Haiti & the Limits of Growth

The catastrophic effects of earthquake that hit the Port au Prince area, the capital of Haiti , on the 12 th of January, should not blind us to all that could have been done to prevent, if not the earthquake itself—which is beyond our control—at least a major part of the suffering that has been its result.

Granted that Haiti is an extraordinary nation, exceptional in its often troubled history. What was once the most prosperous of colony in the West Indies is now is the poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere.  The second nation in the Americas to win independence (in 1804) from its European (French) rulers, it is the only nation in the world that ever did so by means of a revolt of its population of slaves.   Saddled by debt to maintain its independence (Napoleon Bonaparte tried to win it back then settled for reparations) Haiti ’s history has been, until just recently, a succession of mostly corrupt dictatorships.

Some will lay the blame for all this on the French, or on the Haitian people themselves, claiming that as mostly former slaves, they were incapable of constructing a prosperous country for themselves and seemed, for the most part, content, at least at first, to exist by simple subsistence farming of small plots, while the Creole upper class, once independence had been won, were largely content to imitate the whites whom they replaced at the top of the social and economic pyramid. Others will emphasize the difficulties of the nation’s geography, it being at the largely mountainous and drier western end of the island of Hispaniola, with the wetter eastern two-thirds taken up by the Dominican Republic where the sugar and coffee plantations have continued to prosper through land ownership patterns established in its Spanish colonial past.

All the above may be, to some extent true, but the overwhelming fact is that Haiti now simply has far too many inhabitants for the land to support. With only 10,694 square miles of territory (just slightly larger than the state of Maryland) and over nine million people, the overall population density, if spread out evenly, would be at least 850 persons per square mile. But of course it is not spread out that way.  Instead, the mountains to the east are largely denuded of forest (cut down to make charcoal for cooking), and the farmland (with most of the topsoil washed into the sea) has become so unproductive that in some areas, people are reduced to supplementing their meager food supplies with pies or cookies made largely from mud. Meanwhile a major part of the population has crowded into the slums that surround the towns on the sea coast.  Port au Prince, once a city of about 300,000, had about ten times that many residents by the time the earthquake hit, and the garbage and water pollution had become so bad that the fish were dying off in the once productive sea.

In many ways, Haiti might be seen as a kind of test-tube example of what is likely to happen if and when the world’s population goes out of control.   True, demographers predict that by 2050 the world’s population growth will probably peak at nine billion and then begin to level off, and that, in fact, as of late, even Haiti’s population growth has begun to slow down.  But it is also evident that, given Haiti ’s present conditions, the slow down came way too late. As a country where the population is supposedly 90% Catholic (although some Haitians joke that it is 100% Voodoo as well), one wonders how much the Church must be accused of not speaking out on the necessity of curbing population growth.

Nevertheless, whatever the political, social, religious, and economic causes that led to all this, we must face the fact that the same kind of human disaster could happen elsewhere, even without hurricanes and earthquakes.  With some 57 billion square miles of total land mass, nine billion people would fill the earth much less densely than the population of Haiti does in its own country today.   However, major parts of the earth’s land mass can hardly support a population (subtract 5.5 billion square miles of Antarctica for just a start, then add the vast deserts, and the Arctic tundra) of any density at all.

The lesson, then, should be obvious. We cannot expect infinite growth, not just of prosperity, much more of population, in a finite world. Haiti , even without hurricanes and earthquakes, remains a tragic and sobering example of the limits of growth.

R W Kropf      1/16/10                                   Haiti.doc  10-01-16.html