World Population and World Resources


By JOHN D. BLACK, Professor of Economics, Harvard University

Delivered at New England Conference on Tomorrow's Children, Harvard University, July 8, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 729-732.

THE resources of the world are called upon to supply the world's populations these days with very much that is not food—notably, of late, with ships and tanks and planes and the like—but food is still by all odds the major item, taking the world as a whole. And for the purposes of this occasion, it may be taken as the symbol of all resources. Charles Morrow Wilson, writing recently in Harper's, has opined that one-half of the population of the Latin Americas is sick. This is a safe enough guess—but a still safer one would be that two-thirds of it is inadequately nourished. No doubt the second is the major cause of the former. No person improperly fed year after year is really well. All poorly fed persons are more or less sick, and part of them are very sick and for no other reason.

If there are sixty-five millions of poorly fed in the Latin Americas, there are twice or thrice this number in Europe, and ten times as many in Asia and the East Indies.

Here at home, the common report is that a third of our people is poorly fed, and another third only fairly well fed.

These fractions mean little as such. A definite line cannot be drawn around malnutrition. Harvard University's great nutrition scholar, Dr. George R. Minot, draws before his classes a block diagram, and across the top of it a line marking off about 15 per cent of the ordinary run of folks in this country who are truly well nourished. Across the bottom he draws another line marking off another 15 per cent or so who have definite clinical symptoms of poor diets. In between comes the great bulk of the population living "sub-optimally" most of the time and yet managing to escape positive disability; some of them keeping well toward the top, but others showing clear symptoms of malnutrition now and then. If a fever strikes, or just a cold, the system does not take its usual amount of important vitamins from the food, and without special attention, the nutrition suddenly drops to clinical levels. Likewise if the person is exposed to unusual strain or fatigue—as soldiers are in a campaign.

Thus even in our own country, only a small fraction of us are in vigorous buoyant health all the time. The bulk of us are enough below par to rob us of considerable of the robust energy and good spirits that make life a great adventure.

But if Dr. Minot were drawing his chart to represent some of the Latin Americans, say our own Puerto Ricans, his clinical line would rise up and take in half or more ofthe diagram. One could proceed to enumerate the specific dietary diseases that are prevalent in such situations. It is enough merely to say that men and women living this way get to be old and haggard before they are fifty, and the average expectancy of life may be under forty years. The incidence of disease and disqualifying defects in our own Selective Service experience has been found to be 36 per cent at 36 years of age as contrasted with only 13 per cent at 21 years.

At this conference we are especially interested in children. A special concern of ours is that tomorrow's children shall be fed. This should mean not just those of our own country, but those of any parts of the world which we hope to make or keep democratic. It is among children that malnutrition does its greatest havoc. Infant mortality rates may run into the hundreds. There are even two states in our own country which have rates of over one hundred—New Mexico and Arizona.

There have been scientists of a sort who have insisted that these high infant mortality rates are not an evil, that they kill off weaklings so that only the sturdy survive, and the race stock is thereby made verile and resistant. The empirical evidence all points another way, to a general weakening in childhood of a large proportion of those who do survive the first blasts, so that death comes on apace afterwards.

I have heard Dr. Frank Boudreau, Chairman of the Food and Nutrition Board, say that we have just begun to study the bad effects in later life of malnutrition in childhood. We know they are there, but not their nature and how they later lead to breakdown in health and premature death. The ratio of world resources to world population is a major factor in nutrition. I have no intention, however, of presenting you with arrays of statistics showing food potential on the one hand and population densities and growth on the other. Such statistics have very little meaning. If birth rates are as high as on many portions of the earth's surface, no resources however large can be adequate, except for a short period, of perhaps a hundred years, after a new land is opened for settlement, or after some major change in the arts enables food production to outrun population growth temporarily. Over most of the earth's inhabited surface, population is pressing on the food supply most of the time.

Americans tend to be naive on this subject. They came into a wonderfully rich land while the Industrial Revolution

was under way. There were new lands and new industries to develop at the same time. In western Europe, the Industrial Revolution had to fight its way against acute population pressure already entrenched. It was at the beginning of this period that Malthus proclaimed his laws of population growth. Every new machine they introduced took jobs away from many hand laborers. The Industrial Revolution was fighting its way against these odds in western Russia when the World War broke. The Soviet government later performed the miracle of imposing power and machine production on most of Russia in three decades. Japan won the Russo-Japanese war because she had made much headway in such a revolution before Russia had got started with it. In India, Gandhi is battling forlornly against the encroachment of the machine. He sees the machine lowering the prices of goods till hand laborers can no longer survive in competition with it. He does not see the labor that is released for production of other things which his people need. A similar struggle is on in China, except that the Chinese leaders realize that only by industrializing can China meet the Japanese challenge.

But industrialization of a country already crowded usually relieves the pressure only in a measure. The population at once begins to grow more rapidly. If the standard of living expands at the same time, the two may meet presently, with a larger population living on a somewhat higher plane, but with the pressure as insistent as before. If the standard of living rises but slowly under such a release, about the only gain is a larger population and an increased war potential in numbers of fighting men.

Of course industrialization is not a static process. It is a continuing evolution. The arts of production may improve faster than the population expands, enabling the population to raise its levels of living while still growing. It has been easy for this to happen in most of the United States and in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It was not so easy in crowded Great Britain, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia; but in the main it was achieved. France achieved it in part by a leveling off of her population growth. In the South European countries, and the Slavic and Balkan countries, pressures were never relaxed very much.

Along with the Industrial Revolution, ordinarily another important variable was introduced into the equation— namely, some measure of democratic government and equality of opportunity. Under the stimulus of this, parents began planning better lives for their children than they themselves had experienced. They also began planning their families. Popular education expanded rapidly. Birth rates declined. The more democratic the country, and the nearer the approach to equality of opportunity, the more that scales of living were raised. This movement had reached all of western Europe by 1930. It had even confounded Mussolini in Italy.

I do not want to be accused of apotheosizing this general movement toward smaller families. It has been carried too far by too many families—in the case of France, by almost a whole nation of families. All I am saying is that the general direction of it was good for the world at the time.

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It should now be apparent that total or potential resources is only one of the variables in population pressure, and not the most important one. Others are stage of development of a country, industrialization, progress of the arts, population growth, form of government, and individual opportunity.

An equally significant statement is that figures on resources per capita are only averages, and population pressure is always on the margin—that is, among the lowest-income groups in any country. Probably there is very little difference between the living conditions of the very poorest group in the different countries. Locate them in any section of the world and they will be found to be living on a bare subsistence level—not even enough to allow them to reproduce their numbers. Sickness is killing them off faster than they are born. Then there will be a larger marginal group in which net reproduction is a slightly positive quantity. The existence of such groups as these two in almost any country is not the question at issue. We know that they exist in all countries. The important point is the relative proportion of them. The fraction is large—perhaps over a half—in much of the Orient, in Puerto Rico, and among many of the Indian groups in the Latin Americas. We have a small fraction of them almost anywhere in the United States— a fairly sizable one in a few spots.

Among the non-Indian population of the New World countries, and in much of Western Europe, the largest marginal group consists of the families that have been able to push their plane of living somewhat above the mere subsistence level, to include a few comforts in it, a modicum of medical care, a little education for the children, an occasional night at a cheap movie house and the like. This group probably makes up two-thirds or more of the population of Great Britain and of some of the western Europe folks, and a third at least of our own people.

Obviously, to throw all these three marginal groups into one national average, that also includes perhaps another ten per cent that get half the national income, does not give us any meaningful or useful measure.

Our concern is mainly with these marginal group per se. How well do these groups feed themselves, for example?

Two important circumstances must be presented that have an important bearing on the matter of the diets of these marginal groups. The first is that a large fraction of them work for cash wages as laborers on highly commercialized plantations and eat very little except cheap staple foods which they buy with their wages. A clear example of this are the natives who work on the Dutch sugar plantations and eat rice imported from the mainland. The sugar plantation laborers in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaii are in the same bracket; also the rubber plantation workers, the cocoa workers of Ecuador, the coffee workers of Brazil, the sisal workers of Yucatan, etc. These groups ordinarily have no land of their own and produce nothing for their own consumption. Cash-crop cotton production in the United States is pretty much of the same pattern. Although the cotton workers operate land as croppers or tenants, they have tended in the past to put most of their tillable land into one cash crop. One can find the counterpart of our cotton production on grain farms in eastern Europe.

The other circumstance is that the staple foods which these workers consume have become more and more refined. The rice is polished, the corn meal has its germ removed, and the bread is more and more made from white flour.

Relatively few if any of the three marginal groups above listed are fed at or even near the optional line. Most of them are somewhere in the lower half of the diagram. The landless workers on large plantations are merely one important type of these underfed marginal people.

What have we to offer as a program for better nutrition for these groups? Surely no phase of post-war planning is more significant or offers more promise for the sustained peace of the world. The Utopias that are being designed by the many schools of after-the-war planners have many

delightful chambers in them. Mr. Roosevelt has limited his to four-—the "four freedoms." Some others have not been so easily satisfied. I shall be content if out of the awful holocaust will come just one new generally accepted idea or principle, namely, that each child and each worker shall be assured an opportunity for a minimum adequate diet, and that means shall be taken to establish food habits that will comprise such diets.

Merely abolishing the raw hunger of partial starvation will go a good way toward checking the unrest among the great masses in the marginal groups, and making good democratic citizens out of untold millions of people who now doubt their governments. If in addition these can be supplied with the protective foods needed to furnish them with a sound basis for health and vigor, a large part of the discontent that is rife among body politics will disappear.

I do not say that it will all disappear. I would not want it all to disappear. There are several other important inequalities of opportunity among men that need redressing before real democracy prevails. But I would be satisfied with this as a next step—and consider it as big a step as the democratic nations can be expected to take at one time. Furthermore, if it were really attained it would be worth to humanity all the tremendous cost of the present war.

We could not expect it to be achieved completely all at once—any more than free popular education and abolition of illiteracy were thus achieved. We would have to be content at the start with getting the principle established and actually in operation on a large scale in the leading democratic nations and in some of the more progressive of the smaller ones. Even here in the United States we have just been rudely awakened to the serious crippling effect on our war effort of the considerable amount of illiteracy or near-illiteracy among our people. Popular education is very far from being available to all children in very many of the democracies; ninety per cent of the people of some of the South American republics are still illiterate. Hundreds of thousands of children still have no schools even in Puerto Rico. If the principle of education for all has been thus slow in getting established, we cannot expect the principle of a minimum adequate diet to be applied at once in all the nations carrying on the pretension of being democratic. Still we don't need to be as slow about it as we have been with education. Both can be accelerated.

As a matter of fact, the two can help each other out. We have found in this country that the best of the several programs which we have for dispensing food among the needy is the school lunch program. It has proved superior, from the standpoint of all concerned, to the stamp program and to direct distribution from depots.

The International Labor Office has just published its conclusions from a study just made of Great Britain's food program: Says this report: "There seems little doubt that the milk scheme will remain as a permanent part of British social policy, and already many are urging that its scope be extended. . . . The extension of communal meals, especially in the schools, in the factories, and in the mines, has provided for decent mid-day meals facilities that will not be scrapped when the war is over."

Free school lunches, prepared so as to make up deficiencies in the home feeding, can be accepted as a regular and expected part of educational programs, as essential as textbooks. There is little sense in concerning ourselves with the minds of our children and letting their bodies languish. Oh, yes, we have had physical education for a long time, that is, in our better schools. But until proper food habits and feeding are established, what we now serve up as physical education is like putting frills on rags.

The British war-time system of providing one good meal of the proper supplementary protective foods to workers in factories and in mines is just beginning to take hold in this country. It needs pushing with all possible energy. Such meals can be interpreted as a necessary part of wages, and required as a wartime measure in this country as in England. When the war is ended, they will then be accepted as an essential feature of the "working conditions" over which employer-employee battles are constantly being fought. The employers will have discovered by then that the increased output of their workers, and savings in costs from illness and absenteeism, far outweigh the cost of the meals.

These two programs alone will not reach all who need help with their diets. But they will go a long way toward it. The children will carry into their homes the habits and lessons learned from the school lunches; in lesser degree, the adult workers in factories. The further measures needed will follow easily in due time.

Several eloquent passages about foods and nutrition have of late been included in addresses dealing with the international phases of the post-war. The hungry are to be fed in the countries released from the dictators, and after that, the diets of the multitudes in the crowded regions of Europe and Asia are to be supplemented with the needed protective foods.

Between what we are doing now in this country, what the British Empire is now doing, and Russia, and China—the democratic quartet—what the political leaders in these countries are thinking—in my own country, I have in mind particularly the Farm Bloc—and these idealized programs of international food dispensation, a vast gap yawns. It is easy to idealize the future. Any of us can design a Utopia. The difficult problems are those of getting our government and our people to take the necessary steps in the direction of the desired goals—to take them one at a time from month to month and year to year.

Out of the various forms of communal feeding which will follow the war in Europe and elsewhere, let us hope that something in the nature of continuing food and nutrition programs can be salvaged. Keeping the schools going and using them as agencies for getting protective foods into mouths of children offers one prospect in the way of a transition from emergency to permanent programs. Using the factories and workshops in similar manner may be another.

A great additional need in many rural areas is to get the families to producing the protective foods which they need on their farms, or on land that is made available for them for this purpose. Programs of this sort have at times been outlined for Cuba, Puerto Rico and several other countries. Mexico has made the most actual progress in this direction. Obviously such programs have to be developed internally for each country. But the United States and Great Britain could furnish a great leadership for them, and probably some financial assistance. The nearest models for such a program are found in the Rehabilitation Loan procedures of our Farm Security Administration, and the Workingmen's Garden Allotment schemes of Great Britain and a few other countries.

If the workers on tropical sugar plantations had little farms of their own where they worked when not needed in the cane fields and mills, not quite so much sugar would be produced for export, it is true; but then we would not have quite so large a peacetime problem of sugar surpluses. Likewise, if the eastern Europe wheat producers had a little less wheat for export. And the diets of the workers would be greatly improved.

The more that is said about solving the problems of international food distribution, and minimum adequate diets for all, through leveling of tariff barriers, the less the chances are that the Congress of the United States will permit the necessary steps. Every doctrinaire internationalist who starts talking along these lines should be strangled with his own words.

The proposal for an international RFC has similar dangers. The language of billions which the RFC customarily uses is frightening to those many millions of our people who are appalled by the prospect of a national debt of three hundred billions.

But a safe transition can be made, step by step, from Lend-Lease for winning the war, to Lend-Lease for feeding the starving people of released Europe, to Lend-Lease for reconstruction, and finally to Lend-Lease for keeping the peace of Europe and Asia. Moreover, the international financing of it can all be arranged in such a way that it contributes strongly to continuing prosperity in our own land. Therefore let us think of Lend-Lease as offering the safest path to the desired goals.

In conclusion, it should be pointed out that no program of international aid to crowded populations will be enough. Taking the world as a whole, it would be relatively easy to grow upon it enough food to provide a minimum adequate diet for all its existing peoples. But there is not enough land to provide this in some of the crowded parts of Southern Europe; and surely not enough in much of Asia, nor in our own Puerto Rico. Our own South could feed itself well if it concentrated on food production. But then it would have not enough cash income with which to buy clothing, housing, medical care and education. The South, too, is overcrowded.

To many, migration seems an easy answer—from the South to the North and West in our own country; from the Old to the New World for Europe and Asia. But most of us realize that this is no final cure for the evil. The populations left behind simply multiply and fill up the gaps. There have been some rates of emigration out of Europe high enough to relieve the pressure effectively; but the countries I have been small—like Ireland and Norway. The only fundamental solution is accelerated free democratic education, and greater provision for equality of opportunity for the young. Then parents begin to plan for their families.

Altogether too much has been said about religious precepts as an obstacle. The families of moderately educated folks of moderate means tend to be small—often too small—the world over regardless of religion.

In these warring times some have gone so far as to declaim against the baleful influence of popular education as inducing too low a birth rate for the military safety of the country. But the most recent studies of the relation between income and size of families are showing a pronounced tendency, above a certain level, toward a positive rather than a negative correlation.

The key to the situation is now furnished by the magic words "opportunity" and "security." Give to a family a prospect of health and equal opportunity for their children, and reasonable security for them in their jobs, and security for the parents in their old age, and what evidence we now have indicates that families will tend to be larger again. Under these circumstances, many millions of mothers and fathers will even accept the idea of rearing one extra child so as to be sure to have sons and daughters enough though defense of their country may perchance lay one of them under the sod or the sea.