acknowledged, the resulting problems are assigned to the “technology will save us” category.

This quest for economic growth in developing countries, no matter at what costs, counter-intuitively also worsens the food situation for a whole slew of countries. A lot of it is because African countries simply can’t compete with the subsidized farms of Europe and the US, thus having to instead sell cash crops or biodiesel. Lots of land has been bought, too. Daewoo Logistics in South Korea has negotiated a 99-year lease of land of about 50% of the arable land on Madagascar, and plans to have about 75% of the land growing corn and 25% palm oil. “Food security” is an alien concept (except possibly as it applies to them):

although Daewoo plans to export the yield of the land, […] it plans to invest about $6 billion over the next 20 years to build the port facilities, roads, power-plants and irrigation systems necessary to support its agribusiness there, and that will create thousands of jobs for Madagascar’s unemployed. Jobs that will help the people of Madagacar earn the money to buy their own food – even if it is imported.

It is widely considered that Malthusianism has been disproven by the “Green Revolution”. I would say that this is not true. In fact, the agriculture of the green revolution is actually unsustainable, as it depends on resources that will soon be limited. It has been remarked that industrialized farming is a way of converting petroleum into oil, and there is much truth to that. Arguing that African countries should adopt this method of farming – as Hans Rosling has recently done – is to head in the wrong direction.

If African countries should have any chance at all of avoiding a Malthusian catastrophe, then they must adopt ecological farming on a large scale. Only that way can they build a sustainable agriculture. Food on the table, running water and electricity wouldn’t then be so uncontroversial. However, material affluence on the level of current OECD countries?

The sad truth is that it’s not possible. This affluence has been built on the systematic plunder of natural resources from poorer countries. The imperialism which developed in the late 15th century is what made Europe rich. What I’m saying is that for poorer countries to truly flourish, to be improved, then some of the standards of the rich countries must be lowered. This may not be necessarily bad; perhaps it could be put as “more with less”. There is after all enough food in the world to feed everybody, it’s just that it’s inequally shared, and that’s why people are starving.

To really solve our problems, I believe that a grand plan, something along the lines of Plan B 3.0 (avaliable here) is needed. And that is optimally done through a democratically planned economy. Though Tim Jackson who wrote Prosperity Without Growth argues at the end that capitalism could restructure itself to deal with this, I would argue that it would be just as difficult to change the Business As Usual model to that than a democratically planned economy.

Unfortunately, those who would profit from the inequities of this world have quite a different mind, and the forces who truly want to change the world break against the wall of the status quo like a wave towards the beach. It goes completely against the cultural narrative which has been set up. As Dick Cheney once said: “The American way of life is non-negotiable”.

To reply to Hans Rosling regarding mass-murder: it’s not going to be a particularly “planned” one. Food prices are going to go up, and it has already caused starvation in places such as Ethiopia and Haiti. Since the market will have it so that everything is grown in the mythical “somewhere else” it is the poorest, the damned of the Earth, which will be without a chair when the music stops playing. This could have effects on political stability:

Perhaps there is no better case than Rwanda of state killing in which colonial history and global economic integration combined to produce genocide. It is also a case where the causes of the killing were carefully obscured by Western governmental and journalistic sources, blamed instead on the victims and ancient tribal hatreds.

A country the size of Belgium, with a population of 7 million people (overpopulated according to most reports but Belgium supports over 10 million people), Rwanda experienced in 1994 one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Some 800,000 people, mostly but not exclusively Tutsis, were slaughtered by the Hutu-run state. Contrary to media and many government reports, the genocide was the result of Rwanda’s political and economic position in the capitalist world system. It involved such monetary factors as its colonial history, the price of coffee, World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, the global interests of Western nations, particularly France, the interests of international aid agencies, and Western attitudes towards Africa (Shalom 1996.

If nothing is done, expect to see more things like that over the next fifty years. It will overshadow the Holocaust and the Holomodor. Our descendants will look back to this time period with disgust, because they will be disgusted by how egoistical and passive we were They will be appalled to learn about how people ran cars on biodiesel grown in the Third World while people were starving. The history books will brand the 21st century even darker than the 20th. Hopefully they would also learn from our mistakes, and try to work together more.


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