Dear Bill Gates:

The 2014 Gates Annual Letter, “3 Myths that Block Progress for the Poor”, is an outstanding initiative that, it seems to me, is aimed to add up allies in the fight against poverty by dismissing some of the most deeply rooted prejudices in public opinion. You have commented in your own blog and frequent public activities, that often you gather critical or pessimistic comments about pertinence or likely success for the foundation initiatives, and you have grouped them in three myths.

First myth: the poor will remain poor; second myth: efforts to help them are wasted; and third myth, saving lives leads to overpopulation.

I got the sense that your letter is mainly addressed to the American public opinion, especially to those under the influence of the Republican Party (I wish you luck). Nearer to the Equator and below, very few of us believe the first of the myths. We strongly believe that poverty should only count for the exception, not the rule in our societies. The figures you have exhibited plus additional information in support of efforts by countries in pursuing the Goals of the Millennium demonstrate that the idea that the poor will remain poor is indeed a myth. In respect to the second one, I consider that foreign aid helps in changing lives positively when well managed, and being accompanied by governments and civil society, rigorous diagnoses, transparency and accountability. Foreign aid is not the final remedy, and you have argued so, but it’s true that the vaccine initiatives by the Gates Foundation and several of its allies are highly valuable.

What worries me is the third myth: overpopulation. You have recalled thoughts by yourself and your colleagues leading to conclude, rightly, that demographic trends are grossly determined by the economy at large, not the opposite. Diminishing infant mortality rates lead to lesser children per couple because probabilities for infant outliving get bigger, and as rising-child time enlarges before children get apt for production, birth rates tend to diminish. You have talked about education on reproductive issues and women empowerment by getting knowledge about their own bodies and using available methods in deciding family size and spacing of their pregnancies, tools that women easily use when having acquired a minimal education and improved health. Up until here, I fully agree with you.

Nonetheless, your case seems to give accommodation for Thomas Malthus’s basic premise: limited natural resources, the idea about the planet’s “finite load capacity” and the proposal to block population growth, although admittedly not by means of the 1970’s World Bank’s Malthusian methods, but through economic progress. Such an assumption seems to be apparent in the Swedish public-health expert Hans Rosling’s testimony embedded in your letter. Doctor Rosling rigorously and convincingly argues that progress in health, nutrition and education leads to diminishing pregnancies per mother, and that a minimal replacement rate of two children per couple would lead to zero population growth. That is, Rosling concludes enthusiastically, “population growth is going to stop”.

Why ten or eleven thousand millions people living on Earth would be a desirable figure as Rosling predicts? Because of the underlying idea about saving scarce natural resources, which precisely stands for Malthus’ thesis arguing that population multiplies geometrically and food arithmetically: the finite and limited amount of natural resources. Malthus is easy to defeat: only angels survive without eating.

Natural resources don’t exist as such: they are the product of human inventions. What naturally exist are the elements of the periodic table and their combinations: arable land, clean air, etc., but what makes them useful and even essential for human survival is human inventiveness. Silicon was scarcely used to make ceramics and quartz adornments some thousands years ago. Nowadays it has contributed to change human life for the millions through information and communication technology, and has been so important for your own company. Each technological revolution defines and redefines new sets of natural resources.

In a strict sense, there is an “infinite” possible resources horizon although this does not translate as infinite automated opportunities for population growth. In fact, many civilizations, cultures and ethnic groups have perished when they deplete the natural resources related to a given technology or source of energy. This seems to be the root cause for the extinction of the great Maya civilization in Mesoamerica. In our short lifespan we come across direct experiences that emphasize the ecological deterioration and impede us to see the global trend that makes possible the existence of about seven billion people with improved quality-life standards. I do not ignore that averages tend to hide famine tragedies and unmet basic needs.

In the middle of the current and unprecedented technological revolution, that has produced so many new materials and has rediscovered and cheapened traditional fuels like oil and natural gas, pursuing a goal like “stopping population growth” would be an arbitrary one. If Asia, Latin America and, above all, Africa become social and economic progress successful stories, who will balance Europe’s negative population growth? If global warming eventually allows extensive arctic areas to be populated, who will inhabit them?

The ultimate resource that matters –as American economist Julian Simon said − is human creativity which is able to solve through the fruits of its own genius, the challenges and errors our species makes while developing itself. Surely, stable demographic long periods will occur in the future and perhaps will last for centuries, but we don’t know yet if a stable population size stands for a desirable goal in itself. Kind regards to Melinda.

Best regards @ceciliasotog

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are soley those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not represent those of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). COMEXI maintains an independent and neutral position to any opinion or point of view.  

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