The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
DEMOGRAPHERS and economists, academic cousins in the lineage from Malthus, carry forward the somber tradition in the literature dealing with underdeveloped countries. In current expositions, the rapid increase in the population of many poorer nations is a crucial factor preventing "takeoff," keeping them on the ground, so to speak, and from the stage of sustained economic advance. The reason for special concern is that the rate of population growth is unprecedented. It is not, as many scholars see it, the same old problem; it is a problem unique in history. In the underdeveloped countries, rates of population growth exceeding 3 percent annually are becoming increasingly common. So high a figure was rarely recorded before the 1950s.
The drop in the death rate is the core of the problem. Here again, we confront developments that are without parallel in demographic history. In Western Europe, the decline in death rates was fairly gradual at first, reflecting the enlargement of food supplies and other concomitants of economic advance. By the time medical science made possible the sharpest reductions in mortality, birth rates in Western Europe had also begun to decline, and the process of economic growth was well under way.
Since the end of World War II, the relationship between falling death rates and the economic capability to support larger populations has broken down. The poorest countries can undertake public health measures that bring down death rates precipitately, while birth rates stay as high as ever, in some cases go even higher. Algeria, British Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Laos, Malaya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Syria, Taiwan, Turkey, Trinidad and Venezuela are growing at rates that if continued will double their populations in 20 or 25 years.
This aspect of the problem has a certain novelty to the American who associates baby booms with business prosperity. His outlook has been conditioned by the economic analysis which predicates full employment on the existence of investment opportunities for all the funds that people insist on saving. By this analysis, there is a clear advantage in an expansion of population, which brings new opportunities for investment, thus new outlets for savings.
In the poorer countries, however, the task is not so much to find outlets for savings as to find the savings. If the population is growing rapidly, increases in national income cannot be drawn upon to pay for ambitious development programs but must go largely to provide the bare necessities of life for more and more people. The quandary is not merely one of overpopulation but rather of the speed of population growth; it confronts even those underdeveloped countries where present population densities are quite low and which can ultimately support many times their present numbers. The Somalis might make automobiles if they adopted Detroit's technology, and might in time adopt Detroit's technology if they could accumulate the capital and skills. They can probably accumulate neither if they keep doubling in number every 20 or 25 years, so that increasing national incomes are merely new multiples of the old per capita figures.
The food sector is a particularly critical one, for free-world and Communist countries alike. In India, where the average diet deficiencies are among the most serious in the world, food output went up substantially under the First Five Year Plan ending in 1956. But with crop failures under the Second Five Year Plan, the government was forced to defer economic goals in order to import food for the expanding population.
The problem has also thwarted the best efforts of the Communists in China; food production there has been running neck-and-neck with population growth. The "leap forward" in 1958 raised Communist hopes of a breakthrough to a new ground, but the crop statistics fell back in 1959. And 1960 was another poor year in which cultivation of city garden plots and collection of wild plants provided desperate supplements to starvation diets. The authorities have been sufficiently concerned to purchase several million tons of food grains abroad. Ordinarily a net exporter of food, China now faces a payments crisis that has necessitated a curtailment of industrial imports and scaling down of construction programs.
A brief word on the subject of dramatic technological breakthroughs in food production. The avenues of possible development here are many. Hydroponics (water culture) may come to be economical in areas where native soils are poor. A lowering of the costs of converting sea water would bring irrigation benefits to arid lands of North Africa, South Asia and other areas. Open-sea fishing, which today accounts for only a small percentage of total catches, may increase significantly. The development of edible synthetic proteins and carbohydrates is receiving attention. Unicellular plant organisms may be widely cultivated one day for animal feed, if not for human consumption.
New seeds, new fertilizers, solar energy, nuclear power and still other lines of advance also hold promise. We may be on the threshold of great developments. But there will be an inevitable lag between technological attainment and everyday performance. More than 100 years after the value of artificial fertilizer was demonstrated in England in 1843, the per acre application of fertilizers in India was only about 1 percent of the European average. The implementation in field and factory of laboratory successes takes time and capital, and the impasse created by the relationship of savings to population impedes the accumulation of capital in underdeveloped countries.
The problem perturbs some officials in Washington, where there is growing uneasiness about its bearing on American security interests. There are also reservations about the expediency of taking the issue into consideration in reaching policy decisions.
In October 1959, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a report prepared by the Stanford Research Institute on "Possible Nonmilitary Scientific Developments and Their Potential Impact on Foreign Policy Problems of the United States." The report considered the two lines of attack on the population problem--increasing production and limiting births. The conclusion was that population pressures could become significant causes of social unrest and war, that "some means of controlling population growth are inescapable" and that for this purpose the United States should provide funds to foreign agencies and laboratories.
The efficacy of American aid that appears merely to encourage the survival of more people at old subsistence standards of living was also considered in 1959 by the President's Committee to Study the United States Military Assistance Program ("Draper Committee"). In its Third Interim Report, the Committee declared: "The United States and other more advanced countries can and should be prepared to respond to requests for information and technical assistance in connection with population growth."
These two recommendations bristled with emotional and moral implications. The reactions of presidential aspirants and other leaders in both political parties were qualified or negative. President Eisenhower said: "I cannot imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity or function or responsibility." Arthur Krock observed that the President's words were welcome to both parties, which shied away from taking any stand on the question. Not a candidate for office himself, Mr. Krock added: "But the problem of overpopulation cannot be swept under the carpet because that is politically advisable for both parties."
It was in fact not swept under the carpet; too many Americans were perturbed about the problem, felt strongly about the related religious issue or simply saw opportunities for political advantage in it. Senator Kennedy was the obvious target for the most searching queries. His reply was that if the matter came up while he was President, either in the form of legislation or recommendations from the executive branch, he would decide in accordance with his oath to do whatever was best for the country. He did, however, intimate his current view of the country's best interests. He observed that it would be a "mistake" for the United States Government to advocate birth control in other countries; it was a decision for the countries themselves to make. He further expressed the opinion that the "available resources of the world are increasing as fast as the population."
The Roman Catholic clergy took the expected stand. In a statement released in November 1959, the Catholic Bishops of the United States acknowledged that attention must be given to the challenge of population pressures in the world. They simply asked for solutions that were morally permissible. The principle was unassailable, but the moral standard was in dispute. Non-Catholic Americans expressed exasperation with the position that "artificial" contraception was a "grave sin"; so uncompromising a view seemed to rule out really effective programs to limit the number of births where population pressure was greatest. The Right Reverend James A. Pike, Protestant Episcopal Bishop of California, commented that the Catholic statement condemned millions "to starvation, bondage, misery and despair."
Although the debate turns mainly on the differences in view, the disputants stand on some common ground, too. Catholics, like Protestants, do not insist that the procreation of children should be the invariable objective of conjugal relations. Protestants, like Catholics, do not condone all methods of sexual gratification. The Catholic position on "artificial" contraception has its parallel in the Protestant attitude toward other practices which are commonly but not universally regarded as subversions of the sexual act. The parallel may seem forced to some Protestants; it may help others to understand why the Catholic Church insists its position is a moral and religious one from which no retreat is possible. This position does not require Catholics to belittle the gravity of population pressures, although it does incline them by and large to affirm confidence in the unrealized potentials of science and technology to provide for all.
Convictions are obviously strong, displays of rancor are frequent, and responsible public officials are discomfited by the dangers of offending religious sensibilities. Despite the political complications, the problem receives continuing study in government echelons below the policy-making level. In July 1959, the Department of State released a report on "World Population Trends and Problems." The cover sheet contained the Department's standard legend of disclaimer, in capital letters: "This Is an Intelligence Report and Not a Statement of Departmental Policy." The report was carefully worded, moreover, to give minimum affront to the sensibilities. Only the more sensitive anti-Malthusians would squirm at the final conclusion: "Rapid population growth may prove to be one of the greatest obstacles of economic and social progress and the maintenance of political stability in many of the less developed areas of the world."
The problems associated with population growth in underdeveloped countries are also being reviewed in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. A study group in the Department is examining the subject, but there have as yet been no formal conclusions and recommendations.
The Report of the President's Commission on National Goals in November 1960 gave further evidence of official concern and caution. "Population increase," it noted, "is a major drag on the progress of the underdeveloped countries, preventing any real rise in individual standards of living . . . and above all deferring the date when those nations can attain economic momentum on their own." The use of U.S. aid funds to spread birth control information was suggested as a possible course of action, but not made as a flat recommendation. In any case, the report averred, aid must never be made conditional on a nation's handling of its population problem. The whole problem was unhappily a matter of some controversy, "as difficult an issue as any democracy can face."
The difficulties, however, are not limited to the democracies. The Communists, too, have a heritage of dogma and doctrine that is hostile to Malthusian arguments. The theory of Malthus, concluding that the phenomenon of mass poverty transcended the particular social order, was to Marx sheer apologia for the status quo. He reacted with the venom that has become so characteristic of Communist polemics. Malthus, he said, was not merely wrong but dishonest, a "slavish plagiarist" who copied and paraphrased others. When he brought the argument from ad hominem to substantive grounds, Marx took a position that even his followers have not found fully persuasive. His collaborator Engels acknowledged the possibility that the Communists might one day have to come to grips with the problem of population growth. In a letter to Kautsky in 1881, he wrote:
If at some stage Communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry it out without difficulty.
Many Communists feel that the stage for regulating "the production of human beings" has already arrived. Polish planners, in particular, believe that a cutback in the rate of population growth would facilitate the fulfillment of their economic programs. In April 1958 the illustrated weekly Swiat put the widely accepted attitude as follows:
Let us reject the fictitious suggestion that a high birth rate is proof of improvement in the standard of living. One should admit boldly that the excessive birth rate is one of the factors which adversely affect the standard of living and is even . . . the cause of misery.
Abortion in Poland has been legalized, a birth control association organized and planned parenthood centers established. The propaganda on birth control has taken on strong anti-religious overtones. In January 1960 the party daily, Trybuna Ludu, charged that the clergy had organized a campaign against planned parenthood, abortions and the sale of contraceptives, and had further blackmailed pharmacists into refusing to sell contraceptives. The newspaper took Cardinal Wyszynski to task for asserting that the Polish people had no reason to fear high birth rates. The State not the Church, it pointed out, would have to build houses and factories for a rising population.
In the Soviet Union, the official attitude is more favorable to population growth, but there has been a considerable evolution of outlook over the years. Soon after the Revolution, the sale of contraceptives was authorized, the legal ban on abortions repealed and the laws on family relationships made extremely liberal by Western standards. Divorce, for example, was readily granted on the request of either party. These legal sanctions for smaller families, however, were enacted on feminist not Malthusian grounds. "We are unconditional opponents of neo-Malthusianism," said Lenin, but "this does not prevent us in the slightest from demanding the abolition of all laws which place penalties either upon abortion or upon the circulation of medical writings dealing with models of preventing conception, or similar laws."
Lenin's hostility to Malthus notwithstanding, the enactments emboldened a few academicians to advance neo-Malthusian concepts. This limited license was ended in the Stalin era. In the middle 1930s, Soviet population policy became avowedly expansionist. Academic circles denounced all statements that showed signs of Malthusian taint; Soviet demographers elaborated the proposition that a decline in fertility was associated with a decaying society. On the legislative and administrative fronts, abortions were first restricted and then forbidden entirely except on medical and eugenic grounds. No further effort was made to promote contraceptive practices. A new emphasis was placed on the virtues of the socialist family and measures were adopted to make divorce more difficult. Maternity and nursery facilities were enlarged. Financial assistance to mothers was extended. In addition, the elaborate system of awards set up in 1944 stipulated a range of honorifics for mothers with five children on up: Motherhood Medal (First and Second Class); Order of Glory of Motherhood (First, Second and Third Class); and Order of Mother Heroine (Gold Star), with Scroll from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. As a further inducement to child-bearing, discriminatory taxation was levied on couples with fewer than three children.
The post-Stalin era brought a modification but not a reversal of the Soviet outlook on the population question. Khrushchev, like the Soviet demographers of Stalin's day, associates an expanding population with a vigorous society. Speaking to Komsomol members in January 1955, he warned: "If each family has only one or two children, the population of the country will not grow but will be on the decline. And we must think about the development of society."
Unlike Stalin, however, the Soviet leadership today seems disposed to respect the considerations that impelled Lenin to approve such measures as the legalization of abortions in the 1920s. Criminal sanctions against women who procured abortions were discontinued in 1954. Other prohibitions against abortions were repealed in 1955. According to members of an American health delegation which toured the Soviet Union in 1957, abortions ranged from 30 to 85 percent of live births in individual hospitals.
The same ambivalence characterizes Russian attitudes toward the problem of the more crowded countries. It is standard Soviet practice in all international forums to deride analyses showing that in many underdeveloped countries lower birth rates are a prerequisite of progress. Yet a Soviet broadcast to Southeast Asia in July 1958 was critical of a French demographic journal for the statement that Marxists opposed birth control propaganda. The Soviet Union, said the speaker, did indeed encourage a high birth rate, but individuals were free to choose; contraceptives were available in any chemist's shop and freely advertised in the medical journals. It was necessary to oppose the "anti-scientific and reactionary" theory of Malthus, but this was not to preclude "a realistic and truly humane policy on the question of population under socialism."
On several occasions, Khrushchev has been pressed to disclose his attitude about Chinese population pressures. In 1958, for example, he was asked if the expanding population of China and the comparative emptiness of Siberia did not give cause for concern. The Soviet Premier dismissed the question with a show of impatience. Those who understood the nature of socialist society, he averred, would not entertain such a view. But others have been more frank about their misgivings.
Soviet suspicions have apparently been deepened by Peking's intimations that nuclear war would not be as disastrous for overpopulated China as for other countries--that China might, in fact, emerge from a nuclear holocaust with more than enough survivors to make it the dominant power. The attitude of morbid confidence is described by one correspondent in Peking as follows:
In fact, it is not difficult in present-day China, in medium-level party circles, to hear some one state with great assurance: "We do not want war; however, we do not fear it either. If the imperialists begin a war they will surely lose it and will be destroyed. It may happen that in such a conflict two or three hundred million Chinese might die . . . and yet with modern technical means we could reconstruct China rapidly, and at least we would have gotten rid of imperialism once and for all."
Many European Communists are dismayed at this line of thought. An article in Kommunist in September 1960 was typical of Soviet comment during the height of the Sino-Soviet polemic. Nuclear war, it was stated, would not bring the victory of socialism closer: "Only madmen can want such a catastrophe."
Only in their first years of power, however, were the Chinese Communists unqualified adherents to the tradition that flowed from Marx's original attacks on Malthus. In 1949 the official New China News Agency affirmed that China's large population is a "very good thing." As late as April 1952, the party newspaper People's Daily denounced birth control as a "means of killing off the Chinese people."
The arithmetic of national planning and the results of the 1953 census stimulated a reexamination of these Chinese views. The public commentary on the census results hailed the totals and used the occasion for attacks in the old vein against defeatist Malthusians. But with the total population now revealed as 100,000,000 above the previous estimates, and increasing by 12,000,000 or so every year, the demographic-economic calculus apparently persuaded all but the more extreme doctrinaires that a campaign to limit births was in order.
The Party nevertheless moved gingerly. The first public appeal for birth control was in the nature of a trial balloon, and it was sounded not by a Communist but by a "democratic personage," Shao-Li-tzu. Shao tried manfully to show that there was no contradiction between birth control practice and anti-Malthusian doctrine. It was not a question of overpopulation, suggested Shao, but of such considerations as the health of mothers and the temporary shortage of educational facilities.
The top-ranking Communists stayed aloof from the discussion, but in 1955 instructional articles on contraceptive techniques began to appear in Party and semi-official journals. By the summer of 1956, the campaign was well under way. Illustrative posters and models, embarrassingly graphic to some Western observers, illustrated contraceptive techniques; apothecaries featured large displays of birth control devices to the public; discussion meetings, lantern slides, all the customary vehicles of mass propaganda were employed to bring the message to the people. Training programs in birth control were set up for cadres. Clinics to furnish information on the subject were established.
The Communists felt constrained to stress that they were not borrowing from Malthus. In October 1955 the theoretical journal Study addressed itself with characteristic Marxist venom to unregenerates who said, "Look! The Communists too need Malthus no less than they need Marx." Birth control, the journal declared, "has nothing at all in common with Malthus." Personal and family interests rather than the broader economic concerns of state and society were emphasized as the reasons for fewer children.
But as the birth control campaign progressed, the Communist rationale took on a clear if unconscious affinity for neo-Malthusian logic. Premier Chou En-lai in 1956 conceded that "in a country like ours where . . . the population is large, shortages of materials will occur frequently . . . . " In February 1957 the China Youth Daily deplored the necessity for diverting output to such non-productive outlays as crèches, schools and other facilities to care for the young. Still the refrain "we are not Malthusians" was recurrent and vehement.
Clearly, Peking was uncomfortable about its birth-control campaign, for it contained an implication of official defeatism about the economy's ability to keep pace with population increase. The leadership would have preferred to vindicate the classic Marxist conviction that the release of energies under a socialist reorganization of society would bring vast increases in output and more than take care of expanding population.
The "leap forward" period from 1958 to 1960 was therefore much more congenial to the faith. The movement itself set out to demonstrate that miracles of production could be achieved if China's manpower was properly organized and inspired. Hortatory slogans (e.g. "Catch up with Britain in 15 years") aimed to raise the popular tolerance for long overtime hours and speed-up techniques. The new mood, no longer favorable to birth control arguments, was expressed in May 1958 by Liu Shao-chi--Mao's heir apparent. Liu leveled his sharpest criticism at the pessimistic scholars who "argued that as the population grows, consumption will increase and there won't be much of an increase in accumulation." Their views, said Liu, "go counter to Marxism-Leninism." The great leap forward "has not only completely knocked the bottom out of their contention that agriculture cannot make quick progress but also blown sky high the argument that a big population impedes accumulation."
What followed was not so much an about-face in the régime's birth control policy as a decision to hold the campaign in abeyance. The practice of birth control has official sanction, and the means are available to those who can afford to buy them. But the posters have virtually disappeared; the subject is no longer an important propaganda theme. And thus the matter stands in 1961, even after the mood engendered by the leap forward has dissolved. As the régime once again faces up to the difficulties of growing enough food for more and more people, the arguments for resuming the birth-control campaign grow more and more persuasive. Still the leaders hesitate to underscore again the contradictions between sacred scripture and stern necessity.
The parallels are obvious. In the Communist as well as Christian world, fundamentalist doctrine often seems at odds with practical counsel. In both worlds too, the signs of rethinking are evident.
In the Catholic Church, the sanction for the rhythm method represents a considered adaptation to recognized social needs. The method is the subject of some criticism, on the grounds that it entails calculations and margins of error which would defeat even the mathematically gifted among unschooled wives of the world's poor. Its shortcomings in the underdeveloped countries, however, are matched by the imperfections of today's practical alternatives, which are either inherently unsatisfactory or require resources unavailable to the potential users. And all of them, like the rhythm method, demand conjugal coöperation that is not compatible with occasional impatience or insobriety. When a cheap, facile method is developed that any woman can use to determine with certainty that she is in her infertile period, the breach between effective birth control and Catholic morals may be spanned. Meanwhile, there will of course be competitive advances like the oral contraceptive--most of them probably obnoxious to Catholics. But at least Catholic support of population programs in underdeveloped countries will have reached new ground. The Vatican is already on record with a number of statements which acknowledge that there can be medical, eugenic, economic and social grounds for birth control, and which express the hope that medical research on the rhythm method will eventually succeed in making it more reliable.
Alternately, one can easily summon up a disheartening vision of the world as it may be if present rates of population growth should long continue. Within 800 years, under one impossible assumption, there would not be enough space on the land surface of the earth for all the people, not even if they stood shoulder to shoulder and stomach to spine. This cannot, of course, be the actual outcome, but the calculation has value as a reductio ad absurdum of arguments which regard the technological potential of industry and agriculture as limitless.
The short-term prospect is for continued population growth and its correlative difficulties. United Nations demographers always caution that their projections are models, not predictions; but they make the straightforward statement that a doubling of the world's population by the end of the century is "almost a matter of practical certainty barring a global catastrophe."
Will the tide turn? Some signs that it may are to be found in the countries that are hardest beset. The Egyptians have set up a population commission, which is doing work with family planning clinics. India's economic program provides for family planning activities, demographic research and promotional work; and some 70-odd percent of couples interviewed in Indian surveys expressed the wish to limit family size. Pakistan has launched a campaign to educate the people on the subject of birth control. Puerto Rico, Ceylon and Taiwan support work in family planning with public funds.
The scale of these efforts has in most cases been too small to have had a noticeable effect on demographic statistics. They nevertheless reflect a growing awareness of the problem that cuts across lines of religion, politics and class. Popular attitudes encourage statesmen to express views that would have been deemed impolitic a few years ago. The old precepts still hold up decisions, but the will to action becomes increasingly apparent.