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The Human Prospect

Some perspective on this point is afforded,” Paul Ehrlich writes, “by noting that, if India were to apply fertilizer as intensively as The Netherlands, Indian fertilizer needs alone would amount to nearly half the present world output.”4 Judging by the fact that of the 1.6 billion acres of currently cultivated land in the backward areas, less than 7 percent is now planted in the new seeds, a full modernization of agriculture would require enormous investments in fertilizer capacity. It is beyond dispute that these investments exceed by a vast margin the capabilities of the underdeveloped nations themselves, and it is possible that they exceed as well those of the developed world. More sobering yet, the introduction of fertilizers on such a scale may surpass the threshold of ecologically permissible chemical additives to the soil.5

The race between food and mouths is perhaps the most dramatic (and highly publicized) aspect of the population problem, but it is not necessarily the most immediately threatening. For the torrent of human growth imposes intolerable social strains on the economically backward regions, as well as hideous costs on their citizens. Among these social strains the most immediately threatening is that of urban disorganization. Rapidly increasing populations in the rural areas of technologically static societies create unemployable surpluses of manpower that stream into the cities in search of work. In the underdeveloped world generally, cities are therefore growing at rates that cause them to double their populations in ten years—in some cases in as little as six years. The cesspool of Calcutta thus becomes more and more the image of urban degradation toward which the dynamics of population growth are pushing the poorest lands.

Only two outcomes are imaginable in this tragic drama. One is the descent of large portions of the underdeveloped world into a condition of steadily worsening social disorder, marked by shorter life expectancies, further stunting of physical and mental capacities, political apathy intermingled with riots and pillaging when crops fail. Such societies would probably be ruled by dictatorial governments serving the interests of a small economic and military upper class and presiding over the rotting countryside with mixed resignation, indifference, and despair. This condition could continue for a considerable period, effectively removing these areas from the concern of the rest of the world, and consigning the billions of their inhabitants to a human state comparable to that which we now glimpse in the worst regions of India or Pakistan.

But there is an alternative—and in the long run more probable—course of action that may avoid this dreadful “solution” to the overpopulation problem: the rise of governments capable of halting the descent into hell. It is certainly possible for a government with dedicated leadership, a well-organized and extensive party structure, and an absence of inhibitions with respect to the exercise of power, to bring the population flood to a halt.

What is doubtful is that governments with such a degree of organization and penetration into the social structure will stop at birth control. A reorganization of agriculture, both technically and socially, the provision of employment by massive public works, and above all the resurrection of hope in a demoralized and apathetic people are logical next steps for any regime that is able to bring about social changes so fundamental as limitations in family size. The problem is, however, that these steps are likely to require a revolutionary government, not only because the measures will incur the opposition of those who benefit from the existing organization of society but also because only a revolutionary government is apt to have the determination to ram many needed changes, including birth control itself, down the throats of an uncomprehending and perhaps resistive peasantry.

Thus the eventual rise of “iron” governments, probably of a military-socialist cast, seems part of the prospect that must be faced when we seek to appraise the consequences of the population explosion in the underdeveloped world. Moreover, the emergence of such regimes carries implications of a far-reaching kind. Even the most corrupt governments of the underdeveloped world are aware of the ghastly resemblance of the world’s present economic condition to an immense train, in which a few passengers, mainly in the advanced capitalist world, ride in first-class coaches, in conditions of comfort unimaginable to the enormously greater numbers crammed into the cattle cars that make up the rest of the train’s carriages.

To the governments of revolutionary regimes, however, the passengers in the first-class coaches not only ride at their ease but have decorated their compartments and enriched their lives by using the work and appropriating the resources of the masses who ride behind them. Such governments are not likely to view the vast difference between first class and cattle class with the forgiving eyes of their predecessors; and whereas their sense of historical injustice might be of little account in a world in which economic impotence also meant military impotence, it takes on entirely new dimensions in the coming decades for reasons connected with the changing technology of war. Thus a consideration of the population problem, as the first of the objective challenges of the human prospect, leads to an examination of the problem of war as the second of its imminent dangers.

What is new in the problem of war is, of course, the advent of nuclear weapons with their potential for “irreparable” damage, as contrasted with the much more restricted and more easily repaired damage of most conventional wars. As with the population problem, however, we are in danger of being rendered insensitive to the political ramifications of this element of danger in the human prospect by our tendency to picture it mainly in humanitarian terms.

The humanitarian aspect of nuclear war has focused our attention mainly on the stupendous killing power of the new weaponry. As Hans Bethe has described it:

Let us assume an H-bomb releasing 1,000 times as much energy as the Hiroshima bomb. The radius of destruction by blast from a bomb increases as the cube root of the increase in the bomb’s power. At Hiroshima the radius of severe destruction was one mile. So an H-bomb would cause almost complete destruction of buildings up to a radius of 10 miles. By the blast effect alone a single bomb could obliterate almost all of Greater New York or Moscow or London or any of the largest cities of the world. But this is not all; we must consider the heat effects. About 30 percent of the casualties in Hiroshima were caused by flash burns due to the intense burst of heat radiation from the bomb. Fatal burns were frequent up to distances of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. The radius of heat radiation increases with power at a higher rate than that of blast, namely by the square root of the power instead of the cube root. Thus the H-bomb would widen the range of fatal heat by a factor of 30; it would burn people to death over a radius of up to 20 miles or more.6

It is understandable that we should be hypnotized by the vision of such ghastly possibilities. The risk, however, is that our concentration on this aspect of the consequences of nuclear warfare will lead us to overlook another result of the new technique of war. Essentially it resides in the fact that many small or relatively poor nations, even though they possess no fully developed industrial base or highly skilled labor force, can gain possession of nuclear weapons. As the example of China has shown, a nation with only a limited amount of industrial capacity can manufacture nuclear warheads by itself, although probably not missile delivery systems. The warheads can nonetheless be launched by bombers, smuggled into enemy harbors by ship, etc. In addition, poor nations can obtain nuclear weapons as a by-product of the atomic power plants that many of them are now building or contemplating (or that will be built for them in the coming years by the developed countries).

Thus there seems little doubt that some nuclear capability will be in the hands of the major underdeveloped nations, certainly within the next few decades and perhaps much sooner. The difficult question that must then be faced is to what use these nations might be tempted to put this weaponry. I will suggest that it may be used as an instrument of blackmail to force the developed world to transfer large amounts of wealth to the poverty stricken world.7

I do not raise the specter of nuclear blackmail to indulge in the dubious sport of shocking the reader. It must be evident that competition for resources may also lead to aggression in the other, “normal” direction—that is, aggression by the rich nations against the poor. Yet two considerations give a new credibility to nuclear terrorism: Modern weaponry for the first time makes such action possible; and “wars of redistribution” may be the only way by which the poor nations can hope to remedy their condition.

For if current projections of population growth rates are even roughly accurate, and if environmental limitations on the growth of output begin to exert major negative influences within the next two generations, widespread human deterioration in the backward areas can be avoided only by a redistribution of the world’s output and energies on a scale immensely larger than anything that has hitherto been seriously contemplated. Under the best of circumstances such a redistribution would be exceedingly difficult to achieve. Given the constraints on economic growth that will make their presence felt with increasing severity, such an unprecedented international transfer seems impossible to imagine except under some kind of threat. The possibility must then be faced that the underdeveloped nations with “nothing” to lose will point their nuclear pistols at the heads of the passengers in the first-class coaches who have “everything” to lose.

Even if nuclear blackmail is used, it need not lead to global disaster, unless it resulted in an unleashing of nuclear conflict among the great powers. It is more plausible that a terrorist attack—for example, wiping out a city in an advanced nation that had refused to pay a ransom of a large portion of its material output—would serve as a stimulus to bring a substantial reduction in nuclear armaments coupled with world-wide nuclear inspections, especially in the “dangerous” underdeveloped countries. Such a protective reaction would not reduce the chances for conventional, limited wars—indeed, it might even increase them—but it would greatly reduce the risk of further nuclear threats of the kind I have described.

Yet even if nuclear conflict is avoided, the influence of war will remain as a fundamental molding element in the human prospect. For the danger of “limited” war remains, and the probability of such wars is very high. The frequency of “deadly quarrels” showed no signs of decline over the two centuries prior to 1940,8 and experience in the past three decades is hardly encouraging: a casually assembled list includes civil conflicts in Greece, Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan, and, on a smaller scale, Ireland; minor or medium-sized international sorties led by India, Pakistan, England, France, Egypt, Israel, Portugal, China, and North Korea; major invasions conducted by the Soviet Union and the United States. Very probably wars on this scale, with this frequency of occurence, will continue as long as nation-states continue to play their role as the main forms of mass social organization.

  1. 4

    Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment (W. H.Freeman, 1972), p. 119.

  2. 5

    Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (Knopf, 1971), p. 84-93, passim.

  3. 6

    Hans A. Bethe, “The Hydrogen Bomb II,” in Scientific American Reader (Simon & Schuster, 1953), pp. 194-5.

  4. 7

    Perhaps I should add that when this manuscript was written, a few months ago, a number of readers objected to the “unrealism” of blackmail efforts exerted by the underdeveloped countries. That was, of course, before the Arab oil embargo.

  5. 8

    L. F. Richardson, “The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels,” in The World of Mathematics (Simon & Schuster, 1956), Vol. II, p. 1254.

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