The world population
is nearing the 7-billion mark, with China and India alone accounting
for about 2.4 billion of the lot, or 37% (calculated from United
Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World
Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision Population Database).
This is simply staggering. In 1960, only a little over five decades
ago, the total world population was barely over 3 billion.
On that account
alone, we have doubled the number of polluters since then as well as
of consumers of non-renewable resources. Although this may not
directly translate into a direct doubling of pollution and
consumption, it makes issues much more difficult to address and
underscores the importance of the population growth factor in
current problems. In addition, a lot more people also means a lot
more pressure with respect to deforestation, land erosion, habitat
destruction, and depletion of renewable resources such as fisheries.
The Run-Away Train
The latest United
Nations' projections (medium variant) for the year 2045 are for the
world population to reach over 9 billion, increasing further the
pressure on the environment and depletable resources by another 38%.
Why? Just because! We do not need to be 9 billion people on the
planet. The mathematics is simple: every person is a consumer of
depletable resources and a polluter.
If doubling the world
population means a significant increase in pollution and resource
use, the opposite is also true and is one of the most sound
strategies we have to deal with environmental and conservation
problems. Theoretically, halving the world population could also
half the pollution we create and double our years of supply of
The current solution
is to go up to 9 billion and further destroy the environment: wipe
out fisheries, cut down forests, degrade arable land by intensifying
chemical- and pesticide-based agricultural production, bring
hundreds of species of plants and animals to extinction, turn oceans
into sewer lagoons, pollute land, water, and air, and wipe out in a
few decades the bulk of the economically exploitable non-renewable
resources of the planet.
In 40 years from now,
standards of living around the planet will have likely dropped
significantly from the rising costs of many resources. At that
point in time and under those pressures, countries will be competing
intensively for minerals. New international alliances would form,
and geopolitical power would shift in unpredictable ways like it did
with the OPEC crises in the 1970s and 1980s. Distrust and fear
could build until the breaking point. Could the following decades
lead to a world-wide collapse? You do the math.
As discussed earlier,
there would be little expectation of relief as resources would
continue to become scarcer and more costly, and the scenario is a
long way from being far-fetched as we have already experienced a
taste of it since the beginning of this millennium.
The real question is,
could things get much worse? Could billions die from starvation,
pandemics spreading as a result of poverty and governments' lack of
financial means, multiple localized wars, and prolonged global
conflicts? Could this be the final outcome of the population growth
problem? If it is, it would likely happen within our children's and
After the heavy
criticism and fall out over the 1972 Limits to Growth report,
many have been skittish about making predictions for the future. It
now appears that the critics were wrong—at least as far as the
latest information available is concerned—their claims perhaps
condemning the world to a sure collapse on account of the several
decades wasted in inaction. As intelligent people, we cannot rule
out the possibility of gloomy or disastrous scenarios.
just-too-horrible-to-contemplate examples given earlier. We have to
keep our eyes on numbers and consider all possibilities. More
importantly, we have to make sure that we do not confuse
argument often used by environmental deniers) with
what-will-not-happen. By nature, many predictions do not
materialize, but that does not mean that they will never come true.
In many instances, it is just a matter of time.
One of the problems
with depopulation is that there is a significant lag time between
the implementation of policies and the actual dropping of numbers.
China's One-Child Policy—one of the strictest population
control initiatives on the planet—has been in effect since 1979,
and the country's total number of people is still increasing.
The United Nations'
latest projections show China's population continuing to grow now
and for another 15 years, until 2025 or so, before it begins
declining again (United Nations Department of Economic and Social
Affairs, 2011). This is a lag time of about 45 years from
inception. As such, even with major population control initiatives,
there will be rough times ahead.
The world will see a
significant reduction in the number of people either through
starvation and war or through intelligent and planned policies.
Conflicts Within and Without
Nothing happens in a
vacuum. Hitting the Depletion Wall at full speed will also have
very serious political implications. Scarcity would fuel discontent
and produce unrest.
The Depletion Wall
would be a breeding ground for both internal and external
destabilizing forces. On Easter Island, the descent into chaos
following the depletion of the Island's natural resources resulted
in the overthrow of its leaders and priests—which occurred around
1680—as well as in extensive inter-tribal warfare and cannibalism.
We may not go to such extremes, but the experience is likely to be
a very painful one.
Diamond (2005) listed
cultural and religious values as a common cause for the failure of
societies to attempt to address problems. This is in large part
where the process has broken down with respect to population growth
and the baby boomer generation.
On Easter Island,
people failed to challenge the religious values that led them to
keep carving and transporting statues—hence, felling large trees
on the island to the very last and destroying the only material they
could use to build sea-going canoes. As a consequence of that
alone, they lost access to important supplies of food: tuna and
porpoise. As already discussed, the deforestation also resulted in
the loss of habitats for animals and soils to erosion, further
cutting down the islanders' sources of food.
As expressed earlier,
we already know many of the solutions to today's environmental
problems but have not implemented them. The population issue is a
case in point. Both current religious and social values—the
opposition to contraception on the one part and family rights on the
other—run counter to what needs to happen. Nothing will change
unless we are prepared to challenge those.
From a social point
of view, we gave up many rights in the past for the greater good.
We have given up the right to throw loud parties at all hours of the
night, to drive as fast as we want, to consume illegal drugs, etc.
We are even required to give a large portion of our earnings to
The world is not as
black and white as it seems in terms of rights. Freedoms are
generally curbed when either someone else's rights are infringed
upon or so that the system functions better. Society needed to
debate the issue of family rights and population growth decades ago.
Resource numbers are showing that we simply cannot afford full
reproductive rights. As for many other aspects of society and the
freedoms we enjoy, limits have to be applied if we are not to
uncontrolled population growth infringes upon the rights of other
people with respect to the resources we share with them. These are
our common heritage. The massive use we make of these essential
building blocks for society will greatly reduce their availability
to other generations in the future. The environment is also a
common property that we have substantially degraded and that will be
inherited by those coming after us.
We have had so far a
near absolute right to reproduction, being allowed to have as many
children as we want. This is a value that needs to be reexamined.
It does not necessarily mean that we have to give up the right
totally, but it does mean that we have to accept restrictions on the
number of children we would be allowed to have or alternatively
support states in implementing incentives that would favor lower
numbers of offsprings. Obviously, this is not for the sake of
controlling people's lives but for the greater good, now and in the
Background on Population Growth
The issue of
population growth is not new. Europe was often plagued with high
unemployment and dire poverty in the Middle Ages. Early on,
population growth was closely associated with the problems of
joblessness and want.
The name of Thomas
Malthus, a Church of England cleric, often comes up in demography
literature in this respect. He is better known for his principle
of population which essentially states that while food
production grows linearly (1, 2, 3, 4...), populations grow
geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8...).
For example, assume
that a land area produces 100 units of food for 100 persons and that
its agricultural output grows by 100 units every 5 decades. After
50 years, the production would be 200 units and after a century, it
would have increased to 300. However, if a population doubles every
5 decades, it would go from 100 to 200 after 50 years and then twice
that much to 400 after a century. That would leave 100 unfed or get
everyone only 75% of a unit of food.
One billion people
going hungry as is the case today represents about 14% of the total
world population. According to Malthus' law, people eventually
always outstrip food production and end up with decreasing shares of
resources (increasing poverty) over time. The Green Revolution gave
food production a significant boost, but its effects did not last as
we let the world population double from 1965 and we are now back to
where we started.
While we can still
open up new agricultural land, it can be argued that we have already
gone beyond the earth's food production limits as increasing
agricultural output is being done at the expense of tropical and old
growth forests as well as the environment by the use of herbicides
and pesticides. This is again a case where the appearance of coping
with food production is maintained by degrading the environment and
incurring a debt against future generations.
In any case, the fact
that biofuel production can already trigger a food crisis indicates
that there is very little leeway in terms of our ability to increase
agricultural output. Some researchers have called for huge
investments in agriculture to anticipate and prevent future food
shortages as the world population moves towards nine billion. The
World3 model suggests that, as we approach the second half of this
century, the effectiveness of solutions and our ability to cope by
shifting the burden to alternative systems will decrease.
Already, we are
seeing that attempts to solve energy problems by using agricultural
solutions (biofuel production) is not as effective as first thought
since it affects food output. As the price of minerals increases,
the money for foreign aid will shrink. As countries around the
world also strive with rising food prices on account of population
growth, money for aid and investment in agriculture will be
increasingly difficult to come by. As the world becomes less
stable, increased military spending will also drain funding from the
As such, the ability
to solve food problems by relying on the economic system will
sharply decrease as we get closer to the Depletion Wall. This is
basically what the World3 model suggests and illustrates. For
priority reasons, money will be moved to address the food production
problem, but it will have to come from somewhere, foreign aid,
lifestyles, old age pensions, etc.
In 1798, Malthus
wrote a piece entitled Essay on the Principle of Population.
It essentially explained away dire poverty as a result of population
growth and especially of the poor's inability to control their
reproductivity. In his view, it was not caused by the uneven
distribution of wealth between social classes but by the poor
themselves, especially their unwillingness to exercise restraint in
respect to procreation.
To a large extent,
his work was used to legitimize the capitalist system, blaming its
ills on an inescapable natural law, on the lower classes' lack of
self-discipline and propensity to multiply. People procreated until
resources became insufficient and starvation and diseases hit,
reducing and bringing the system back in balance.
Eric B. Ross
(1998)—editor of the political magazine, The Porcupine, and
lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies (The Hague)—put
Malthus' viewpoint this way: “Poverty was the 'natural' product of
the fertility of the poor, rather than of the social or economic
system” (p. 5). According to Ross, Malthus fell short, however,
of supporting means of contraception on the grounds that they “would
reduce poverty and with it the chief stimulus for the poor to seek
work” (p. 4).
Most view poverty
today as the result of both population growth and economics. There
is an obvious link between too many people and too few resources,
but it is also recognized that the capitalist system is at the roots
of socio-economic disparities. People are poor in part because
wealth is not properly redistributed.
As for population
growth, the case is fairly simple as expressed earlier: the more we
are, the more destruction and consumption occur. Population
reduction is perhaps the easiest and least demanding avenue for
addressing these issues.
One of the aspects of
population growth is that it is uneven around the world. Developing
countries have much higher birth rates than developed ones. Another
aspect is that since people in the developing world are generally
poorer, their consumption per capita is much less than that of
individuals in developed countries. That is, the impact they have
on resources and the environment is much lower per person than in
developed countries. Conversely, while populations are smaller and
growth has generally stabilized or is negative in the latter, much
wealthier lifestyles mean that the total amount of goods consumed
per person is much higher than in developing countries.
The argument has also
been made that developed countries have more money available for
cleaner technologies and often have stricter environmental controls,
which serves to lower their environmental footprint. However, as
long as babies are born with hundreds of toxic chemicals in their
body, this remains a theoretical argument. The baby boomer
environmental debt has grown, not shrunk, and having money does not
mean it will be spent towards the environment.
That being said,
higher standards and green technologies do not reduce developed
countries' consumption of non-renewable resources: we would only hit
the Depletion Wall in a cleaner environment.
Nobody is off the hook
with respect to population reduction, the poor because of their
massive numbers and the rich because of their greater impact on the
environment and resources.
The Tragedy of the Commons
Another piece of the
population growth puzzle has to do with the dynamics of common
properties such as rivers, lakes, oceans, forest and mineral
resources on crown land, etc. As most of us already know, people
tend to take better care of their own belongings than they do of
public property. The communality of assets is at the roots of many
past as well as modern tragedies. Let us look at the issue a little
bit more closely.
Garret Hardin, an
American ecologist well known for his work on overpopulation,
explored the process of how public
properties can be damaged or destroyed as a result of
self-interest. His theory
was first published in 1968 in a journal article titled, The
Tragedy of the Commons. His
work was in part based on a framework developed by William Forster
Lloyd (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244).
The theory is as
follows. Suppose that a number of farmers share a common land for
pasture and that it eventually reaches its maximum carrying
capacity—the maximum number of animals being able to graze on it
without causing adverse effects to either land or beast. Beyond
that point, adding one animal would cut down on the feed for others,
reducing their weight gain.
As a general rule, it
would be in the best interest of a farmer to raise as many animals
as possible to generate the highest return. If the common land were
privately owned and all cattle grazing on it belonged to one farmer
alone, there would be little point in adding one animal to the herd
as the calories it would consume to grow would be taken from the
feed of other animals, reducing their own growth. One thousand
calories gained by one animal would come at the expense of others in
exactly the same quantity, 1000 calories (for example, 100 animals
losing 10 calories each). Little would be gained for the farmer.
In a commons
situation, things would be different. At least part of the calories
gained by the additional animal would come from cattle that belonged
to other farmers, i.e. would be stolen from them. So, the gains for
an individual herder would be greater than the losses. The smart
thing to do would therefore be for an entrepreneur to add as many
animals as possible on the common pasture despite the overgrazing
problem it creates.
But that in itself is
not the cause of disaster. The problem occurs when each farmer
reaches the same conclusion and disaster befalls all, the land being
totally destroyed by excessive overuse. In Hardin's (1968) words,
Each man is locked into a
system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a
world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men
rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes
in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to
all. (p. 1244)
The mad rush for oil
and non-renewable resources: these are the common heritage that
belongs to all generations. What do we do with them? Dig them out
of the ground as fast as we can to sustain our lifestyles. Without
laws to protect them, the tragedy of the commons will befall them
and many will pay dearly for what we do in this generation.
Air, land, and water
are other examples of common goods shared between generations. In
their case, they are being degraded or destroyed not through
depletion but through pollution. A tragedy of the commons is
unfolding everyday on this planet right before our eyes, and we are
totally incapable of doing anything about it.
In essence, the
tragedy of the commons is the crux of the current environmental
debate and our failure to address problems: we do not pay for the
damages we do to the planet; it is our children, grandchildren, and
theirs that will. The next generations will ultimately pay the
price for our neglect, and perhaps pay the ultimate price for it...
just like they will have to pay back the massive national debts we
have been accumulating since the 1970s.
Population growth is a
fundamental aspect of the tragedy of the commons. It can be
addressed much more easily and painlessly than other problems. Part
of the issue has to do with expectations rather than anything else.
In developed countries, most people used to have large families.
Now, it is the last thing they want. Changing expectations from
early on in life—especially on account of preventing human
suffering and helping the environment—could help reduce
significantly family sizes in the future.
Values always change
over time. Society could easily refashion itself around smaller
families and lower-impact lifestyles. Hardin (1968) also viewed the
issue of population growth (freedom to breed) as an aspect of the
commons syndrome and characterized it as “intolerable” (p.
1246). Regardless of reproductive rights, the planet simply cannot
support more of us; it cannot even feed six billion people at the
moment—despite all the modern science, technology, and
The issue of
communality is a complex and highly destructive force in today's
world mainly because the losses are borne by future generations.
Privatization has been proposed as a solution to the problem.
However, that cannot be applied to many things. You cannot
partition and sell the air, oceans, rivers, etc. And nobody wants
to live in a world where you have to pay for everything, where all
beaches are private, etc.
Ecological Cycles: People Die Second
The following is
another piece of the population problem. It will be referred to as
the people-die-second principle
and has to do with the fact that in ecological cycles
predator populations usually decline after their sources of food
fall. This may seem to be stating the obvious. However, the actual
mechanics of these ecological dynamics have important bearings for
us, namely the fact that the declines tend to occur fairly rapidly
for certain reasons.
Let us take the
example of wolves and rabbits. The former is a predator, the
latter, its prey and food source. Assume that a male-female pair of
wolves moves into a territory having large numbers of rabbits and
that they are the only predators in the area. As the supply of food
is plentiful and there is no competition, the pair has an easy time,
grows healthy, and for those reasons breeds... like rabbits. The
same would be true of their offsprings. As time goes on, the
population of wolves eventually would grow to consume more and more
Over time, the number
of rabbits would have come down from predation. Their excess
population would have been slowly trimmed down to zero. At that
point, they would be breeding just enough to maintain their own
population stable, i.e. producing enough offsprings to feed the
wolves and keep stable their breeding stock. As long as the total
number of predators did not increase, both populations would be in
balance and could be sustained indefinitely.
However, in nature a
perfect equilibrium is rarely maintained, at least with respect to
many processes. As food would still be adequate at the point of
balance, wolves would keep breeding like rabbits. As a result, they
would offset the supply-demand equilibrium.
After some time,
there would not be enough rabbits born every year to keep up with
the expanding predator population. However, wolves would not die or
stop eating for that reason. They would start depleting the
breeding stocks, still eating their fill, at least for a while. The
problem with this is that it would mean that fewer rabbits would be
born the following years as the breeding stock would be reduced.
As such, two
depletion processes would now be at work and essentially double the
speed at which the demise of the wolves would occur: the predator
population would continue to increase the demand for food and the
supply of preys would decrease. Those accelerative conditions would
ensure the decimation of the rabbits in a relatively short period of
Wolves would then go
hungry and begin dying of starvation and diseases resulting from
weakened health. Their population would dwindle and then collapse.
They would have gone from surplus food, to balanced and sustainable
supplies, to scarcity. They would have died second, in the wake of
the scarcity they themselves created. With the disappearance of
many of their predators, rabbits would begin multiplying again and
live the easy life until wolves rebuilt their numbers and moved in
again on the plentiful source of food. And the cycle would repeat
What is critical to
note here is that wolves did not start dying when the system went
off balance. If they did, things would have gotten back to
equilibrium quickly. Instead, they were quite happy feeding on
breeding stocks and increasing their own numbers, worsening the
problem on two counts: more mouths to feed and a dwindling food
supply. This is why collapses tend to feed on themselves and occur
rapidly when things begin declining, as opposed to following a slow
described above is what happened on Easter Island in more ways than
one. People multiplied in times of plenty. When life became more
difficult and the point of balance was reached, they did not reduce
their numbers to bring the system back in equilibrium. They dug
into animal populations, wiped out one species of tree after
another, which led to land erosion and habitat destruction as well
as prevented the natural regeneration process.
Eventually, the many
plentiful food resources were depleted, but the population numbers
were still up. That is when everything combined and they hit a
depletion wall. Starvation struck and tribes started killing—not
to speak of eating—each other. People died second, essentially on
account of what they brought onto themselves.
The Point of Sustainable Balance
The point of
equilibrium or sustainable balance discussed above bears more
exploring. Here is a concrete example with simple numbers. Suppose
that a tribe in a fictional country needs to consume an average of
20 cows a year to sustain itself. What are the steps it would need
to take in order to reach the point of sustainable balance?
Firstly, it would have to build a herd. In order to do so, members
go out and buy 10 cows from a neighboring tribe. Let us assume that
each of these gives birth to 1 offspring a year and that
fertilization occurs through the intercession of wild bulls freely
roaming the area.
These 10 cows
obviously cannot be eaten. They are the breeding stock for the herd
or what is referred to as capital in economics. The second step
would be to grow the herd to 20 cows so that each gives birth to 1
calf annually for a total of 20 new animals, which is exactly what
is needed to feed all in the community.
After year one, the
10 cows will have given birth to 10 calves. Let us assume that they
are also all females for the sake of simplicity. At that point in
time, the tribe would still not be able to eat any of the animals,
lest it depletes its breeding stock, which needs to remain at a
minimum of 20. Year two would see the birth of 20 new calves from
the 20 breeding cows, for a total herd size of 40 before the tribe
has fed itself. That would be the point of balance at which the
community could sustain itself indefinitely just from the excess
cattle born every year and while maintaining its breeding stock of
Below this point, the
number of cows giving birth every year would decrease and produce
fewer new calves, forcing the community to dig even more into the
breeding stock and further reduce the annual number of newborns for
the following year. For example, if the tribe's population grows
and begins requiring 25 animals to feed itself annually, this would
leave a breeding stock of 15 (40 minus 25) for the following year,
which would produce only 15 offsprings that year for a total of 30
animals. If 25 are again eaten, the breeding stock would drop to
only 5 cows (30 minus 25), which would give birth to only another 5
calves. The tribe would then starve even if it ate every animal
left and totally wiped out its breeding stock (10 minus 25).
Below the point of
sustainable balance, vicious circles tend to develop and can, as
illustrated above, quickly wipe out entire breeding stocks. Above
it, the opposite happens. Breeding stocks would keep increasing
every year, producing ever greater surpluses and building a herd
into a virtuous circle. What we have is essentially a point of
equilibrium flanked by two accelerative mechanisms: one, negative
and the other, positive.
If we manage
renewable resources above the point of sustainable balance, they
should provide us with greater and greater wealth every year. If we
do it at equilibrium, the same yields could be sustained on an
ongoing basis. However, if we drop below it, we can quickly find
ourselves on the Easter Island road.
In economic terms,
the growth of populations (such as the cow herd discussed above) is
geometrical, not linear. What is more important to us, however, is
that declines display the same characteristic. The increase in
consumption of 5 cows a year led to a decrease of 10 in the total
herd in year two (from 40 to 30) and of 20 (from 30 to 10) in year
three, as opposed to decreasing by 5 every year as in a linear
In the natural world,
there are factors that can mitigate and slow down geometric
progressions. As such, the latter do not always go as fast (or
slow) as anticipated. The positive predator/consumer geometric
progression and the negative prey/resource geometric
progression are the essence of the Depletion Wall phenomenon.
When they meet, things quickly get out of hand. Consumption
accelerates geometrically while at the same time supplies decelerate
When considering the
management of renewable resources such as fisheries, we have to aim
for or above the point of equilibrium so that the capital or
breeding stocks are protected at all times. Erring on the side of
caution is also the responsible thing to do as the worst that can
happen is that the resource will grow and provide more wealth than
anticipated, which can be cashed in at any time in the future.
Setting targets with
small margins of error or actually below the point of balance is
what we did—among many other things—when we wiped out many world
fisheries. Overgenerous estimates of supplies or weak action on the
part of governments led us to deplete the capital stocks. By the
time this was ascertained, the process had already accelerated and
it was too late. With respect to renewable resources, we have to
live off surpluses only and set targets accordingly. Forests have
to be replanted so that what we take every year is at least
replaced. Otherwise, the total area of deforestation on the planet
will grow over time, making us poorer in the long run.
resources, however, are a very different story. They are capital
stocks, with a twist. Just like the original cows without which a
herd could not be built to eventually produce plentiful and
sustainable supplies of food, they are the building materials for
the machinery we use in the production systems that generate the
vast wealth that we have today. However, they cannot be regenerated
like cows. Yet, they are treated like surpluses as opposed to
capital stocks which are permanently depletable.
resources, there is no point of sustainable balance for minerals.
Every ounce of ore that we dig out of the ground comes from capital
stocks and reduces them. There is no surplus to live off. When
they are wiped out, it is the end of the line. The presence of
metals in single-use packaging (steel and aluminum cans) for
instance is simply a crime against humanity, against future
We have to clearly
recognize the fundamental difference between capital and surplus, as
well as renewable and non-renewable resources and plan their
A world collapse seems
a remote possibility when one thinks in linear terms. However, many
environmental systems grow exponentially, not linearly. The current
sense of stability in the world today is very much an illusion as we
are able to sustain our lifestyles only by incurring massive
financial, human, environmental, and capital resource debts against
future generations. Following this line of thinking yields one
conclusion: we are long past the point of sustainability.
Will people die second
as population dynamics models suggest?
8. The End of the Road—Rwanda
Everybody has probably
heard about the Rwanda-Burundi genocide in 1994 in which a Hutu
majority went on a rampage and massacred in only three to four
months hundreds of thousands of the country's Tutsi minority. The
total death toll may have reached as much as one million.
The United Nations
peacekeeping force on site had warned the international community
about it, but everyone failed to stop the atrocity. The episode
shocked the world, at least for a while. The massacre was
predominantly portrayed and perceived as an ethno-racial conflict.
However, there was an undercurrent of a different nature running
through it, an underground story unfolding concurrently. This is
what the following is about. But first, the official version of the
The Official Story
Rwanda is a tiny
country sitting at the western edge of the eastern region of Africa,
almost in the middle of the continent itself. Its geography is
hilly, and the land is fertile. The country's climate is tropical,
but its elevation above sea level tempers it somewhat. Agriculture
is the basis of Rwanda's economy, but it consists mostly in
subsistence farming (Rwanda,n.d.).
Rwanda is one of the
world's most densely populated countries. According to the United
Nations, the average population density for Africa in 2010 was 34
persons per square kilometer. That of Rwanda in 1990 was 270. In
comparison, the average for the world in 2010 was 51, for the US,
32, and for Germany, 231 (United Nations Department of Economic and
Social Affairs, 2010). As a developing country, Rwanda sustained
more people per square kilometer in 1990 than Germany, one of the
most economically robust countries in the world.
It even put to shame
the most populous country in the world, China—which implemented
strong family control policies over the issue of population growth
and whose number of people per square kilometer stood at 140 in 2010
(United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2010).
demographic comprises primarily two groups, a majority of Hutus (85%
prior to the massacre) dominated by a minority of Tutsis (15%). The
former are believed to have settled the region first. Tutsis moved
in later and ended up dominating the other ethnic group.
In the late 1800s,
European colonial powers (Germany and Belgium) took charge of the
region, governing through and in association with the Tutsi
minority. In 1943-1944 the country was hit by a famine that wiped
out nearly a third of its population. In 1962, Hutus successfully
overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. Rwanda and Burundi separated and
became independent. Many Tutsis were killed in the struggle.
A Hutu government was
established in Rwanda. In the ensuing years, hundreds of thousands
of people (mostly Tutsis) fled the country to neighboring safe
havens from where they staged attacks in the hopes of regaining
power. In 1973, after a military coup by a Hutu general (Juvénal
Habyarimana), the violence subsided. A decade and a half of better
Burundi saw two
failed Hutu rebellions, one in 1965 and one from 1970 to 1972 which
led to Tutsi retaliations and resulted in the death of a few hundred
thousands of Hutus (Rwanda,n.d.). In the early
1990s, a Tutsi rebel group invaded the north of Rwanda, and civil
war broke out. A peace agreement followed in 1993, but ethnic
tensions remained high. In the same year, the assassination of
Burundi's Hutu president by Tutsi extremists further increased
When both Habyarimana
and Burundi's succeeding head of state, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were
killed by a missile attack on their plane in the capital of Rwanda,
Kigali, in April 1994, all hell broke loose. Hutu extremists went
on a rampage, first killing those of their own supporting peace,
including many high government officials, then turning on the Tutsi
minority. Within the next three months, almost one million
people—mostly Tutsis—were murdered, many of them hacked to death
with machetes, in what appeared to be well-planned attacks ordered
by the new government and related groups (Rwandan Genocide,n.d.).
The Underground Drama
That was not the
complete picture, however. There were several factors and elements
pointing to there being a sub-story to the horrific drama. Diamond
(2005) listed several of them.
Firstly, the Rwandese
Patriotic Front (RPF)—the Tutsi-led army that ended the massacre
in July 1994 and conducted reprisals—did include Hutus. Secondly,
a third ethnic group forming only 1% of the country's total
population—the Twa—and not posing a threat to anyone was also
heavily targeted during the genocide. Fourthly, despite some
physical differences between the two main ethnic groups, many could
not be distinguished from one another. They spoke the same
language, intermarried, often had multi-ethnic family histories, and
attended the same institutions, be they schools, churches, or bars.
however, was the fact that communities that were almost exclusively
Hutu were also the site of massive killings by Hutus (p. 317-318).
These elements together suggest that there was more going on than a
simple ethnic conflict. Furthermore, the Hutu civilian population
was heavily involved in committing the massacres. Killing almost a
million people involves a lot of work, however appalling the fact
is. It could not have been done only by a handful of extremists and
dissenting armed factions.
Killings by the
military were usually done with guns. Civilians used machetes and
nail-studded clubs. Diamond (2005) described a pattern of the
military sweeping through an area with guns and being followed by
machete and club-wielding civilians (p. 316). The attacks were also
more personal in nature (dismemberment and maiming) than they needed
to be. Again, many factors pointed to another story developing
along with the ethnically-based conflict.
Part of the answer
lay in the country's exploding population. As expressed earlier,
its density even following the genocide puts to shame most countries
around the world, including the most highly populated ones. There
are only so many people that a piece of land can sustain. While
many countries around the world chose to modernize and mechanize
their agricultural practices during the Green Revolution that began
around the middle of the last century, Rwanda failed to do so.
reported that to cope with the increased demands from a growing
population, farmers resorted to deforestation, marsh draining, and
poor and over-intensive agricultural practices. The killing of
thousands of Tutsis following the independence of Rwanda in the
1960s and their exodus from the country after their successful
overthrow from power had indeed resulted in a lot of vacant land
that could be—and was—redistributed to Hutu farmers (p. 319).
By 1985 the
availability of new arable land had been exhausted. Soil erosion
and a dryer climate caused by deforestation further put pressure on
farming. For many families in Rwanda, subsistence farming provided
barely enough to eat. No new arable land meant that existing farms
had to be split between children from one generation to the next.
If these were barely able to feed a family originally, then they
were hugely insufficient after being divided in two, three, four, or
This is essentially
what Diamond (2005) concluded when he looked at the work of two
researchers (Catherine André
and Jean-Philippe Platteau) who had visited the country in 1988 and
again in 1993. Farms not only had declined in size but also
supported more people than before, children leaving home at a much
later age because of the lack of land. In the Kanama Commune (the
area studied by André
and Platteau), 9% of the population lived below famine level in
1982. That number had increased to 40% by 1990 (p. 320-321).
Obviously, the partitioning of farmland could not continue.
There were also
better off farmers in Rwanda. During times of drought and famine,
they gobbled up bits and pieces of land that smaller farmers were
forced to sell just to keep themselves from starving to death. The
gap between the rich and the poor only intensified during those
periods of increased social tensions and gave rise to a new class of
people, “hunger thieves,” or farmers stealing out of
In Kanama, 43% of all
serious conflicts investigated by André
and Platteau were related to land (Diamond, 2005, p. 323). All this
created conflicts within families—inheritance, for example—as
well as within communities. Roughly 5.4% of the commune's
population died as a result of the 1994 genocide. Yet, all
residents but one were Hutu. The largest category of victims was
the poor and malnourished. Other significant ones were large
landowners and troublemakers (Diamond, 2005, p. 325).
These many factors
together suggest that, along the ethnic tensions and political drama
that gave rise to the 1994 genocide, another story was unfolding.
At the time of the genocide, Rwandans were living under enormous
environmental pressures brought about and worsened by the country's
out of control population growth and density. The situation was
participation of civilians in massacres and the fact that many Hutus
were killed by people of their own ethnicity suggest that other
motives drove at least part of the killings. Massive deaths would
free up land; this is probably why rich (large) landowners were
killed as well as vast numbers of the weakened poor—the
competition. André and
Platteau referred to the 1994 genocide as a “unique opportunity to
settle scores” (Diamond, 2005, p. 325).
It is undoubtedly a
tragedy that occurred in Rwanda, a tragedy of the commons, a
Malthusian natural process of a system bringing itself back in
balance in the crudest of ways, an ecological cycle in which arable
land got depleted while the population kept growing geometrically.
density stood at 270 persons per square kilometer in 1993. It
dropped as a result of the genocide but is now back up to an
unprecedented level of 403 according to the UN's World Population
Prospects: The 2010 Revision (United
Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2010).
This represents a shocking 49% increase in less than two decades.
The density is expected to go up to 467 persons per square kilometer
Rwanda still has one
of the highest birth rates on the planet. It is a wonder that the
place has not exploded again since the genocide.
The Malthusian Debate
With the Green
Revolution, international food production did outpace the growth of
population. That, however, turned out to be only a short-term
trend, based on today's hunger numbers. If the planet's population
keeps growing, things will get worse and, just like in Rwanda, many
might welcome war as a means of alleviating food pressures. We
might be able to do without oil, but what will happen when there is
not enough food to go around? Will wealthy parts of the world go
hungry in order to export food?
Many poor countries
could face the fate of Rwanda in the second half of this century.
Avoiding disaster will become increasingly difficult if not
impossible if we delay until the population-resource problem hits
geometrical speeds. Ecological cycles show us that crises tend to
accelerate once we pass the point of sustainable balance and only
get worse after that. Waiting till scarcity hits will be a fatal
mistake. Population reduction is probably one of the easiest and
least painful ways to slow down our speed towards the Depletion
is not something that the world or the planet can afford any longer,
unless we see disaster as a viable option. At this point in time,
we do practically no conservation of non-renewable resources and the
world population keeps growing.
will occur one way or the other. The only question is whether it
will be done early and intelligently through birth reduction, or
whether it will take the form of starvation, Rwanda-style
genocides, or biological terror and warfare.