Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

It was while I was reading Freedom by American novelist Jonathan Franzen that I stumbled across the rather ominously named association, The Club of Rome. One of Franzen’s key characters, Walter, references the title of the group while he espouses his views on economic and population growth, which include the argument that overpopulation and the West’s obsession with all forms of growth are the root causes of many of the world’s major dilemmas, from global warming and famine to genocide and war. I had never read anything by this author before and so initially assumed Franzen fashioned this crazy communist character, Walter, as a vehicle through which he could direct his own resentment of capitalism and its fixation on consumerism. However, I naively undervalued Franzen’s genius and after reading Walter’s argument over and over, realised that his case was moderate and liberal. I experienced the smallest of epiphanies, became utterly acquiescent to Walter’s reasoning, and decided more research was needed into The Club of Rome.

The Club of Rome is an NGO (non-governmental organisation) that was established in a quiet villa, just outside Rome, by a group of professionals from the fields of diplomacy, industry, academia and civil society in 1968. It uses its money and power to raise awareness of the dilemma of prevailing short-term thinking in international affairs and, in particular, the concerns regarding unlimited resource consumption in an increasingly interdependent world. The group highlights how the desire for unlimited economic and population growth in a world with limited resources and space is short-sighted, imprudent and dangerous. The question swimming round is: how can you have infinite growth in a finite world?

Mass consumption created by population spikes in the U.S. and Western Europe have caused massive problems with food supplies, and therefore international trade. The consumption of fish has risen tremendously, which has jeopardised its populace, including Scottish Salmon, subsequently ruining many fishing businesses and also sparking political fights between the UK and the EU over the sovereignty of fishing waters. There are no longer ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ and when millions in the world rely on fish as a staple part of their diet, poverty and malnourishment will continue to spread. As the West satisfies its need for mass consumption, parts of Asia starve to death. However, trying to balance fish supplies to deprived areas would have a severe impact on big and small businesses in the West, from massive supermarkets to small, local fish mongers. Therein lies the problem. People don’t want to see the world starve, but they also don’t want to see their local fish and chip shop close either. The only way to achieve both is to stall, or even reverse, the rate of population growth, as fewer fish will be needed to satisfy both ends, which will allow fish populations to stabilise and grow, giving the impoverished the surplus.

The BP Oil Spill

However, The Club of Rome doesn’t even value overfishing as the most pressing issue connected to overpopulation facing the world today. Sharp increases all over the world combined with the ever-widening availability of different modes of transport have caused a problem that has dominated international relations for the past decade and will do so for many decades to come: oil. Oil is the silver bullet in today’s divided world and has been the issue of numerous conflicts, from insincere spats to full-blown wars, Iraq (2003) to name just one example. With Russia’s continuing disdain for Europe, the USA’s refusal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – and rightly so, might I just add – and controversies over BP after last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, most of the world looks to the middle-east to drive their cars and fly their planes. Dodgy deals and even dodgier wars with nations that aren’t exactly on our Christmas card list, such as Iraq and Iran, have clogged all arguments in global politics and have established a new battleground of this world’s era.

Why has the war started? Overpopulation. It seems simple and audacious, but it’s true. Everyone has cars, they’re brilliant modes of transport, but to run them you need oil. More people have come into this world and more people are getting cars, which has created a colossal, and desperate, demand for oil. The sky is filled with planes and the roads are filled with vehicles; just look at the reports of week-long traffic jams in China and the mayhem that comes with airline strikes. What’s worse is that in contrast to the perceptions of big oil companies, there is not an infinite amount of oil. If we want to keep driving and flying, we need alternatives. However, as the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009 on climate change showed, such alternatives are neither popular nor practical, at least for now anyway. It’s time to wake up to the reality that we do not have unlimited oil reserves, and it’s time we dealt with this realisation by stalling this issue through slowing population growth, giving us more time to develop more feasible and mutually acceptable alternatives to oil.

Franzen’s book, however, focuses primarily on the environmental effects of extensive population and economic growth, much like many of The Club of Rome’s academics. Many espouse that a combination of mass deforestation, for both economic purposes and the basic need for room, and the cumulative impact of more people, and thus a greater demand for transport, has increased worries about the rate of global warming. The sheer number of people travelling through Heathrow airport everyday is evidence enough of the effect of overpopulation on carbon emissions and pollution. Fewer people would mean fewer contributors to climate change. However, it’s not just population growth but the capitalist addiction to consumerism and the desire for big cars and lots of them. Tackling this short-sighted global view would do more for the causes of ‘eco-warriors’ and environmental activists than most of their current activities and campaigns.

Poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Moreover, the world is starving – millions live in poverty and millions more suffer from chronic hunger every day. The reasons why are complex and vast, however overpopulation in these destitute areas is exacerbating this gargantuan problem. Population growth means more mouths to feed and some of the most poverty-stricken countries, such as Liberia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have some of the highest birth rates in the world. This predictably makes food scarcer and as more and more babies are born into these areas, more and more babies die in these areas. Combine this dilemma with a UN report released a few weeks ago, which showed that food prices all over the world were near a record high, and it becomes difficult to fully comprehend this crisis. These areas of the world are also vulnerable to religious influence, especially Christianity. Although many Catholic missionaries provide these nations with food, water and aid, they also provide them with their disgusting and erroneous declarations that condoms do not work, which has not only caused a growth in birth rates, but also a wider spread of diseases like AIDS. Many supporters and members of The Club of Rome believe if the Pope were to come out in favour of cutting population growth, through supporting the use of condoms as one option, much of Europe, the Americas and Africa could be ticked off this NGO’s ‘to do’ list.

The Club of Rome also highlights the impact of overpopulation on nations riddled with internal conflict, for example Israel. Of course, the Israel Question is not simply an issue of too many people wanting to live in one place. Nonetheless, population increases have contributed to this raw situation, exacerbating the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Israel’s population has almost quadrupled since its establishment as a nation, which has contributed to the contraction of the Gaza strip and West Bank territories belonging to Palestinians, heightening the issue. The Israel problem was partially restarted due to a sudden spike in Jewish settlers in the 1940s, and now current Israeli population increases are further fuelling Palestinian anger, worsening the conflict.

Bringing the issue closer to home, monumental population increases in the UK and the US have become the thorn in the side of pensions and social security. A combination of the largest generation ever, ‘baby boomers’, retiring and the continuing increases in life expectancy, due to great medical advancements, have made a pension cheque something a lot of us youths will probably never see. The UK pension system and the US’s equivalent, social security, are still based on old statistics, which don’t account for population surges, and thus are running out of money very quickly. Past pension reforms have been able to deal with changes in life expectancy, with appropriate shifts in National Insurance, but what still plagues this system is just the sheer amount of people living longer after retirement. If serious reforms aren’t made soon, maybe even our parents might not receive the much-needed support of our pension scheme. If we wish to avoid this catastrophe, the options include continually raising National Insurance, which is highly unpopular, privatising the system, which is highly unfair, or stunting growth in the populace, which is highly logical.

We should reverse population growth, if not for the desperate need of pensions, then at least for the pride of UK politics and democracy, the NHS. The UK, a major nation and a major economy, should do its utmost to secure the future of its national health service, which can only be absolutely confirmed through population stabilisation. The NHS’s budget cannot keep up with the UK’s ever-growing population and will suffer significant cuts and unfair privatisation unless British citizens allow the NHS to catch up. It can no longer afford to look after us all anymore, but only few want to see it go, and it will be those few who are satisfied unless a new mentality is adopted here in the UK.

Tackling this problem of overpopulation and the short-term view of sustaining infinite economic growth has been controversial to say the least. In 1978, amid some of the concerns outlined above, the Chinese government introduced their ‘family planning policy’ or what is more commonly known over here as the one-child policy. This government scheme restricts approximately 36% of China’s population to having just one child through fines based on family income. The policy polls high among Chinese citizens and is believed to have significantly tackled China’s population problems and their inevitable consequences, with Chinese authorities claiming that there are 400 million fewer people living in China because of it. The system has sparked much controversy however, as there have been copious reports of forced abortions, female infanticide and now an unbalanced ratio between men and women. Whether the policy itself is to blame is a contentious issue. It is undeniable that the introduction of such a scheme in China’s collective society caused all the draconian effects; however I question whether such a policy in more individualistic cultures, such as the UK, would have the same result, as the emphasis of male importance – and I may get some stick from feminists here – is nowhere near as significant as it is in China. Although I wouldn’t personally suggest such a law in the UK, I still commend China’s gumption and at least their serious recognition of the drastic problems related to overpopulation.

Overpopulation

The Chinese government has aided The Club of Rome’s cause by slowing down population growth, so that the world doesn’t run out of food, oil and trees or succumb to the devastating effects of global warming quite as soon as it might have. However, unless other major nations also begin taking action, then all China’s policy has done is given the world a few more years. One big nation in the East took one big step in 1978; it’s time one or more big nations in the West did so too.

However, as with all global problems, there is never an easy or practical solution. Could an international one-child policy be implemented? Not in a million years. Even if such an answer was viable (which it isn’t), it certainly wouldn’t be popular and only a very small group of countries would even test-drive it. The US would oppose it on the basis of infringing on liberties and the Pope wouldn’t even consider it, due to the probable consequence of an increase in abortions and the wider use of condoms. Are there any solutions other than some international law, however? In Freedom, the character Walter suggests that a huge propaganda campaign against reproduction should be initiated, with public advertisements condemning families with more than one or two children. He makes a comparison with the stigma of smoking nowadays and implies a repetition of this system. However, this idea seems meek and might even provoke a reactionary response in more capitalist societies, with families purposely breeding in larger amounts in order to defy the authoritarianism of controlling how many children people can have.

Nevertheless, something needs to be done. The world’s population currently stands at around 6.9bn, and the UN expects that by 2050 there will be over 9bn people living on the planet; more consuming, more polluting, more starving. The US population alone is expected to grow by 50% in the next 40 years and countries like Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil are also expanding at unsustainable rates. If these facts and statistics aren’t tackled on a global scale, everything I have mentioned in the abstract will soon become reality. As The Club of Rome and Franzen’s Freedom have warned, unless we move on from the West’s contradictory belief in unlimited growth, whether by global warming or simply starving the world of its resources, we will destroy this planet and soon.