It’s always a lively question when people, through their stupidity, get themselves into trouble and depend on public agencies, funded by the public through taxation, to bail them out. You know the sort of thing I am talking about: some half-wit decides to ski on a mountain prone to avalanches; or he or she might head off into the mighty Atlantic Ocean in a tiny, ill-equipped sailboat, and after a couple of weeks signals to the outside world that he or she is on the edge of a horrible death and needs immediate rescue at a cost of thousands of dollars to the public purse.
These are the sort of questions that can be asked after almost every calamity caused by natural disasters. For example, a community has been built on a flood-plain. Every ten years or so, the flood-plain is inundated, the community has to be evacuated, losses mount into the milions of dollars, some peoole may even be killed, and then the evacuated people whose homes have been destroyed go right back into the same flood-plain and start to rebuild their community anew.
These are tough questions even to write about: I find myself, for example, questioning the certainties expressed in my first paragraph, to a certain extent. We wouldn’t want laws that limit people from going to the depths of their aspirations, from undertaking dangerous exploits, even if others might think them foolish. The best that could be said in such circumstances is that they should go in with their eyes open, knowing that if their disastrous experiences are repeated, they can hardly expect to be bailed out repeatedly by the public purse.
Some people have raised such reservations about the experience of Houston in face of its disastrous floods. Houston is a city of six million people or thereabouts, and it has no building regulations. It has never had any zoning. This is because of the ideology of the people, their proud boast that in Texas the individual can do what he wants, no one can stop him from building whatever he wants wherever he wants. Why not? Hey, you’re in Texas now, your own master in Texas. As a result Houston, as someone told me this week, is built on a swamp, a swamp that has been covered over by the city’s concrete, a swamp just waiting for the rainfall of the century to fall and bite Houston on the backside, as it were.
This week some online magazine or other had a cartoon in which some good old boy Texan, the sort that has always objected to federal controls, is standing on the roof of his home yelling for help from some federal agent ready to rescue him by helicopter. This seemed to suggest that the charitable impulse to help people in distress might be considered to be constrained because of the idiocy of the past behaviour of the guy in distress. Respondents by the hundred, armed with moral certitude, denounced the magazine for such disgracefully poor taste in suggesting that such criticism might be appropriate in such dire circumstances. Yet, the question remains, how could a city of six million people, armed with all the modern knowledge available to those who run it, have been so stupid as to allow the city to just grow, like Topsy. (Incidentally, who was Topsy? Thanks to Wikipedia I have discovered that the expression stems from a slave character called Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who, when asked where she came from said, “I spect I growed. Don't think nobody never made me.” The book became the biggest seller ever in the United States, and the expression “grow’d like Topsy” quickly passed into general use, until now it is used to suggest something that has grown large, but completely without direction. So, it turns out, the expression is exactly apt for Houston.)
In searching recently for equivalents to further illustrate my point, I have kept coming back to my story about Bangladesh. I have written about this many times, but it is worth repeating. In 1975, while covering an international conference on Human Ecology in Auckland, New Zealand, I heard a speaker from Bangladesh say that by the turn of the century, that is in 25 years, that small country would have a population of 125,000,000 people --- about 25 million more than at time of speaking. That struck me as extraordinary. Since I had been born in the South Island of New Zealand, I wondered how it measured up in terms of size to Bangladesh, and I discovered that the two areas were almost the same, at around 58,000 square miles. At that time the South Island had 842,000 people, and I figured that to accommodate a population of 125 million, every hamlet of 1,000 or more in the South Island would have to grow to more than a million In other words, this was unimaginable. (Of course, I am aware this is not an exact parallel: my intention is simply to illustrate the drastic overcrowding of such places as Bangladesh.)
The payoff is that today Bangladesh is estimated to have 160 million --- and at time of writing it appears that at least half of the area of the country is under water, and uncounted millions have been driven from their homes, with hundreds dead.
Now the imperatives of life for people living in Bangladesh are perhaps the harshest in the world: lack of arable land, overpopulation, lack of natural resources, and so on. But, the question remains: how much sympathy does Bangladesh deserve when it has simply kept on, possibly for religious reasons as well as those of poverty, increasing population by continuing to have families with seven, eight and even more children. Today it is scarcely imaginable that this tiny country could have 160 million people, when, only 40 years ago it had 60 million fewer. And similar stories could be told of some countries in Africa, Kenya for example. What is the responsibility of those running these countries for these idiotic results?
I cannot really accept poverty as the sole excuse for this. In 1978 I spent three months in China, making some documentary films, and one film we made was about what was called in those days a people’s commune, an area containing three villages of farmers on land that in Canada we would have called marginal. I earnestly probed for facts about the income in this commune, and my conclusion was that in terms of income it was one of he poorest places I had ever been in, comparable to the worst African slum, Latin American favela or Indian village. And yet the commune, receiving very few subsidies from outside, had managed to create a society in which every child was in school, every adult had a job, every family a house, and in which the health standards, kept under surveillance by a system of so-called barefoot doctors, was not far short of our own. In addition, the commune grew enough grain to be able to export much of it to neighbouring towns.
So poverty itself need not be a determinant of action. More important is political will. And in Bangladesh, with no other changes except a rigorous family planning programme, surely this population explosion could not have happened.
On the question of whether they deserve help, of course, surely they do, just as do the desperate people of Houston, on humanitarian grounds. But wouldn’t it be a nice idea if that help could be used in some way to persuade people, whether in Bangladesh, Houston or anywhere else, to adopt a more comunitarian attitude, such as the socialist idea that everyone is his brother’s keeper?
Unfortunately, other ideas crowd in: such as the incredible actions of the United States government (copied in Canada under Stephen Harper, now fortunately abandoned), to refuse aid to any organization anywhere in the world that advocates family planning. This is barely comprehensible from the nation in the world which boasts the highest income, the most sophisticated institutions of learning, and the most insistent aspiration to export its attitudes and beliefs to other nations, and which in doing so, claims leadership of the entire world. It beggars understanding, this, as does the action of the US electorate in choosing a president so manifestly unfit for the role, and so abysmally ignorant of the condition in which people live in this world.