Anne and Paul Ehrlich on Population and a Sane World, Part 2

The elimination of war.

| March/April 1984

Paul Ehrlich Flower Show

Today's world contains a vast range of cultures, from the swarming street markets of Nepal to the fancy flower shops in Denmark. We need to keep diversity while reducing inequity.


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlich's popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college texts). That's why we're pleased to present this regular semi-technical column by these well-known authors/ecologists/educators.  

Let's continue the consideration of the characteristics of a sane world that we began in Part I:

A sane world must be equitable. Although complete equality probably cannot be realized, the disparity that exists today between rich and poor—both between nations and within nations—is too unfair to endure. While the gap separating the haves and the have-nots is growing, the capacity of the have-nots to do something to close it is expanding even more rapidly. Such nations not only possess the majority of Earth's remaining nonrenewable and biological resources, but also have an increasing ability to obtain sophisticated—and even nuclear—weapons. Enormous differences in access to resources, material goods, and political power constantly tend to destabilize the situation . . . as do overt and covert racism and sexism. Gross inequity is a burden humanity can no longer afford to carry. A relatively equitable world would be a much stabler, and therefore much saner, one.

A sane world will be environmentally oriented. This would mean a dramatic revision of today's prevailing attitudes in regard to political and economic issues. For any given population size, socio-political organization, and set of technologies, there's a set of environmental (including resource) constraints that a society must respect if it's not to harm itself and/or future generations. Evaluating the constraints is not simple now, nor will it be in a sane society. But in that society, the focus will be on continual assessment of such constraints and on making decisions that are conservative with respect to those choices we're unsure of. No more, for example, will politicians be able to talk about economic growth taking precedence over environmental concerns . . . as if Congress could repeal the laws of nature if it saw fit to do so.

A sane world will have a sustainable economy. A corollary of such environmental consciousness will be an end to the idea that the material economy can grow continuously. As we said in our last column, the product of {population size} X {per capita affluence} X {environmental impact of the technologies required to supply a per capita unit of affluence} must be kept within limits set by the environment.

Especially in rich nations, economic growth can occur in some sectors with a reduction of the consumption of materials. By reducing the environmental impact of technologies, the amount of resources used can be decreased without lowering population size or affluence. The development of the computer industry clearly illustrates how this can be done.

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