A Bringer of New Things

I want to read and learn all I can, write thoughtfully and truthfully, live according to reason and ever more mature wisdom, and savor every wonderful little gift of life.

Learning about the Cycle of Hunger, Poverty, and Overpopulation

By DFID - UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One Way I’ve Been Learning Lately

For the past few years, while working full-time and writing whenever I can, I’ve taken online courses one at a time from West Virginia University. (Maybe eventually I will finish a real [accredited] degree…but even if not, I love to learn, so I consider these courses a worthwhile investment of my money and time.) So far, I’ve taken Landmarks of World Art, Introduction to Anthropology, American Indian History, and Introduction to Nutrition. I absolutely loved them all!

I took Intro to Nutrition this semester, and I am so glad I did. I learned so much about food, the body, chemistry, health, illnesses, drugs, life stages, and more—I wish I could tell you everything I learned, but where would I begin?

However, there is one thing in particular that I want to tell you about.

The Cycle of Hunger, Poverty, and Overpopulation

The very last chapter of the textbook (which is Understanding Nutrition, 13th edition, by Ellie Whitney and Sharon Rady Rolfes: Wadsworth, 2013) is called “Hunger and the Global Environment.” Among other topics, it discusses the issues of poverty, hunger, and population growth in developing countries. It presents a cyclical cause-and-effect theory of these issues that I had never heard before and that I find really interesting.

(But I know that I’m a sucker for great cause-and-effect theories, so I’m open to the possibility that this one may be flawed. But apparently, similar versions of this theory have been put forth by plenty of others, such as Bill Gates.)

This theory is about poor/developing countries. According to Overpopulation.org citing the Population Reference Bureau,

“Nearly 99% percent of population increase takes place in poor countries.”

Here’s the cycle in visual form:

Capture

And here’s how it works. Obviously, overpopulation in poor areas leads to hunger and poverty by creating more mouths to feed; ever-growing urban populations also reduce land available for growing food.

But not as obviously, hunger and poverty also lead to overpopulation: in areas of unstable living conditions where there is limited access to healthcare, clean water, and adequate food and shelter, parents often choose to have many children because 1) this leads to better chances for one or more of the children to grow up instead of die in infancy or childhood, as many children do in such areas because of malnutrition and disease, and 2) children who do live can then work and help support the family.

Therefore, the solution to the problem of overpopulation is to first solve the problems of hunger and poverty. (Easier said than done, of course!) Please forgive the following long quotes from the textbook, because I don’t feel I can do better than its succinct elucidation:

“When people attain better access to healthcare, education, and family planning, the death rate falls. At first, births outnumber deaths, but as the standard of living continues to improve, families become willing to risk having fewer children. Then the birth rate falls. Thus improvements in living standards help to stabilize the population.

“The link between improved economic status and slowed population growth has been demonstrated in several countries. Central to achieving this success is sustainable development that includes not only economic growth, but a sharing of resources among all groups. Where this has happened, population growth has slowed the most: in parts of Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Costa Rica, for example. Where economic growth has occurred but only the rich have grown richer, population growth has remained high. Examples include Brazil, the Philippines, and Thailand, where large families continue to be a major economic asset for the poor.” (page 666)

Poverty and hunger are also cyclical with each other, as the textbook points out:

“Not only does poverty cause hunger,” [in the obvious sense of not having enough money to buy food] “but tragically, hunger worsens poverty by robbing a person of the good health and the physical and mental energy needed to be active and productive. Hungry people simply cannot work hard enough to get themselves out of poverty. Providing nourishment is a necessary investment in the well-being of both individuals and nations.” (page 664)

(Here the textbook cites a paper by T. Atinmo and coauthors called “Breaking the poverty/malnutrition cycle in Africa and the Middle East” [Nutrition Reviews 67 (2009): 540-546].)

So at the extremes seen in developing countries, hunger leads to poverty, and widespread poverty leads to overpopulation, which leads right back to hunger, and the cycle goes on.

To me, this information is not only interesting and eye-opening; it’s also motivating, because it gives me something to focus on—world hunger and poverty relief.

“Most people cannot grasp the severity of poverty in the developing world. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 25 percent have no land and no possessions at all…they survive on little more than $1 a day each, and they lack safe housing, clean water, and health care.” (page 664)

“Worldwide, one person in every eight experiences persistent hunger…Tens of thousands of people die of hunger-related causes each day—one child every 5 seconds.” (page 659)

This is very sad.

It’s humbling to look my privilege-guilt in the face and realize that even if I gave away every cent of my money and devoted myself to feeding hungry people, it would barely make a dent in the problem worldwide. But that also doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t make any difference and that because I can’t fix the whole problem I shouldn’t even bother my comfortable little head about these far-off, too-big-for-me-to-solve problems.

On the contrary. I may not be able to single-handedly solve world hunger, and I’m not prepared to sacrifice my life for the cause, but I can donate money now and then to one of the many reputable organizations that are working hard to make a difference. I can also donate some time and energy to my local food bank to help the hungry here at home, of whom there are far too many.

I can do something, however small. And in general, I can try to stay more aware of these problems, compassionate for those suffering from them, and open to other ways in which I might be able to help.

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15 comments on “Learning about the Cycle of Hunger, Poverty, and Overpopulation

  1. emilievardaman
    December 7, 2015

    There is one more factor contributing to hunger: lack of water. Huge areas of the Middle East and Africa are in serious drought. Add to that the problem of pumping water, causing rivers and wells to go dry, and there is less food and less ability to grow food, and less water to sustain wild plants.
    I recently learned that companies from at least two countries have bought huge tracts of land here in Arizona on which to raise crops to feed people and to feed cattle. They are drilling many wells and will eventually pump the area dry. This will have a terrible effect on the drought-stricken Southwest, but there are no laws to prevent it. It is predicted that western Arizona could be the next US dust bowl.

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    • Sarrah J. Woods
      December 8, 2015

      Good point, Emilie: clean water is an alarmingly diminishing resource that many of the poorest poor already lack.

      I also appreciate your pointing out that hunger, poverty, and overpopulation all have other contributing factors as well.

      Once again—complex problems!

      Like

  2. Secular Vegan
    December 8, 2015

    It is true up to a point that development should lead to a lower birth rate; and it is precisely why the World Leaders gathered in Paris should not try to prevent developing countries from doing just that, developing. Those countries should be allowed to exploit their fossil fuel resources to improve the living standards of their populations.

    However, access to welfare and better healthcare has not reduced the birthrates among immigrants from these countries living in Europe; their birthrates remain just as high because they refuse to integrate into the secular liberal host culture. The host cultures themselves have birthrates that are below replacement level.

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    • Sarrah J. Woods
      December 8, 2015

      What an interesting point, thank you! Without knowing more of the factors involved, I can only guess that maybe these immigrants do not yet feel secure enough in their living situation to be willing to have fewer children. But I am sure there’s a lot to be understood about this situation.

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      • Secular Vegan
        December 8, 2015

        It is simpler than that, it is not that they feel ‘insecure’ in their respective host countries, rather that they refuse to assimilate and that means that they retain the traditional roles for women as subordinate; the women are child bearers who are not permitted by their menfolk to become wage earners. As child bearers however they are able to take advantage of the generous welfare payments of their host country and become a burden on the taxpayers of that country. You’ll find that the birthrates among these immigrant groups is more than twice that of the indigenous population and it shows no sign of decreasing. If you want to know why there is so much hostility in Europe towards unrestricted immigration, that is the reason.

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        • Sarrah J. Woods
          December 8, 2015

          That is an interesting analysis. You speak simply of “immigrant groups,” but I would imagine that there is some amount of diversity between immigrants from various countries, cultures, and religious backgrounds. But I suppose you are referring to the largely Arab/Islamic people groups that are currently flooding into Europe from places like Syria and other unstable and/or poor Middle Eastern countries?

          I forgot to respond to your earlier point about developing countries being allowed to use fossil fuels—I would have to agree with you about that, although it’s certainly not ideal.

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          • Secular Vegan
            December 8, 2015

            I’m not talking specifically about people from Arab and / or Islamic groups. They could be sub-Saharan Africans who are not Muslim; Pakistanis who are Muslims but not Arabs; or Indians who are neither Muslim nor Arab. I am talking about non-Western cultures that are – at the risk of taking a leaf out of the feminists’ book, to use one of their favourite words – ‘patriarchal’.

            In other words, their cultures haven’t reached the stage of social and economic development that Western cultures (and Japan) have; and Russia and some Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) have to a lesser degree. Whilst these immigrants want to attain the affluence of ‘the West’ they are not willing to forgo losing any of their cultural baggage in the process.

            Many Indian Hindus living in Britain still retain their ‘caste’ system for example and have arranged marriages among their own ‘caste’; although ‘honour’ killings of women who refuse a forced marriage are common amongst Muslims, it is also sometimes the case amongst Hindus and Sikhs. As India industrialises and becomes more affluent it should become more secular and such murders should reduce in number, including amongst Indians living in other countries.

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            • Sarrah J. Woods
              December 8, 2015

              Ah, thank you, that clarifies things greatly. I perfectly follow and agree with your thinking about this now that you have explained it. I too am an advocate for secularization and, on the flip side, a mourner for all the ways—such as the examples you name—that religions have harmed people and hindered progress toward a more peaceful and free world.

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              • Secular Vegan
                December 9, 2015

                I realised that I was going off at a tangent, but the point that I was trying to make is that only when pre-industrial societies become industrialised will they develop socially as well. That is really what I am getting at, not at religion per se. As it is, it will take at least a few generations of social and economic development before they have caught up with ‘the West’; and hence acquire what we would regard as modern cultural attitudes.

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                • Sarrah J. Woods
                  December 11, 2015

                  Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate your making this very interesting point!

                  Like

  3. Ginene Nagel
    December 9, 2015

    As always, I like the way you use your mind. I think the high birthrate among the poorest people is a natural occurrence in the same way that there was so many children born during the baby-boomer generation. More children are born during war time because more people are dying and our species is attempting to reproduce. I think it is the same thing with very poor people. Call it divine nature or just nature, I believe we are part of nature. People marry early when poor, or now days, just have children without being married. Well-to-do people usually marry much later.
    I love your thought provoking blog; it is one of my favorites.

    I did want to tell you something that I talked about with a young woman who is working in Chicago for the Red Cross until August of 2016. Then, she’ll go home to Maine. Part of her job is to knock on doors in one of the poorest sections of Chicago, the Lawndale area, and ask the residents if she could install, free of charge, a smoke alarm. She said that some people do let her in and what she has seen has rocked her world. She said that she didn’t know such poverty existed. Children sleeping on floors crawling with cockroaches and ants with only a filthy tattered sheet. They can’t do homework because they have no lights. This is what she told me last weekend.

    We have extreme poverty in the United States and this is what we should address…then take on the world. Mother Theresa said, when someone asked her how they could help the poor in India, that we should look in our own areas first. It is an over-whelming problem in the United States and I wish our tax dollars would go to educating and feeding these people until they can take care of themselves. It will take generations. And, I think the solution is going to have to be radical. Welfare doesn’t work, we’ve seen that.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Like

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      December 11, 2015

      Ginene, thank you for your thoughts (and for your compliments, too!).

      Yes, I would imagine there’s something about living in unstable situations that stimulates our natural survival instincts, including reproduction. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, of course (not that you were suggesting that); it’s terribly sad to think about children born into abject poverty and suffering from lack of proper care, food, water, hygiene, shelter, and medical attention. So, I think it’s good to study the situation and see if there’s anything I can do to help.

      And of course you are right about there being much poverty and related suffering here in the U.S. as well. I wasn’t at all saying we should try to help the foreign poor to the exclusion of the domestic poor. Of course, both groups deserve our compassion and aid!

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      • Secular Vegan
        December 12, 2015

        In Britain, there is a large degree of opposition to ‘Foreign Aid’, not out of selfishness, but because it is believed that a lot of that money is wrongly used, indirectly helping those working for corrupt regimes; so the ‘Foreign Aid’ budget is viewed as a tool for political bribery. It also provides ‘Jobs for the Boys’ within the British civil service. Meanwhile the government continues to implement domestic spending cuts and only belatedy reacts to domestic emergencies, like the hundreds of people in Cumbria (well away from London) who have recently been flooded out of their homes, due a combination of high rainfall, building being allowed on flood plains and rivers not being dredged (itself a result of spending cuts).

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        • Sarrah J. Woods
          December 15, 2015

          It’s so sad that money marked for aid to people who truly need help is sometimes circumvented by corrupt governments or organizations. It’s a big part of the reason for the “effective altruism” philosophy I mentioned in the comment below. We unfortunately have to be very careful with our giving, and not just give to any nice-sounding charity but really look at the results and reputation of the company. And with so many areas of need to possibly donate money toward—both foreign and domestic poverty, disaster relief, disease research, environmental projects, and so much more—we also have to be thoughtful about which causes we focus on.

          It’s easy to think that only governments have enough money to actually make a difference, and then to criticize those governments for not doing what we think they should in the face of very complex issues. Discussion is important, for sure, but it might sometimes have the same effect as prayer—making us feel like we’re doing something to help when we’re actually not. We may not be able to do much, but every little bit helps.

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  4. Sarrah J. Woods
    December 11, 2015

    As a follow-up to my own post, I just came across this great—and short—article on giving from philosopher and “effective altruism” advocate William MacAskill: http://time.com/4134369/why-giving-is-the-best-gift-this-year/

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