Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Real Story on Syria: Forced Population Growth Followed by Collapse

The messy civil war in Syria has gotten a lot of press coverage the last few years, but virtually nothing has been reported about what really happened there.  The Syrian government engineered a massive population explosion – even outlawing contraceptives!  - and when food ran out, the government was no longer able to keep control and the centralized state collapsed.  It’s an old story that has been almost totally suppressed from the news media…

We hear that the problem is that the ruler of Syria – Bashar al-Assad (to my knowledge the only evil dictator whose initial training was in Ophthalmology) – was so evil that his brutal oppression created the civil war.  Assad was no saint, but he was no Stalin either.  While he was nasty in suppressing dissent, for the average Syrian if you didn’t oppose the government Assad would pretty much leave you alone.  A lot of governments around the world can’t say that much.

We hear that the problem is that the United States armed nutjob Wahhabist extremists to take out Assad (for reasons that, as usual, make zero sense) and it backfired as the United States (inevitably) lost control of their lunatic proxies.  Well yes, a lot of truth there, but still not the main story. 

We hear some reference to the problem being ‘global warming’ or the more catch-all (and thus less falsifiable) phrase ‘climate change’ was the issue: there was a drought, the crops failed, and hunger and poverty created the instability.  Closer, but still not the core issue.

The explanation is that the Syrian government deliberately engineered a massive population explosion.  They even made the sale and possession of contraceptives a crime!  (See “Demographic Developments and Population: Policies in Ba’thist Syria (Demographic Developments and Socioeconomics)”, by Onn Winkler).   So check out the graph of Syrian population growth over time:

The data from 1950 to 2010 are from the United Nations database, the data from 2014 is from the latest version of Wikipedia.  The dotted line is an exponential fit to the data from 1950 to 2010. 

Note that the population increased exponentially right up through 2010, at which point food ran out and population started trending downwards (not so much due to outright famine, as to poverty, lack of medical care, warfare, and people fleeing the country.  Oh, and people fleeing the country doesn't work when the entire world ends up like this...). 

And don't forget: a stable or slowly growing population is ONLY a good thing if it occurs because people are careful not too have more children than they can reasonably support.  A population that is stable or falling because it is has hit the ceiling is very different - when looking at population growth rates, if they start to fall it is of fundamental importance to understand WHY they are falling...

Now as far as weather goes, there were a couple of dry years before the collapse, but weather is always like that.  Last year there were record rainfalls.  If Syria’s population had been stable at 5 or even 10 million, they could have coasted on water stored in the aquifers until the rains came back.  But when the population increases so much that you drain the aquifers even when there is plenty of rain, then when a temporary drought hits you have no reserve and it all falls apart.

Check out the section in wikipedia on Syria's aquifers and groundwater - the water table had been dropping drastically as far back as 1985!  Long before the post-2010 dry spell, Syria's rapid populating growth had been consuming more water than fell as rain - EVEN DURING WET YEARS.  The low rainfall post-2010 was an early trigger, but the collapse would have come regardless.

Look again at the graph of population growth over time, and the dotted line projection forwards.  If the rains had been good every single year – which is impossible – it would only have pushed the point of collapse back a few years, at most.

And here’s something else to remember: we keep hearing that nations need to grow their populations to become more powerful.  People must have six children each or those evil people in Tyrannia or Fanatistan will outbreed us and conquer us!   How powerful do you think that the Syrian government is now?  Sure, all other things being equal God is on the side of the bigger battalions, but massively producing children that you can’t provide for is not usually the best strategy…

It is astonishing that something so obvious, so blatant, has been effectively censored from public discussion.  But of course, if it became possible to speak of how the rich forcing population growth upwards creates profits for a  few and misery for the rest, why, there might be some opposition to such polices.  Perhaps even worse, the rich could not coast along on their wealth claiming that mass poverty is somehow an inevitable consequence of free markets, or automation, or climate change, or socialized medicine, or rock music - instead of something that they deliberately created with malice aforethought.

I do not blame the Syrian people for this debacle.  I blame the Syrian government for treating their people as if they were cattle.  Yes, Bashar al-Assad has blood on his hands, but not so much because he shot a few protestors.  It was because he, and his predecessors, engineered a population explosion that turned Syria into a screaming hell of misery and chaos.

And I also blame those academics and journalists that went along to get along, that have suppressed nearly all mention of the economic and environmental effects of demographics, and who have allowed the rich to escape having to answer for their actions.  For shame.

Today Syria.  Tomorrow the World.


  1. Egypt is in a similar situation, and the gulf states too - do you have graphs for them as well? It would be interesting to see a map of % of groundwater use (ie non sustainable) across the globe...

  2. Thomas Friedman did a series of columns at NYT about it. Then it was forgotten. He even mentioned the destabilizing effect of people driven off the land and into the cities.