Anne and Paul Ehrlich on Population and a Sane World, Part 3

The reallocation of military resources.

| May/June 1984


Anne and Paul Ehrlich first presented some of these ideas at the first biennial "Conference on the Fate of the Earth" in New York in October 1982. 


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 Ehrlichs' 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.  

In this column we'll conclude the discussion—carried in Part 1 and Part 2—of ways in which a more sane world might be created.

Population control is not impossible. There are enough success stories around the world to indicate that population growth can be brought to a halt . . . if political will can be mustered. The same approach won't work everywhere, of course, but levels of success achieved in places as disparate as the People's Republic of China, Singapore, Costa Rica, and Kerala State in India do indicate some common threads leading toward reductions in birth rate. Important among these are at least some progress toward social justice . . . education (especially of girls) . . . improved nutrition . . . adequate housing, sanitation, and health care . . . and access to birth control information and materials. While not all societies in which birth rates have been declining have been able to meet every one of these needs, it's become clear that the keys to reducing runaway population growth are social justice, decent living conditions, and realistic hope for a better quality of life.

Unfortunately, although the population problem is now widely recognized, governments (with the prominent exception of China) still tend to talk in terms of merely reducing growth rates . . . rather than halting population growth and then instituting a slow decline. Part of the blame for this must rest upon rich countries, especially the United States, which has not officially recognized the national and global impacts of its own gross overpopulation and has yet to formulate any policy that would lead to eventual population reduction. The point must be driven home that—because of the enormous pressures that wealthy nations put on global resources and the environment—population growth in prosperous countries has, in many ways, much more dire consequences for the world than has such expansion in poor nations. There has been a revolution in thinking concerning population control in the last decade. That revision in attitude now has to be carried even further and must be translated into much more effective action.

The entire world cannot be industrialized. Obviously, a sane world would maintain a balance between agricultural and industrial areas and would be greatly concerned with protecting the environment. It immediately follows that the notion, held by some economists, that problems of equity (and of controlling population) can be solved by fully industrializing all nations is simply preposterous. Earth's industrial capacity is already able to provide enough material goods to support today's degree of overpopulation at a reasonable level of material affluence.

With more efficient use of resources and less built-in obsolescence, every family could probably have a bicycle, a small refrigerator, electricity, cooking facilities, and indoor plumbing. The goal of so supplying the world could take up the slack created by phasing out of production F-15's, Backfire bombers, missiles, tanks, aircraft carriers, and so on. The problems of setting and reaching sensible development goals for the poor countries (something that we and John Holdren have called "grass-roots development") are complicated . . . but are not insurmountable.

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