PERILS OF OVERPOPULATION
APRIL 5, 1996
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Robert Kaplan, contributing editor of the "Atlantic Monthly." The author of The Ends of the Earth: The Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century dicusses the themes of his book, the environment and global political stability.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report. Mr. Kaplan, you left the United States in 1993 and began making a series of journeys through the Third World, starting at West Africa, and then going across the tropical belt. Now you've come back and put that into a very large book called The Ends of the Earth. I'm curious. Much of what you write about sounds like a trip through the Inferno by Dante. Was that your impression on many occasions?
ROBERT KAPLAN, Author: I deliberately picked out the most difficult trouble spots in the world, because that is where 95 out of every 100 births are occurring. All the new babies in the world are not being born in places like Japan or Scarsdale or Singapore. They're being born in poor African countries, in, in subcontinental India, and in the poorest parts of our own societies. And though much of the world our kind of people are going through a communications revolution, I spent months traveling through a large swath of the Earth where I've entered cities where there was no electricity. You can go to seven photocopy machines, eight or nine, and you won't find one that will be working, where you'll turn on the water taps and nothing will come out but kind of a death rattle and a hissing sound. Umm, it's like one part of the world is going in one direction, but a large swath of humanity is going in another. And overpopulation, disease pandemics, rising crime, cultural dysfunction, are going to make it--are going to make so many parts of the world, or let's put it this way, a critical mass of the Third World so far behind that they won't be able to catch up.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm. I was very struck by some of the numbers you had in your book about the industrialized world. I think many of us don't appreciate sometimes that after the Second World War, the industrialized world, the United States, Europe, and the rest of the industrialized world, represented 40 percent of the world's population. We're now down to 20 percent of the world's population, and it's still dropping.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. While the middle class expands in places like India, the poor and the subproletariat are expanding at even faster rate. Umm, it's like the veneer of civilization, of functional society, is getting thinner and thinner and thinner.
DAVID GERGEN: After the Russian Revolution in 1917, another traveler, the journalist Lincoln Steffens--
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: --went to the Soviet Union, and when he came back, Bernie Baruch asked him what did he see, and Steffens said, "I have been over into the future, and it works." You, in effect, have been over into the future, and you said it doesn't work.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. In a sense. The long-range future may be fine, but the next few decades are going to be the most tumultuous in human history, and that is because humanity is economically developing at a faster rate than ever before. This is where the optimists are right, but the optimists do not think historically, because the faster development occurs, development is always uneven, cruel, painful, and violent. So development always brings political upheaval in its wake.
DAVID GERGEN: But you seem to be saying it's not the process of development that's a negative driver, the two negative drivers are world population growth, the explosion in world population, and in its wake, the deforestation, the devastation that's occurring in the environments of so many of these Third World countries, those are the two, the population and the environment.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Well, I want to be more specific about population.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Because that's a controversial area, but it's certainly true that in the upper end of the population growth spectrum when you've got places like Pakistan and Sierra Leone and Rwanda who are doubling their populations every thirty years on top of an already-depleted rain forest and whatever, on top of already weak infrastructures, without institutional tradition, it's bad. It's bad. All the places where we've seen the worst internecine violence in the past two decades, Ethiopia, Tadzhikistan, Nicaragua, Yemen, are all places who have had high population growth rates for the fifteen or twenty years before these revolutions occurred.
DAVID GERGEN: Drawing from your book, it's--you seem to suggest that a place like West Africa, which has only a very thin civili--tradition, I mean, there are many good traditions in West Africa--
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yeah.
DAVID GERGEN: But it's nowhere near the kind of tradition say that existed in Persia, which is now modern Iran.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Mmm, Persia actually is one of the most optimistic parts of this book. Our, our problems with Iran are ephemeral. They're problems of the moment. Persia's been a state for 2500 years. It has a deep, rich cultural tradition. Persia was very--the Moa's regime has done less damage to Persian culture than Communists have done to the cultures of the former Soviet Union and, and to the cultures of--the culture of China. If a Martian were to go down and walk through Persia and ask people about Americans, about Jews, about a lot of things, and then do the same thing in Egypt, the Martian would think that Persia was a place where we had better diplomatic relations. Iranians now are in the post-anti-American phase. They've been through it all. They're among--you find some of the most wisest public attitudes in the Near East and Iran, these days. It's just, the regime is in an ossified Chernenko state, and sooner or later, it's going to collapse.
DAVID GERGEN: Why should Americans care about this?
ROBERT KAPLAN: All right. We should care for our own naked self-interest. AIDS is a product of the cycle of poverty, deforestation, migration, and other pathologies of subsaharan Africa which found its way to white middle class suburbs in an interconnected world, where there are no borders. There are more viruses in the wake of AIDS. As governments collapse and as even as weak democratic regimes try to take over in these places, they're perfect petri dishes for the rise of organized crime networks, which are another threat to us. Disease also--and strictly from an economist's point of view, our market in the future is the Third World. If the Third World doesn't make it as a middle class place, or at least a large part of the Third World, we're not going to be able to grow with 3 percent growth rates into the future.
DAVID GERGEN: The question arises what we can do. Once we understand this and it does matter to us, what can we do about it? Your argument in your book is not much.
ROBERT KAPLAN: No. Elites, whether the UN or the U.S. Government, cannot engineer reality from above. Generally speaking we are not going to be able to pivotally affect the future of subsaharan Africa, but just because we can't solve problems everywhere doesn't mean we can't be engaged in a few select places here and there that also track with our self-interest, so that we can justify it in terms of Congress and the public, and, therefore, keep platforms of connections inside these places between our cultures and theirs.
DAVID GERGEN: And you would help on the population front and on the environmental front?
ROBERT KAPLAN: Population control, women's literacy programs are some of the cheapest, yet most effective, ways to combat cultural dysfunction both in the middle run and in the short run. Rwanda's a place where women have been giving birth on the average of eight times over their adult lifetime. This has been going on for decades. If those women had been giving birth two or three times, instead of eight, imagine how much different Rwandan society would have been, how different social relations would have been, and given that politics is merely an exp--a macro expression of social relations, the politics would have evolved differently.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, we'll look forward to your next visit there in your report. Thank you.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you.