Population and the Environment

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was a political economist who is known for his Malthusian Growth Model. As one of the first scholars to attempt to describe and analyze a population, he realized that human populations grew exponentially. He also identified a relationship between the standard of living of an average person and the food supply available to the population as a whole. The expansion of the food supply, as he saw it, was limited to how much land could be spared to grow food, which cannot grow exponentially. If population growth is exponential, and expansion of the food supply is not, humans have a problem. Malthus believed that there would come a time when the Earth’s population would exceed its food capacity. The results, as anyone who has seen a post-apocalypse film  knows, would not be good. Malthus’s conclusions to his theory are alarming. Essentially, he thought anything that could reduce the human population was a good thing. This included things like birth control and celibacy, but he also did not think war and famine were bad. Regardless of his morally suspect views, Malthus was one of the first to bring up the problem of over-population and how it could be a problem.

What Malthus did not count on when he predicted the apocalypse was the rate of technological advancement. While this contributed to population growth through improved medical practices, sanitation, and other means, it also greatly improved the ability of humans to produce more food in less area. The direction of this causality may be unclear—whether population caused technology or technology allowed population—but their relationship is important to human’s effect on the environment.

Technological innovation brought massive changes in every way. One of these changes was the growth of productivity. Global economic prosperity took off in the 20th century even relative to the growth in population. With this came massive increases in the demand for energy. As prof. Roche explained on Monday, humans not only needed more energy, but we had the means of supplying it with cheap, burnable fuel. The consequences of our use of these sources of energy are probably the most significant threat to human life on this planet at the moment. Increased productivity brought about new factories and the demand for labor. During the lecture on Wednesday, we discussed how rural populations moved to the cities to meet this demand and what this process looked like. Despite the rural population declining and more efficient farming techniques, farmers still needed more farm land. The increasing number of people around the world had to be fed, so people began farming more land. This meant they had to clear out areas to use, which included chopping down trees and killing the animals. Deforestation and the near extinction of certain species have been the result (Bayly, p. 294).

Thomas Malthus may have missed on many points, but he was correct in thinking that we need to find a balance between the need to feed our growing population and the need to protect the environment. Bayly (p. 297) agrees with this dilemma. Obviously, we can’t not feed people and just let them starve. Nor can we destroy the only home we have. Population is may still be the problem, but hindsight is 20/20 (if you’re alive). Who can say if our best chance for salvation lies in the stagnation of population growth, technological advancement, or something entirely different.

Family Migration

My great great grandfather on my father’s father’s side had an extremely eventful life. Eugene Wasserzug was born in Warsaw, Poland around 1831. After attending multiple universities to train as a doctor, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death by Russian authorities for participating in an unsuccessful Polish uprising against Czarist Russian in 1863 (probably the January Uprising of that year). He was able to escape in the guise of a beggar and fled to Prussia before settling, with his wife and three children, in Switzerland, where he became a citizen and a licensed physician. By 1870, Eugene and his eldest son, Etienne, had abandoned the rest of the family in Switzerland to move to France, where Eugene was appointed Inspector General of Ambulances for the French army during the Franco-Prussian War. Eugene quickly remarried and moved to Argentina to become a professor of medicine at the University of Buenos Aires; he never mentioned another family in Europe, and the connection was only discovered several generations later. Etienne was left behind in France under the custody of one of Eugene’s patients, where he managed to succeed and become a valued assistant and researcher for Louis Pasteur before dying of scarlet fever at a young age. Euegene had more children in Argentina and never taught at the University. Instead, he became a well respected physician and a founding member of the Argentine Medical Association before dying in 1911.

Eugene Wasserzug’s grandson, mi abuelo Germán Wasserzug, married mi abuela, Coca, whose mother immigrated to Argentina from Spain. My grandparents had three children in Argentina before coming to the United States in 1961 where my father was the first of four more children. Mi abuelo was always vague about why he insisted on uprooting the family and moving the States, especially given that he had a stable job and didn’t speak English well (and his wife not at all). Argentina, which was one of the richest countries in the world before the outbreak of WWI, had endured the post WWI recession better than most economies of the region. When the Great Depression hit, the country with a history of high economic highs and low economic lows began a transition from the former to the later with a slug-like determination. Mi abuelo was born in 1928, the perfect time to see the economic and social struggles of his country grow to national problems. His decision to make the move to the US was probably motivated by the opportunity he saw abroad and the dangers he saw at home. Indeed, this branch of the Wasserzug family avoided the fate of those that stayed in Argentina. My father’s cousin, like many others, was abducted by the in the middle of the night by the military junta in control and never seen again, but that is a story I have already told in one of these posts.

My maternal grandfather’s family has far better record keeping. We can trace multiple branches of our family tree, generation to generation, all the way back for literally millennia. The family moved to Texas sometime between 1817 and 1844, before Texas was a state in the US. Before that, we had been in what became the states since long before independence. In fact, tracing the recorded family tree through England and Belgium, we are direct descendants of Emperor Charles the Bald (823-877), grandson of Charlemagne. Although this is interesting, Charles the Bald had over 30 children and lived over 1000 years ago, so it probably isn’t too uncommon.

For the most part, we do not know why my ancestors migrated when and where they did. Eugene Wasserzug’s flight to Switzerland was understandable given that he has been sentenced to death in Russia, but we did not discover that until over 100 years after it happened. The Polish uprising against Russia was nationalistic and was a precursor to years of resistance. We do not know why Eugene moved to France or Argentina. He may have been simply following the economic opportunities he was offered, or he may have had other motivations. The descendants of his family in Switzerland suggest that he simply left and they never heard from him again. Then he migrated across the Atlantic to a country that spoke a language he did not, leaving his son in the custody of a client, to take a job he never ended up working. Our move to the United States was also probably about opportunity to find a better life; the Great Depression was catastrophic for an uncountable number of people across the world. My mother’s side of the family has not really migrated anywhere that we have sufficient records of for a long time. Although my grandmothers’ families were from Spain (paternal side) and Sweden (maternal side), we do not know what prompted them to migrate to Argentina and the US respectively. In some ways, my family knows a lot about our history. In others, we know nothing. Even if we know when and where we migrated, we often cannot say why. In those histories we do know, our migrations do not reflect world trends or developments other than a possible connection to Economic misfortune. Perhaps Charlemagne is the exception to that, but I would argue that he does not count.

Israeli and Palestinian Declarations of Independence

  • The two Declarations of Independence of Israel and Palestine follow a very similar trajectory. Both begin by establishing their right to the land by affirming their historical and religious roots in the area. They describe their people’s spiritual connection to the country as the birthplace of their respective religions and claim the right to establish a self-governing state safe for their people. Both documents describe the prosecution their people have faced and praise their fortitude and will. They both refer to the United Nations and use its authority to support their right to establish a state and denounce those who have challenged this right. They both claim that, despite the unjust and unprovoked attacks on their rightful lands and peace-loving people, they are willing to extend the hand of peace and fellowship towards their neighbors. The Israeli document proclaims, “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now and for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace… We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness”. The Palestinian document makes similar statements, frequently referring to Israeli occupation of their lands and affirming their commitment to a peaceful resolution. Both documents conclude with a call to their people to remain strong and rally around their righteous calling of defending their homeland in accordance with their expressed desire for a peaceful state governed by themselves in which all peoples can be safe and work towards the betterment of their society.
  • Both documents use their religion to support their stance. Their religious history is used to assert their claim to the land. Because their religions were established in Israel/Palestine, their entire identity as a people is indelibly linked to the physical ground on which they stand. Religion is the basis on which their nation is formed. They both want to establish a place where their religious fellows can safely practice together without fear of prosecution. Religion and religious history are the fabrics that bind both peoples together and define their national identity. Unlike the Israeli document, the Palestinian declaration begins and ends with the statement “In the name of God”. They are both appealing to their God and using it, as the highest authority available in their eyes, to grant legitimacy as being within its will.
  • The two groups both use a combination of religion and shared history to define themselves. This is how both documents begin, and it is what lays the groundwork for their claim to sovereignty. Both groups speak of themselves in terms of a collection of people sharing the same religion who have a shared history as a result. They express the desire for sovereignty because they wish to find a place where others of their religion can live without fear of prosecution, something both groups use as a uniting force. They all share a history of being wrongfully attacked because of what they believe, and they both take pride in their people’s ability to survive despite this.
  • The Israeli declaration does not specifically address the Palestinians except in the reference to those attacking them in the statement quoted above. They have an “us versus them” mentality in that there are those who are part of Israel as they see it and there are those who are not. They speak of their neighbors in the abstract only. The Palestinian declaration is far more specific. They explicitly denounce Israel for invading and occupying their lands. To them, the Israeli are portrayed as the horrible invaders who make violence without reasonable cause.
  • Neither declaration specifically outlines how they foresee the other if they get their way. The closest either of them come is in saying their state will be one where all religions can be practiced freely. Specifically, the Palestinian document says, “governance will be based on principles of social justice, equality and non-discrimination in public rights of men or women, on the grounds of race, religion, color or sex…”. The Israeli document gives a very similar statement when it says, “[Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion…”.

The Expansion of the Collection and Analysis of Information

The collection, organization, distribution, and analysis of data on a large scale is something we take for granted in the world today, particularly in the United States. It is something we deal with constantly—our social security numbers, our student IDs, our census data, our GPAs, our purchasing preferences, etc. are all information collected for the purpose of running large-scale organizations like the United States Government, Amazon, or even the College of Wooster. In our first reading this semester, This Fleeting World, David Christian identifies increasingly complex and powerful governments as one of the key features of the modern era; “no government of the agrarian era tried to track the births, deaths, and incomes of all the people it ruled or to impose compulsory schooling; yet many modern governments handle these colossal tasks routinely” (p. 62). His argument is that the demands of modern society, from overseeing massive populations to managing equally massive entities such as schooling and the economy, require the collection and digestion of detailed information on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

In the introduction of his book Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, Bernard S. Cohn describes how and why Britain developed the first bureaucracy that had the capacity and desire to gather and interpret this level of information. According to Cohn, “many aspects of metropolitan documentation projects were first developed in India (by the British)” (p. 4). Regardless of British intentions—be they benevolent, malevolent, or stemming from a simple desire for understanding—the expansion of the administrative functions and processes in the British governing of India, as is the case with many innovations across history, was brought about by a desire to divide people rather than bring them together and ultimately became little more than the weaponization of information. Both Bernard Cohn and professor Bonk address the issues resulting from Britain’s attempt to understand the people of India. Through incompetence, generalizations, and oversimplifications, Britain managed to divide South Asia more thoroughly than if they had taken a massive pair of scissors and cut it down the middle (which they eventually kind of did).

Despite what happened in South Asia, this characteristic of governance has become absolutely critical to the functioning of any large organization existing in the current world climate. The identification and classification of people and entities is far too convenient for both the organizations and the people that interact with them. The information gathered informs decisions and policies and provides benefits to the people classified. Imagine what paying taxes would be like if the government did not know who anyone was, what their income looked like, how many dependents they had, etc.; it would be hectic. The mistake of the British in India was not that they collected information and classified people; it was how they interpreted that information, the way the classified those people, and the fact that they used these to inform policy. Fundamentally, the disaster in South Asia was a result of the ruling body acting without understanding the situation and making uninformed decisions.

Argentina’s Last Military Junta

At the end of the Eduardo Galeano article, he lays out a series of platitudes, goals, and hopes for the future. At the top of page 337, one of these reads,

“In Argentina, the crazy women at the Plaza de Mayo shall be held up as examples of mental health because they refused to forget in a time of obligatory amnesia”

Galeano is referring to the movement known as La Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, where, despite Umbridge-esk laws against gatherings of more than three people, a group of women gathered every week to protest the activities of the military junta in power at the time. Specifically, they advocated for their children, los Desaparecidos, who disappeared during the dirty war and were never seen again.

The military coup succeeded in March of 1976, overthrowing Isabel Martínez de Perón, the third wife and successor of the democratically elected Juan Perón. Almost immediately, the new regime initiated a dirty war against the Argentine populous. It was an era of government terrorism, characterized by extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture, and most famously, disappearances.

The coup receives little global attention in relation to the Cold War. Its history in the 20th C. set apart from most of Latin America; in professor Holt’s lectures, Argentina was only mentioned once in response to a question. This omission is understandable. Neither Argentine government was directly supported by the US or the USSR, and the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism played a relatively small role in these events. The US Department of State was aware that a coup was on the horizon, but although the junta was right-wing, the US did not act. Argentina is an interesting counterpoint to Bayly’s discussion of the overarching themes of US interference in Latin America at the time. There was almost no financial, military, or ideological support from the superpower despite the turmoil plaguing the nation with the second largest economy in Latin America.

That is not to say Argentina was isolated. The Argentine Secret Service, along with Pinochet’s government and others, participated in Operation Condor, a US backed operation to suppress communist ideas in Latin America. They also aided in the training of the Contras in Nicaragua, a group fighting the Sandinista government with US support.

The regime persisted until 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (aka: Malvinas), a territory of Britain to which Argentina lay claim. As Bayly mentions, the undeclared war between the two nations lasted 10 weeks and concluded in a clear British victory. The embarrassment in Argentina prompted public outrage—as my father once said to me regarding the reaction of the Argentine people, “It was a fucking military dictatorship. The one thing it was supposed to be able to do was win a war, but it couldn’t even manage that.”

My family is from Argentina; my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s while most of the family remained in Argentina. When the 1976 coup overthrew the Perón government, my father’s cousin, Héctor Jorge, was a medical student at the University of Buenos Aires. At a time when freedom of speech was limited, Héctor spoke out against the military dictatorship and the crimes they committed. One night in 1976, while the family slept, their home was invaded and Héctor was abducted; he was never seen again. My grandfather’s sister, Irene (aka: Meri), was one of the mothers Galeano refers to who took to the Plaza de Mayo in protest. She is even depicted on the cover of a book written on the events: Circles of Madness (Circulos de Locura), by Marjorie Agosín. Our family has never learned what happened to Héctor, if he was tortured or thrown into the Atlantic to drown. Like so many others, his fate is lost. In the last days of their reign, the government destroyed an unknown quantity of records regarding their crimes against the civilians. As of 2015, nearly 9,000 cases of disappearances had been documented, but it is probable that that number does not account for thousands more victims of the regime.

Week 7 Blog Post

1. The first “thematic shape” Tony Judt talks about in his introduction is the the lessening world influence of Europe, what he calls ‘Europe’s Reduction’. When the Second World War ended, much of Europe emerged out of the chaos to find their economies limping, their infrastructure destroyed, and their ideologies divided. Wartime spending in the United States had catapulted its economy to a position of global prominence, while the USSR looked to be a similarly dominant economic power. The development and use of the atomic bomb by the United States, not Europe, and the ensuing arms race in which the USSR attempted to catch up, aided by claims of nuclear superiority from the Kremlin, indicated that it was Europe’s neighbors to the East and West that held primary military sway throughout the world. Finally, the Cold War itself, where the USSR and the US played ideological chess with much of the world, including Europe, was the nail in the coffin of European global dominance. Decolonization began in the 1950s, and economic growth in Europe stagnated in the 1970s. By the time the Eastern Bloc fell, Europe’s influence throughout the world was a fraction of what it had been a century earlier.

2. Tony Judt describes how, in the late 20th century, the political extremes of the decades before were becoming increasingly marginalized. Not only had communism and fascism been excised from Europe, but other contentious issues had been seemingly resolved as well; among these, Judt mentions censorship, the death penalty, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. One major change that followed this development was the death of the public intellectual. In contrast with much of recent European history, public intellectuals had very little influence on government policy or public sentiment. Their opinions, according to Judt, were largely ignored by the beginning of the 21st century. Even in the realm of international relations, where their opinions coincided with that of the public, the work of intellectuals across Europe was largely irrelevant. Judt points out that a movement among public intellectuals like that of 2003 would have been a major event at any time in the previous century. But now, it made almost no difference.

3. Judt’s discussion on the “limitations of a post-national prescription for a better European future” largely revolves around the fact that Europe is—and will continue to be—viewed as a collection of countries that make up a continent rather than a single entity that happens to consist of countries. The reason for this division of cultures—or souls, as François Mitterand might say—is that the EU is not fully integrated. Many of the most meaningful responsibilities of states still reside on a national level. The country is responsible for civil protection, pensions, and taxation; the citizens vote for the leaders of their country, not the EU. The lack of a single European identity has resulted in a less deeply engrained faith in the EU and Europe itself. The documents and statistics from The World Transformed reflect the weakening support for international cooperation.The numbers from the Pew Research Center indicate a dramatic change in sentiment during the recession, particularly in the countries that suffered the most economic hardship during that time. The statements from the unemployed citizens are understandably negative; when the economy went south in 2008, it would have been hard not to attribute some blame to the EU, which oversees much of the macro-level economic policy for participating countries. The nationalist party posters from Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are an example of rising nationalism, a phenomenon continuing and intensifying today. The recession and the continuing national framework through which many Europeans view international relations have contributed to the anti-immigration movement. In essence, the existence of a “post-national prescription for a better European future” is very much in question.