By Donella Meadows
–July 11, 1991–
In April 1991 a great storm roared from the sea into the river delta of Bangladesh and killed a number of people that will never be accurately known, but that is estimated at over 125,000. Hundreds of thousands of cattle were killed, nine million people were left homeless, 20,000 square miles of farmland (that’s almost 13 million acres!) were flooded.
The storm came at the worst possible time, just before the harvest. Food supplies were at their lowest. Damage to the coming crop was total. Aid agencies working on reconstruction say that the biggest problem is not current starvation, which is bad enough, but future starvation. Over an enormous area there is no seed grain. Even if seed were available, there can be no planting, because the soils have been saturated with sea salt.
Most news reports of this tragedy portrayed it as an event, rather than a pattern. They assumed that the cause of the event was the storm. They didn’t ask why in this part of the world this story repeats itself again and again.
Twenty years ago ecologist Garrett Hardin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote an editorial for Science magazine titled “Nobody Ever Dies of Overpopulation.” Here’s how it began.
“I was in Calcutta when the cyclone struck East Bengal [then a province of Pakistan, now the nation of Bangladesh]…. Early dispatches spoke of 15,000 dead, but the estimates rapidly escalated to 2,000,000 and then dropped back to 500,000. A nice round number; it will do as well as any, for we will never know. The nameless ones who died, ‘unimportant’ people far beyond the fringes of the social power structure, left no trace of their existence.
“Who killed those unfortunate people? The cyclone, newspapers said. But one can just as logically say that overpopulation killed them. The Gangetic delta is barely above sea level. Every year several thousand people are killed in quite ordinary storms. If Pakistan were not overcrowded, no sane man would bring his family to such a place. Ecologically speaking a delta belongs to the river and the sea; man obtrudes there at his peril.”
Bangladesh has 115 million people on an area the size of Arkansas — which has 2.4 million. Even in years when there are no hurricanes 870,000 children under the age of five die there from hunger. In spite of that terrible toll, the population of Bangladesh grows by more than the entire population of Arkansas EVERY YEAR. If the loss of life in this year’s cyclone was actually 125,000, Bangladeshi parents will replace that number in about 15 days.
Impoverished families, desperate for land, move onto the silt islands in the great river delta of Bangladesh, though they know those islands are temporary, created and removed by winds and waves. They would not live there, if they had any other choice.
There are many ways to define overpopulation, and many places in the world that are overpopulated by any definition — Los Angeles county, the Nile delta, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh among them. We are unwilling to say that in public. We talk about storms, about poverty, about pollution, about traffic jams and no place to put the garbage, but we don’t talk of too many people or people-extensions, such as cars, houses, factories, and fields.
There’s a good reason for that. Said Hardin, twenty years ago, “Were we to identify overpopulation as the cause of a half-million deaths, we would threaten ourselves with a question to which we do not know the answer: How can we control population without recourse to repugnant measures?
Fearfully we close our minds to an inventory of possibilities. Instead we say that a cyclone caused the deaths, thus relieving ourselves of responsibility for this and future catastrophes.”
We don’t know a constructive way to suggest that there are too many of us. We fear, and rightly so, the many possible responses to that idea that derive from someone’s notion of which KINDS of people there are too many of. And so we attribute deaths from lung disease in Los Angeles to air pollution and deaths from hunger in Bangladesh to a storm. Shortly after that cyclone twenty years ago a high United Nations official told me, “Population is the one subject we cannot discuss here.”
“No one ever dies of overpopulation,” said Garrett Hardin. “It is unthinkable.”
The subject of population stirs up the ethnic hatreds of the world, the resentment of the poor, the guilt of the rich, and all our confusion about sexuality and about the proper balance between communal good and individual freedom. We would have to summon compassion, forgiveness, and brotherly love to address the subject of population peaceably and effectively. We do have those virtues within us. We do not have a social agreement to speak through them, or to use them to work on questions to which we have no answers, but whose answers are vital to a decent human world.
We would rather say it was a storm that killed those helpless people in Bangladesh. Or that it was the poverty of the Bangladeshis. We would prefer not to think that it was our own silence.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991