The greed of the few

2014-07-11 00:00

IN 1987, the world’s population reached five billion people. This prompted the United Nations Development Programme to establish World Population Day, an annual event observed on July 11 every year.

While the five billion was a milestone, that figure is dwarfed by the current world population of 7,2 billion people — an increase of more than 30%. A great deal has been written about population, overpopulation, and why some people in some countries have large families. Much of what has been said has been wrong. In the seventies, for example, it was predicted that a world population of more than four billion was unsustainable and would lead to mass global insurrection.

Our concerns about global warming have reinvigorated debates about the world’s population and what the Earth can sustain. It is now well-established that if all the seven billion people on Earth were to consume as much as the average American does, we would need more than four Earths to sustain us. There is a major problem here. The tenor of the debate however, often focuses less on the overconsumption and greed of rich countries as it does on the size of China and why poor people tend to have large families. Without wishing to discount the issue of how the Earth can sustain seven billion people, I want to suggest that the greatest danger facing our planet is inequality, not overpopulation.

Last week, on the N2 just outside of Cape Town, I was overtaken by a Porsche Cayenne 4X4. I was returning from a research site in Khayelitsha where I conduct most of my research. One of our recent findings in Khayelitsha is that in a sample of over 1 000 women, almost 50% stated that they had gone hungry in the past week, while almost 30% of their six-month-old infants had been hungry in the same week. As stark as this may sound, hunger and adversity in Khayelitsha and Cape Town are in many ways significantly less severe than in many other South African cities, and certainly in the rural areas of our country. With that in mind, I wondered about the price of the Porsche Cayenne. I looked it up — R874 000. Paying almost a million rand for a car is beyond my imagination, so I wondered what the insurance cost. I asked for a quote — the insurance on a car of that value would be about four times the total monthly household income of almost 11 million South African children.

Inequity is rising — the 85 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the 3,5 billion poorest people; the top one percent of people in the U.S. own 43% of its wealth, with 80% of Americans sharing only seven percent of the wealth in that country. These figures are not unique to the U.S. but are also true for the UK, Australia, parts of Europe and increasingly China, India and other low- and middle-income countries.

Economists who spend a decade pouring over figures and data are rarely treated as celebrities. Thomas Piketty, the author of the most unlikely bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is an exception. In an age when reading is declining, for a book of over 700 pages, outlining in detail the concentration of wealth and income in late 18th-century France using new statistical techniques, to become a bestseller is undoubtedly an anomaly. Piketty’s argument is that in late 18th-century France, and Britain and the U.S. in the early 20th century, society was highly unequal, with private wealth significantly greater than national income. This concentration of wealth in the hands of a few spawned a rigid class structure. Piketty argues that this state of affairs was disrupted by the two world wars and the Great Depression. In fact, these shocks were so great they resulted in a period where income and wealth began to be distributed more equally. The main thrust of the argument, however, is that this is changing once more, with more and more wealth in fewer hands. Piketty suggests that unless the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is not prevented (one suggestion is through introducing a global tax on wealth) then significant global political instability is likely to follow.

How is this related to World Population Day? In 1976, Susan George wrote a book titled How the Other Half Dies, in which she argues that the problem with hunger is not one of overpopulation or not enough food, but rather the extent to which the global elite control the food supply, how much food is wasted, and how much of the food there is has no way of getting to the people who need it. The book’s message is as pertinent today as it was almost 40 years ago.

Today, as much as 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is thrown away, amounting to 1 400 calories per person per day. An active two to three-year-old child requires about 1 400 calories per day to be healthy — the same calorie count is discarded each day by 318 million Americans. We have the knowledge and interventions to stop the deaths of eight million children under five each year, we just cannot get the interventions to the people who need them.

We have good evidence to show that as people move out of extreme poverty and fewer of their children die before they turn five, they will have less children.

It has never been about overpopulation but rather a system designed to encourage rampant consumerism, reward greed, and enable the global elite to amass obscene wealth and control who gets what. When the monthly insurance of a motor vehicle is four times the total monthly household income of 11 million children we have a problem. It is a problem that needs urgent fixing. And it is not a problem about overpopulation.

• Professor Mark Tomlinson is in the department of psychology at Stellenbosch University.

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