New Internationalist

The Pathological Game

Issue 235

new internationalist
issue 235 - September 1992


The pathological game
Just who is out of control? Anuradha uncovers more shocking truths.

A question that has intrigued me during the course of this exploration is why the population graph creeps along the bottom of the page for so many centuries before racing upwards as though running up a cliff.

Politicians seem to be very fond of this line and take a thrilling and perverse delight in pointing to its sudden rise, but it seems to me just as important to find out how it managed to lie supine for so long.

Was it simply that the exponential growth of human numbers had not registered on the graph until a key moment, like a jet gathering speed along the runway before it soars off? Perhaps people in the past were killed off by sabre-toothed tigers, or plague, or a lack of soap?

Listening to observers of semi-traditional societies gave me a surprising piece of information: apparently people in pre- industrial societies did not go in for producing as many children as possible. What they very sensibly focused on was producing as many surviving children as they could. So customs were built into their traditions that protected children already born in order to help them go on surviving even if this meant fewer births.

To take the simplest of examples, breastfeeding was universal and prolonged. This not only fed the babies at the breast a perfect, nutritionally-balanced diet but also immunized them. Obviously these factors massively improved these children's chances of survival. Less obviously, breastfeeding also de-stressed their community in other ways, for example by producing a high degree of emotional security in the children who were less likely to cling, whining, to the skirts of busy mothers. It was therefore an empowering and liberating act for both child and mother. In addition, the prolonged breastfeeding lowered the mother's fertility through natural hormonal changes, so her births were more likely to be spaced healthily apart.

The simple act of breastfeeding creates, in the relationship between mother and child, a sustainable mini-ecosystem, which helps produce effects that range from maintaining the inner well-being of the baby all the way to maintaining an environmentally-friendly population size. An important principle is embedded here: far from having to choose between guarding a baby's right to the best possible care and guarding the rights of the planet, we find that the same rights that protect babies also protect the community and its environment.

This is destabilized by the introduction of glamorous tins of imported babyfood. Now, hundreds of thousands of artificially-fed babies fall sick and die each year. And because their babies die, or look like they might die, parents try again for another baby - and the fertility rate climbs. A sickly, insecure and growing population replaces a small, secure and healthy one.

Land rights for women: a key to solving the environmental crisis.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES

All this results from the overturning of just one cultural tradition. Ecologist Edward Goldsmith adds another: 'Each individual belongs to an extended family and lineage group which provides an extraordinary degree of security. What is more, each individual has a right to the land they and their family occupy by virtue of their status as a member of these groupings. In addition, the agricultural methods used are designed to maximize security even at the cost of limiting yields. [Modern] development changes all that.'1

Someone has to be the loser of the modern economic game, for it is a game whose rules demand losers as well as winners. It is inherently predatory, and predators can't survive without victims. In fact, like a hungry alligator, it needs a lot of victims to keep it fed. The environment is among its prey, as are the poor - and the smallest and most vulnerable fish are the children of the poor.

People who fall prey must adapt to survive. Where adults have been severely deprived of material resources with which they can buy security, comfort or energy, their children - like it or not - must provide these comforts. Their rights as children, to be protected, educated, allowed to develop their full potential, fly out of the window.

At least 100 million child labourers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), are at work every day; Defence for Children International puts the figure at 150 million children in Asia alone. The cost of these children's stunted lives is not accounted for when economists make their calculations of GNP.

So the response of poorer Southern families to have many children to help them survive, though exploitative of those children, is a logical response to the poverty created by the overarching exploitation of the modern economic system. Ironically, therefore, the Southern population growth that the North so hates and fears is a consequence of its own pathological system.

We are being forced to a shocking conclusion. The global economic system riggers enormous environmental destruction through uncontrolled Northern consumption, militarism and waste; it triggers the desire for the same kind of destructive, egocentric lifestyle in the South; it triggers a degree of destitution in the South that forces the poor into acts of uncharacteristic environmental degradation and child exploitation - and it even triggers rapid population growth itself.

It is no longer sufficient to see population growth as a secondary cause of environmental degradation, with economic growth as the major cause: rapid population growth is itself a symptom of the pathological economic system.

But our perception of the world is usually otherwise, influenced as we are by the spin-doctors of the North who present the problem as the solution. This morning, for instance, population gurus on the radio were tut-tutting over the debates at the Earth Summit. If only there was more economic development, they were saying sadly, then we could find the money to pay for the environmental measures we need.

1 Edward Goldsmith, The Ecologist. (Vol 19 No 1, 1989).

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