Michael Tobias Interview: The Dangers of Global Overpopulation

MOTHER's interview with Michael Tobias covers the dangers of global overpopulation, and the effect overpopulation will have on natural resources.
August/September 1997
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Mr. Tobias's warnings of runaway overpopulation and its precisely measurable impact on global ecosystems have earned him many academic enemies . . . and more than a few admirers.

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Michael Tobias discusses the dangers of global overpopulation in this MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview. 

In 1798, a taciturn and decidedly non-confrontational professor and cleric named Thomas Robert Malthus turned the world of Western economics and burgeoning national hopefulness upside down. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, he suggested, among other things, that humankind was, now and forever, playing a hopeless game of population vs. natural resources, a game that the vast majority of humankind would inevitably lose. Malthus's doomsday scenario of the dangers of global overpopulation had such widespread adherents (conveniently among economic conservatives), that Great Britain summarily declared much of its social welfare programs hopeless.

Michael Tobias both critiqued and reinvigorated Malthus's theories in his 1994 book, World War III. A student of population expert Paul Ehrlich, a graduate of the universities of Colorado and Tel Aviv with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a professor, and a career environmental advocate, Mr. Tobias's warnings of runaway overpopulation and its precisely measurable impact on global ecosystems have earned him many academic enemies . . . and more than a few admirers. Though skeptical about some of his conclusions, it was difficult to find deep-rooted fault with a man so committed to the betterment of both our regional and global worlds, and we spent a few hours with him and his crystal ball one immoderately cold May afternoon. —Matthew Scanlon 

As I was reading not only your book, but also information from organizations as diverse as the World Bank and Zero Population Growth and writers such as Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, it quickly became clear that there is a huge amount of contradictory information with respect to what effect world population growth has had on the environment. For instance, Paul Ehrlich was featured in an interview in MOTHER very early on in our history. Among other things, he predicted that . . . basically he admitted in a statement that the battle to feed all of humanity is over, that in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death. 

Which they did.

Well, as often as not, they starved because they were the victims of civil war famine, not the bottom-line ability to feed ourselves. Wars in certain specific areas like Ethiopia, Rwanda being prime examples. 

Okay, but before we tackle that, a few words about the people you just mentioned. I think Ehrlich, like Thomas Malthus before him, as concerned and articulate as they were, grossly underestimated the impact of human overpopulation on the quality of our lives and the quality of life for all other kindred forms on this planet. The best example I know is the case of Thomas Malthus who was ridiculed and was so oppressed by the backlash of his readership in the late '1700s when he published the Principle of Population that he was basically forced to take a second look at his data, revise some of his assumptions, and modify his tone in the second edition.

His primary assumption being that the ability to feed ourselves increases arithmetically whereas population tends to increase geometrically. In other words, human populations can never, practically or mathematically, keep up with their own numbers. The food will inevitably run out once a certain critical mass of humans is reached. 

Well . . . essentially, yes. Malthus's best vindication came with the Irish Famine, which was compounded by the Western audience that was watching. And it was further complicated by the conspiratorial involvement of the British government, many would argue . . . historians would argue, which helped induce and force the massive carnage within Ireland. Those historical complications aside, the sheer reality of a regional distribution problem resulting from a variety . . . from a maze of problems affecting the potato crop resulted in millions of deaths. Malthus, in a sense, was proven right by Ireland, but was far more vindicated later on between the period of about 1850 and 1880 when China witnessed a wave of successive famines resulting in the death of an estimated 50 million to 70 million people. Now, there was the Taiping Rebellion that added to the carnage, but the bottom line was people were hungry and there was not sufficient food for them. So the millions of people that Malthus has predicted in the early 1700s who were going to starve to death did starve to death . . . Ehrlich was also brilliantly perceptive and predictive.

In The Population Bomb? 

Yes, written in 1968. It was written in six weeks, as I understand it. It does read like a book that was written quickly, and many within the population realm have assailed it for slight inaccuracies or inconsistencies of tone. I have not been concerned at all with that, and I haven't read it for those things. I think it was a break-through book, I think it was a courageous book. I think it helped trigger certainly Club of Rome, Global 2000 Report, and a subsequent generation of reports in Japan, in Canada, in The Netherlands. I think what it did to shake up people was as important as what Rachel Carson [Ms. Carson's book, Silent Spring, is generally given credit for launching America's awareness of the environmental damages of pesticides and other industrial chemicals] did to shake up people.

What was Ehrlich's essential point? 

His acknowledgment that we are in a state of crisis . . . that the human population is exceeding the carrying capacity of planet Earth by leaps and bounds. He offered the IPAT equation in which human impact is equivalent to the size of its population multiplied by its level of affluence and scope and range of its technology—an equation that encompasses our numbers, our affluence, our consumerist behavior, and our tendency to extract the maximum amount from any given piece of land. He got all of that right, and it didn't take a brain surgeon to figure those things out. It did take an ecologist of his standing to put it out there in a fairly provocative manner, and it would be read by millions of people. It was a bestseller. And it took Paul himself, who is an outspoken, volatile, articulate individual, to go out on the news circuit and promote his book the way he did. All of those factors combined. He is media-savvy and you have to be if you're going to be a scientist of influence.

And from your point of view, what did he get wrong? 

Wrong? Very little except that he approached the subject too gingerly. When Dennis and Donella Meadows wrote Limits to Growth several years later, out of the Club of Rome findings, they were a bit more strident in their cautionary tale, and plotted five or six of the primary behavioral tendencies of human consumers with regard to waste, energy use, effluents being ejected into the troposphere, a number of quantifiable pieces of data that they collected, analyzed on a computer at a time when people weren't analyzing data on computers, and recognized the trends, all of which Ehrlich had intimated but which gave a new generation of quantifiability. That would lead, of course, a few years later, to the Global 2000 Report. Ehrlich could have been more strident. Keep in mind, we were preoccupied with Vietnam. We were not preoccupied with overpopulation. If anything, we were desperately concerned that we were losing too many people.

Fast forward to 1993. You wrote World War III in 1993. Could you give an overview to our readers on what has happened since Ehrlich's doomsday scenario. 

Well first . . . the human population has added a couple of billion to the planet. If you consider that at the time of Karl Marx in the 1850s the human population was 1.5 billion, just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution . . . .

And now we've hit 5.5 billion. 

Nearly 5.7 billion right now. It is going to certainly exceed 6 billion by the year 2000, and according to the preprojections from the U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, the most optimistic scenario sees the human population achieving a "ceiling" of about 7.8 billion, a figure that is patently absurd and is acknowledged to be so by most of the conveners to the conference.

Why is it absurd? 

Because by simply examining the most recent data from every country in the world with respect to their indices, their fertility rate, the number of children per couple, their death rate, their infant and child mortality rates, their life expectancies, their income generation ability, which translates normally into increased health care and more food on their table, all add up to at least a doubling of human population, which was the third high projection of the U.N. Conference: namely, something like 12 billion or 12.5 billion people. Now I tend to believe, and I'm increasingly, I think, falling out of favor with more and more statisticians because they're nervous about the vision of a world populated by 12.5 billion people, but I actually foresee a world populated by more like 15 billion people.

If you read my chapter in World War III called "Demographic Madness," you'll see that I spent two months treading on the void [laughs], pursuing the labyrinth of data from all the key sources and computed the discrepancies that you alluded to in the beginning of this conversation. There are a number of discrepancies. Some of them are absolutely approaching absurdity.

You get organizations like the US. Census Report that, on their left hand, are predicting a population for the United States late in the next century of 315 million, and on the other hand are suggesting 500 million. In the United States, if you consider the GOP mood swings with respect to environmental regulation and protection of our basic life support systems like water, like air, like soil with a certain percentage of minerals and nutrients having not washed away, then you recognize that the rate of consumption and the rate of affluence in this country, multiplied by 500 million consumers, is catastrophic because we are, in fact, accounting for something like 25 percent of all energy on the planet as it is, and yet we are 5 percent of the planet's population. So you look at that discrepancy, you multiply it by a few hundred million more consumers in the next five decades, and I foresee that we are going to probably have to counter a severely deteriorated environment with a severe loss of democratic principles in the sense that we will have to initiate laws and regulations that a lot of people are going to be very unhappy with. Limitations on basic freedoms will have to be drastically reduced because there will not be enough clean air and water to do whatever you want to do. But I don't see any other way, and that's the tragedy of these numbers. An exploding population will gradually trigger responses by politicians who, in fear of catastrophe, proclaim, declare, initiate reform . . . make laws that might be tyrannical. This has happened in Indonesia, for example, where the population of 200 million is predicted to nearly double despite 30 years of effort at control. And in the mean time . . . our laws are doing the best they can to encourage destruction on a global scale.

Encouraging worldwide plunder? How . . . and why? 

Okay. Where are we going to get the wood for our houses? Well, we can't just bully our way into the Indonesian rain forest, because we've been promoting ourselves and touting ourselves as conservationists around the world. We started doing that at Rio five years ago. So where are we going to get the wood? Ah. GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade]. We will be big supporters of the GATT. Okay, with GATT, suddenly we, and many other powerful nations are now encouraged by the tag line "global free trade" to basically go in and rape and plunder those forests that the government now sanctions. We're going to need that lumber. And so they lessen the stringency of their regulations pertaining to the size of the tree, the minimum size of the tree that can be cut down.

You're suggesting in part that GATT was intended as a blank check for predaciousness upon the natural resources of several global communities? 

Most of them. There are very few that are immune to the fallout of the GATT. I thought House Leader Dick Gephardt's visit recently to the Maquiladoras Zone in Mexico was instructive in that regard. He came back, according to the news reports I read, horrified by what he saw with respect to environmental deregulation and abuse. I just spent the weekend with U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement agents, including some who patrol the Maquiladoras Zone, and they had tales that were absolutely horrifying with respect to the abuse of the environment. The laws are being cast out in lieu of the free license now to extract, pollute, and profiteer under the name of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. The GATT is a disaster for the environment. It will induce every known carnal and lascivious and material appetite known to the human spirit, I'm afraid at the expense of animals, first non-human and of course eventually we will succeed in eliminating ourselves. We're already seeing increased plunder in the Amazon despite 25 years of global consciousness-raising with regard to rain forest burning . . . . Environmental causes have fallen on hard times, and it has taken place at the very moment that ecooptimism seems to be rising. As we approach the end of the millennium, we're essentially divided into that camp that sees doom and gloom and those who are convinced that the New Age is going to be resurrected and that we have ample reason to be optimistic.

One of the statistics that seems to contradict some of the things that both you and Paul Ehrlich are saying comes from the World Bank, which stated recently that despite the rapidly increasing global population, the world's per capita food production actually increased by 30 percent in the period 1951 to 1992, and the price of food fell substantially over the same period. Again, according to their data, chronic malnutrition in the Third World declined from 36 percent during the late 1960s to 20 percent during the late 1980s. Only 11 percent of the world's land surface is currently used for agricultural crops, and by one commonly accepted estimate the world's land and water use for agriculture could more than double. What is your reaction to their statements? 

I don't know the source for that information within the World Bank, which, incidentally, is a gigantic industry whose job it is to churn out information to suit clients and to justify World Bank projects. It would be foolish of me to respond to it because almost everything you mentioned I would categorically refute, but to do so in an interview like this without the ammunition of dozens of reports would be foolhardy. I think, more important, that as a general response I would say that one of the most knowing and informed refutations for most of that data can be easily read by anyone simply by contacting the WorldWatch Institute or the World Resources Institute and asking for their basic fact sheets. Those numbers and percentages that you just quoted just beg refutation from dozens of informed sources.

MOTHER'S audience mainly lives in North America. The population issues that we are discussing, however harrowing, may too often be just an abstraction to people. At the very least it is hard to even imagine the orders of magnitude. Specifically, and with examples: What does increasing population mean to them in the next 10 years? 

If you live anywhere in the United States, you are likely as not, to be aware of increased congestion, increased degradation of your surroundings by way of noise, pollution, more and more development that is usurping previously wild or semi-wild land. Human beings are predators, and our increasing appetite for goods and services is going to produce the inevitable result of displacing native populations of plants and animals, and inflicting on fellow human beings an increasing toll of pain and suffering, or at the very least, discomfort and annoyance.

Less biodiversity, say . . . .  

Absolutely. First, you will see dead forests. You will see third-and-fourth-and fifth-growth forests with nothing but white-tailed deer, and the mice and mosquitoes that surround them. I could list hundreds of species that you won't know ever existed in this country.

Such as? 

Well, we are seeing the demise of amphibians, reptiles, exotic birds in this country. There's a crisis of depletion among water fowl. You will not see any of the carnivores, any of the predators. The cougars, the bobcats, the lynx, the wolverine, the martens, the grizzly bear, even some of the black bears, depending on the region. You'll not see any of the large raptors. They'll be gone. The California condor will be the first to go since there are less than 80 left despite effort to breed the birds, but you're not going to see swallows and song birds and rare ducks and even pigeons of rare varieties . . . .

And you will see more of . . . .  

You'll see more cockroaches, rats, mice, some rabbits, white-tailed deer, which are doing very well despite all-out hunting quotas. You'll see starlings and blackbirds and cowbirds. You'll see a lot of squirrels. And you'll see a lot of domestic animals. You'll see billions of cows headed for the slaughter and sheep and goats. You'll see a lot of seemingly exotic species that are being nurtured for slaughter . . . like buffalo, like emus, like ostriches, like deer. That will pretty much be the universe that young people coming into this world will have at their disposal, and it will be much more diminished with respect to flora .

. . . Now, these children won't know the difference in their world. That's the tragedy of it. They will just assume that this is the way it's always been, and they will get their wonderment from Disneyland and from Spielberg movies and from books where they will see photographs of very exotic looking creatures like gorillas that don't exist on the planet anymore . . . or rhinos . . . or giraffes or elephants. Or maybe there will be a few elephants left in South Africa where they are slaughtering them systematically in what they call, with a very Orwellian twist of logic, the "best method of preservation." Even a lot of poachers today will tell you that the best way to preserve a species is to poach them. Well, that's a whole other story. But the bottom line is that the manifestations are that we will have a severely depleted environment, and most people won't even know it.

If the choice is throwing yourself out the window in desperation when you contemplate a situation like that, or doing something about it, what organizations do you think exist, or what individual actions can readers take, that will remedy or at least help to remedy the situation? 

There's a tremendous amount we can do in these countries by simply identifying with the victims, and taking concerted efforts to at least make a humble difference for them.

For example. 

As you might predict, we might start by having one child or at most two, and preferably adopt a child if you want a second. You can consume less . . . you can be very scrutinizing in any foreign products that you buy. Families with three cars don't necessarily need three cars. They can get by with two cars. That is a personal sacrifice and, if none of your neighbors are doing it, you're going to be disinclined to do it yourself. But if you are truly concerned about somehow consuming less, you're going to have to be a role model. We're also going to have to cure ourselves of the notion that environments are national things. Political boundaries are totally obsolete when thinking about environmental issues. They have no relevance whatsoever, except in one instance, which the Dalai Lama himself has discussed as micromanagement. You need organizational boundaries to maximize the efficiency of any endeavor. In other words, I can do more in my neighborhood than I can do in Mexico. And so with that in mind, you use the boundaries of your known daily world to enact a variety of...to institute a variety of changes that would make your neighborhood better, and they all fall within the category of nonviolence and compassion. I'm a strong advocate of vegetarianism. I think you cannot be an environmentalist if you are not a vegetarian. I will find, and I continue to find, huge debate on the subject . . . .

MOTHER readers have always contrasted sharply on that issue. Editorially, we hold that animals raised by owners for their own food are a part of homesteading . . . but more precisely are simply a matter of personal choice. Suggesting that you cannot be an environmentalist without adhering to vegetarianism is an eyebrow raiser. 

Well, it won't raise everybody's. There are 12 to 15 percent of Americans who are vegetarians. That's 25 million people.

Why are you drawing such a line in the sand? 

Well, need for water resources, which go into growing alfalfa and other feed stores for cattle, is the predominant use of fresh water in this country. As a result we are seeing a shrinking of aquifers, rivers, and water levels throughout the country where ranching is going on to support the cattle industry. That, in turn, is causing drought and is destroying short and high grasses, which support vast ecosystems in the same way the coral reefs support vast ecosystems. The prairie dog, the raptors, the antelopes, all the creatures that browse on those areas are disappearing because the cattle industry is having a demonstrable impact on that ecosystem within the United States. That's one reason. A second reason is globally: the cattle industry is having a disastrous impact on tropical rain forest areas, which are being sheered in order to provide open grazing ground for cattle. When that happens, you're losing a key ingredient in the planetary recycling system of oxygen and carbon dioxide that is essential to all living beings. Third, is that predatory behavior of human beings on our fellow species, behavior simply referred to as "agribusiness products." The more than 8 billion chickens a year in this country alone, who are basically tortured and slaughtered under unimaginably cruel, unregulated, unmonitored circumstances, is such a blight on civilization, so-called, that when one begins to learn about it, it changes you forever.

Point taken, but other solutions? 

Well, simply be true to and consistent with your own beliefs . . . and hopefully, ultimately by helping animals, by helping your local shelters, by taking in stray animals, by using every opportunity everyday to extend the olive branch, to extend your heart and your capabilities of nuturance to other life forms. You may think that people are looking over your shoulder and pointing their finger at you and saying, "Look at that foolish, sentimental guy." But in fact, that was Albert Schweitzer's calling card: to be foolish and sentimental with respect to other life forms. To leave a legacy of love and empathy for kids who are looking up at you, for your peers who are looking over at you, for your parents who are looking back at you.

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