Green Capitalism - Waves of the Future

Climate Change, Non-Renewable Resources, Energy, Contaminants, Carbon Pricing...

The Depletion Wall

7. Population Growth: The Continuing Madness

8. The End of the Road—Rwanda

Population growth and the Depletion of Nonrenewable Resources (Metals)

How long will our reserves of minerals and other non-renewable resources last?

A Strategy for Conservation and Non-renewable Resource Management

Overview  Reviews

See also Book I of the Waves of the Future Series


7. Population Growth: The Continuing Madness

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 depletable resources.

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 grandchildren's lifetimes.

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.

Remember the 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 what-has-not-happened-yet (an 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.

Evolving Values
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 governments.

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 self-destruct.

Furthermore, 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 future.

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 above.

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 chemical-intensive agriculture.

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 rabbits.

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 time.

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 itself.

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 descending curve.

The collapse 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 20 intact.

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 progression.

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 geometrically.

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.

Non-renewable 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.

Unlike renewable 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 generations.

We have to clearly recognize the fundamental difference between capital and surplus, as well as renewable and non-renewable resources and plan their utilization accordingly.

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 facts.

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).

The Rwanda-Burundi 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 times followed.

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 tensions.

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.

More striking, 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.

Diamond (2005) 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 more.

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 desperation.

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 simply untenable.

The broad 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.

Rwanda's population 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 by 2015!

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 Wall.

Unbridled procreation 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.

Population reduction 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.

Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2012

More information: USGS Mineral Tables Degrowth Limits to Growth World Population Growth