Population, Environment and Political Instability

A Tangled Triangle

By John L. Martin on June 1, 1994

Immigration Review no. 18, 1994

A review of Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability, by Norman Myers (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993).

The world is becoming smaller not just in travel time and the communications revolution, but it is also smaller on a per capita basis in the space available to house us and to grow our food. It is shrinking, too, in the non-renewable resources that remain available to us to exploit in creating and fueling the consumer products on which we now rely. The only consolation for those who believe in thinking big is a focus on the ever growing number of humans on this planet. There are few who find this an untroubling vista, and they appear to wear the blinders of economic theory that focuses on the expansion of labor as a factor of production which may be harnessed in the process of producing still greater wealth.

Norman Myers has made it very difficult in his new book, Ultimate Security, to ignore the prospect of a stark future for us all if we do not begin to take more seriously the corner into which we are backing ourselves. By establishing the interrelationship between population growth and its demands on the environment, he leads us to the inevitable conclusion that by not heeding our impact on our surroundings we are degrading the earth's ability to sustain us at the same time that there is a rapidly growing number of us to sustain.

Some Americans may be inclined to view the population-environment connection as a problem of the Third World, meriting our concern as caring people, but not a direct problem for our nation. Myers meets that perception head-on in his description of the multiplier effect of migration-producing factors, from which we clearly are not exempt in this hemisphere. His case study methodology targets Mexico and Central America, as well as pointing to Haiti and other neighboring Caribbean island states that must be a source of concern for the United States.

Other case studies focus on the Middle East, the Asian subcontinent, the Philippines and Ethiopia. In the first two, because of the growing population pressures and water resource limits, aggravated by cultural conflict (with religion as a factor), Myers points to possible outbreaks of renewed armed conflict as part of the worst case scenario. That is a prospect which would involve the resources of the United States and many other nations in humanitarian assistance, refugee admission and peacekeeping or peace making efforts, even if it did not draw outsiders directly into the conflict.

The Mexico case study illustrates Myers' approach. First he describes the country's current ecological problems — desertification, soil erosion, deforestation — and social problems, such as high unemployment and underemployment, income inequality and pressures for land redistribution. With some success in family planning efforts, Mexico's population growth rate is down to 2.3 percent (about three times the U.S. rate). Yet, the Mexican economy is not generating jobs fast enough to keep up with the labor force growth, and this fuels legal and illegal immigration northward across the border.

Myers then offers alternative scenarios for Mexico's future. One possibility is that all of Mexico's current problems — demographic, environmental and economic — continue to increase and thereby contribute to political instability. The author reminds us that during Mexico's 1910 revolution at least half a million of the country's 15 million sought sanctuary here. A similar rate of refuge seekers, with today's Mexican population of 92 million would amount to over three million — or more given the fact that the Mexican border population now totals six million. The upbeat scenario describes environmental progress and NAFTA-related economic development leading to job creation. In his case study approach, Myers does not try to predict the future. Rather, he sketches the alternatives and, in most cases, suggests that how we respond to the challenges that lie ahead will influence the outcome.

In addition to his country and regional focus, Myers slices the issues thematically, with separate chapters on population, global warming, extinction of species, environmental refugees and synergistic connections, which he explains as how the sum becomes greater than the parts. Another focus is on the issue of military spending, and how that money could be better spent.

Besides painting with a very broad brush, Myers also provides detailed strokes that continue to remind the reader that Ultimate Security is not simply an exercise in theory, but rather deals with real world conditions. Despite Myers' effort to suggest a possible escape from the direst consequences of the horns of the dilemma at the national, regional and global levels, the aftertaste is one of pessimism.

To accept Myers' message does not mean that one necessarily has to buy all of his arguments. For example, the reader may not be as concerned as Myers is about global warming — because of gaps in our knowledge — or see reprogrammed military spending as a major untapped resource for environmental spending. His analysis is so broad and yet so detailed that his message survives even if each and every assumption is not accepted. Myers' objective is to alert the public to earth's deteriorating conditions as a result of our deliberate and unintended actions. He brings home the fact that no one will be exempt from the consequences, while at the same time underscoring that we can ameliorate the effects if we act decisively now.

Dr. Myers is an environmental scientist who, in addition to being a prolific author on environmental issues (The Primary Source, The Long African Day), is also a consultant to the UN, the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund and other organizations.