Nobody Ever Migrates Because of Overpopulation

Published on November 12th, 2014

 Sewage drains from a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh,
a fast-growing megacity.
Source: GlobalPost

In his classic and provocative 1971 essay in the journal Science, “Nobody Ever Dies of Overpopulation,” human ecologist and UC-Santa Barbara Professor Garrett Hardin wrote that he was in the Indian city of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) when a cyclone struck East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in November 1970, killing an estimated half-million people.

Bangladesh is dominated by the low-lying deltas of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, collectively called the Gangetic Delta. The country is the size of Iowa – about 56,000 square miles – but against Iowa’s population of 3 million, 157 million are crammed into Bangladesh at a density of 2,700 per square mile, by far the densest of any sizable country in the world.

At the time of the cyclone four decades ago, the population of Bangladesh was less than half of what it is today, yet it was already woefully overpopulated. That is why many of its vulnerable, poverty-stricken multitudes had, and have, little choice but to live at sea level on a floodplain exposed to regular inundation and the wrath of rampaging tropical storms. Many live on unstable, shifting islands of silt and sediment within river distributaries, known as “chars.”

Hardin wrote in Science:

“What killed those unfortunate people? The cyclone, newspapers said. But one can just as logically say that overpopulation killed them. The Gangetic Delta is barely above sea level. Every year several thousand people are killed in quite ordinary storms. If [Bangladesh] were not overcrowded, no sane man would bring his family to such a place. Ecologically speaking, a delta belongs to the river and the sea; man obtrudes there at his peril.”

Caving banks crumble into river water swirling around a char
an unstable island of shifting silt occupied by humans.

Hardin listed a number of other predicaments – diseases, starvation, pollution – for which talking heads always blame more convenient proximate causes rather than the inconvenient, underlying cause of overpopulation.

“What will we say when the power shuts down some fine summer on our eastern seaboard and several thousand people die of heat prostration? Will we blame the weather? Or the power companies for not building enough generators? Or the eco-nuts for insisting on pollution controls?

“One thing is certain: we won’t blame the deaths on overpopulation. No one ever dies of overpopulation. It is unthinkable.”

Four decades later it pains me to say that little has changed. If anything, versus back then, nowadays there is even more of a taboo or blind spot against acknowledging the role of overpopulation. Writing in The New York Times a few years ago, after yet another cyclone had killed many thousands and devastated portions of Bangladesh, an aid worker for the progressive anti-hunger NGO Oxfam blamed the disaster on poverty, exclusion, bad policies and inequality, but not nature, and certainly not human overpopulation.

Not only does nobody ever die of overpopulation, but nobody ever migrates because of overpopulation either.

That is what we are to gather from the hundreds of vacuous news reports on the crisis posed by tens of thousands of Central American youths and minors illegally crossing our southern border in 2014.

The three main countries experiencing mass exodus – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – are each experiencing explosive population growth. Because of high birth rates that these socially conservative Catholic countries have been unwilling to address by actively promoting family planning, their populations have all at least doubled in the last quarter century, and are on track to continue multiplying unsustainably.

Guatemala’s 15 million are projected to swell to 31 million by 2050, and Honduras’ 9 million to 15 million, even with all the out-migration.

Central American migrants travel on the train dubbed “la bestia”
(“the beast”) passing through Ixtepec, Mexico.

Yet, are these salient facts ever mentioned by journalists? Virtually never, not even in high-brow outlets. A case in point is a recent special report by reporter Armando Trull of public radio station WAMU 88.5 FM, affiliated with National Public Radio and American University in Washington, D.C.

Trull blames the out-migration of so many young Salvadorans on the usual suspects: poverty, unemployment, gangs, violence and the long shadow of a brutal civil war in the 1980s. But not a word about overpopulation, which even back at the time of 1969’s short-lived “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras, more astute observers realized, was a contributing cause to the tensions between these two small republics that burst into warfare.

Tiny El Salvador had five times the population density as Honduras. And for years, land-poor Salvadorans had been illegally migrating into Honduras and occupying Honduran lands; in other words, Honduras was serving as a safety valve for El Salvador, much as the U.S. does for both nations today.

I have yet to see even one reporter in the mainstream media acknowledge rapid, unsustainable population growth in these Central American countries as an underlying cause of the mass migration taking place today.

No one ever migrates because of overpopulation. It is unthinkable.

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