Saturday, June 18, 2016

If Switzerland had a Sahara Desert, it would be a small Africa. Does the world really have an "overpopulation problem"?

This post was updated on Aug 28th, 2018

This is a fascinating movie in many respects and, at the same time, a movie that makes you feel like screaming in rage. It is clear that Mr. Boote has something to say, and he manages to say it - sometimes forcefully, sometimes obliquely, and sometimes perhaps even as the opposite of what he seems to be intentioned to say.

So, what's the point of the movie? Well, most of it is based on scenes in which we see Mr. Boote going around with his unbrella in places where it never seems to rain. And interviewing people who, frankly, don't seem to have a clue about overpopulation except in attributing it to a conspiracy of the evil Western Elites.

Of course, one man's truth is another man's mistake. So, Mr. Boote has a good point in trying to see the world from the viewpoint of the poor - and I think that if I were, say, a Nigerian citizen, I would tend to think that the Westerners - just like the Whites of Western movies  - speak with forked tongues. They claim to be virtuous because they throw their waste into differently colored bins and they do that after having ruined and destroyed entire ecosystems for their consumption. And now they fault the poor for having too many children!

It is a clash of absolutes, which only a few people, like Werner Boote, are trying to bridge. The result is remarkable: the scene in which we see Boote boarding the pilgrim train in Bangladesh is worth the whole movie. It is a fantastic scene in which we see Boote as the only Wester sitting on the roof of a train chock-full of people, many of them sitting on the roof. It gives you an "ecumenic" feeling. We are all humans and we can live together. And all our screaming about being "green" will not help if we don't learn how to do that.

On the other hand, where the movie often fails is when it tries to buttress its thesis by using quantitative data or historical references. For instance, it starts immediately with misquoting Malthus, accused to "have predicted a catastrophe for 1860." Poor Malthus never said that!

Then, we have a scene where we see Mr Boote (for once without his umbrella) discussing with a man who tells him that Africa is not overpopulated because it has only 40 inhabitants per square km, compared with the 170 of Europe. Then, the man takes Boote somewhere up on a hill and he shows him an empty landscape, saying, "do you see? Africa is not overpopulated!"

Now, there are several problems here. First, the datum for the average population density in Africa seems to be correct, but the population density in Europe is 105 inhabitants per square km, not 170 (and it is just 31 if one includes the European part of Russia.). Maybe Mr Boote's informant meant Western Europe, but if you take that as meaning the European Union, then the population density still is only 116, not 170.

Then, one would be tempted to remind to Mr Boote's informant that Europe doesn't have a Sahara desert; to say nothing about the Kalahari desert and other areas unsuitable for human occupation in Africa. So, he forgets that an African country such as Nigeria has about the same density of population as Switzerland (nearly 200 people per square km), to say nothing about Rwanda, that has 460 people per square km (more than twice than Switzerland).

One could show Mr Boote and his informant some nice Swiss valley with many cows and almost no people and then tell them: "you see? Almost no one lives in Switzerland!"

So, as I said, it is a clash of absolutes. And all clashes of absolutes are difficult to tone down. For  an opposite opinion to the one of Mr. Boote, you would do well reading this post by Jacopo Simonetta. And we keep going, we'll arrive somewhere anyway.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)