MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy Halloween. If all the witches, goblins, and ghosts coming to your door don't scare you enough, then you might want to head south of the border for an encounter with Sante Meurte, or the Saint of Death. In a few minutes, we'll talk about why the veneration of this folk saint seems to have really taken off in the last decade or so and why the Catholic church is not happy about it. But first, happy birthday to the world's seven billionth inhabitant.
According to the United Nations population fund, the world's seventh billionth inhabitant has been born somewhere today. Ceremonies have been held in various places around the world to celebrate, but it's a milestone that comes with challenges, as the world adds people faster than ever before, especially in the developing world. Two countries that epitomize that growth are India and Nigeria. India's population is currently at 1.2 billion people and growing quickly.
Meanwhile, with a population of more than 160 million people, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa, which is in turn the fastest-growing continent in the world. Now, it's easy to throw around a lot of these figures but we wanted to talk about what this pace of growth feels like and what it means in places like India and Nigeria. To help, I've called Anand Giridharadas. He is a columnist for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. He's the author of "India Calling," and Teju Cole is the author of the novel "Open City."
He's currently working on a non-fiction piece about Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: It's nice to be here, Michel.
TEJU COLE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Anand I'm going to start with you. You go back and forth between the U.S. and India, and you know, from the outside a city like Mumbai is kind of the poster child for, you know, population growth, but for somebody who lives there or goes there often, does it feel that way? Does it feel crowded and growing fast?
GIRIDHARADAS: It does. I mean, these statistics feel very abstract when you are where I am right now in Massachusetts. When you go to Mumbai or Lagos or other places, the U.N. reports come alive and you have in a city like Mumbai, approaching 20 million people in a very small island space that has now encroached a bit onto the mainland, slums that easily have a million people in them which exceeds the population of many American cities, and some recent statistics suggesting that a pretty sizeable majority of people in Mumbai don't live in what we would recognize as a house or an apartment.
Live in slums of various kinds, and yet - and then this illustrates the complexity of these numbers - those are not the people necessarily to pity in India. The slum dwellers of Mumbai, the people kind of captured in the movie "Slumdog Millionaire," are probably better off than 80 percent of the Indians they've left behind in the villages.
MARTIN: Teju, what about you?
COLE: I would agree with what Anand just said, because in Lagos, for example, and also in Mumbai which I've been to, you do very much get that sense of the teeming masses, and you wonder how this structure is able to support itself. Because we're facing an essential mystery of having seven billion people that the figure is now; it's an incomprehensible number. And at the same time, each person's life is worthy and sacred and each person has a personality, but when you go to these crowded city centers, you're caught in - sort of in a trap between trying to understand the number of people you're seeing and understanding that each one of those people is just as complex as yourself.
MARTIN: That's so true. You know, in this country, you know, because both of you, you know, you spend time here, you spend time there - in this country, as you know, that there's a very rich conversation around traffic. You know, whenever there's a, you know, certain areas - you know, there are annual surveys of how bad the traffic is, and this is a conversation that people have and they say - and the kind of the undertone of it, there are two sort of elements to it.
One is the planning, whether planning for all this growth has failed in some way, and in the second sort of underpinning is a sense of the people who are already there not feeling great about the people who are coming and kind of blaming them for kind of making their quality of life less comfortable than it has been or less appealing than it has been. So Anand, I'll start with you and ask you the same question. Do you feel the same thing in Mumbai?
Is there a conversation around planning? Is there a planning process? Is there a sense that there is anybody getting ahead of it and is there a sense of kind of resentment or of what all this population means?
GIRIDHARADAS: In India of course there are no plans. There are only plans to make plans, but more seriously, I think one of the things that I find most infuriating in India is that in polite society and the kind of Indian demographic that would listen to NPR if it existed there, you'll often be in a living room perhaps with a whiskey in hand and someone will say to you, oh, you know, our population is the problem, all these people. And when you think about it for a second, no one ever wants themselves not to exist, so they seem to be suggesting that some other people who exist should not exist, and your point about traffic really gets at the heart of this.
I actually don't think we have a problem in terms of the absent number of people. If you drive through India today, it's still mostly an empty country, but it's roads simply cannot support the people it has. It doesn't have enough globalized opportunity rich cities. It has about four. A city, a country of 1.2 billion people cannot survive with four cities where people can go with outsized dreams. So I think the question is, in a way there's too much attention on how many of us are there.
The real issue is, how do we live? If we all try to live the way Americans are living right now, the planet is going to break in half. If we keep Indians in poverty without electricity, we may have a more sustainable future but that's not very fair. How do we give them a bit of, or a lot of what we have in terms of fulfilled, enriched lives but not break the planet in replicating the ways in which people in this country already have?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The United Nations has said that the world's population has reached seven billion today. We're talking about what this means in two places, India and Nigeria. Our guests are Anand Giridharadas. He's the author of "India Calling." Also with us, Teju Cole, author of "Open City." Teju, what about you? What is your thought about - how are these conversations taking place in Lagos?
COLE: Well, Anand has been so eloquent about everything I would have wished to say, but you know, somebody who is quite wise, I think said that - don't complain about sitting in traffic, about being stuck in traffic. You are traffic. You are the one who is also in other people's way, and in that sense this is kind of like the ultimate right to life, the right to be alive and participate in being a drain on the world's resources. The only thing that keeps this, all of this going, and we don't often like to think about it, is the fact of genetically modified foods.
High yield wheat and corn is what allows this planet to sustain seven billion people right now, and that'll probably be enough to get us to maybe double that number. So I think what's kind of important about what's - this symbolic recognition of this seven billionth birth, which is not likely to really be the case anyway in terms of the precise figure, but what's important about it is that it draws attention to the fact that there is such a thing as peak population and that we're going to get there at some point.
We're going to need to have the difficult conversations about saying why is there a fundamental right to have as many children as you want, because very few places – China, notably - have brought up that conversation. Everywhere else in the world it's not the kind of thing you can talk to anyone about. People who want nine children have them.
MARTIN: Teju, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that too because in most, well, how I could put this, in a way that - many societies have kind of a view that, you know, all life is precious. Every child is precious, but they don't really mean it. You know, I mean, and so the question - but in Nigeria, how is this whole question of the youth of the population - how many children that people want to have or - because every child that is wanted, you know, is indeed, you know, the greatest miracle. You know, parents will say, this is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my life.
COLE: That's right.
MARTIN: And yet, there has to be some sort of conversation about how this is sort of sustained. So in Nigeria, can you just talk a little bit? I know I'm asking kind of an amorphous question. Are there conversations going forward like this?
COLE: No. We're not really dealing with our population growth at all and part of the reason is because things are improving in some ways in Nigeria. The city of Lagos actually has been getting a lot better in many ways after military rule ended about a decade ago.
But in very many ways, Nigeria is doing very badly. On a federal level, resources are not being harnessed properly. Infrastructure is in an appalling state. A lot of people just feel hopeless. And when people feel hopeless like that, one of the few things that they can do - practice their right as human beings in a free society - is to have that comfort that comes with having five children around them. Even if you're just a mechanic or a bus driver, at the very least, you have the laughter that those children can provide you and the comfort that they can give to you.
And, in fact, we probably would not see a serious conversation about reducing our population until we get to a place where the population we already have can afford the luxury of not having many children. So it's paradoxical, but this is why, in many of the poorer countries, you know, children become the wealth, even though children are also a drain on resources. But for the individual family unit, you know, at the very least, you say to yourself, I've got this household full of people.
MARTIN: Anand, a final thought from you, if you would. Is there anything useful, though, that - as we've talked about so many things that have to do with the meaning of life, is there any useful conversation that you think the developed world could be having with the developing world that wouldn't sound unbearably pretentious and, you know, hypocritical, really, given the way we live here?
GIRIDHARADAS: Here is what the favor of the developed world could do to the developing - is to say, we have nothing to teach you because we have broken the back of the planet in so many ways. But the one thing we can teach you is that, if you do what we did, if you do as we're doing, not as we're saying, you're not going to have a good life. And this is an opportunity for you in building the next billion to reinvent modernity itself, to reinvent collective versus individuals, city versus country, the ways in which people make money. And it's actually a very exciting opportunity.
MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is a columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He's the author of "India Calling." You can find him at AnandWrites on Twitter.
Teju Cole is the author of the novel, "Open City." He's currently working on a nonfiction narrative of Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
COLE: Thank you.
GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Coming up, Congress still bans women from officially serving in combat, but a new elite unit has U.S. servicewomen working closely with Special Forces and Army Ranger units. We'll talk with a writer who spent some time seeing just what it takes to make the cut. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.