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

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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.

Similarly, the “de-development” of the overdeveloped countries would, in theory, be easy and beneficial for all, but again the question of political and social will rears its ugly head. The time to rethink the situation in these nations is now, however. They are pulling out of a severe recession, and unemployment is centered in precisely those sectors of the material economy that are most environmentally destructive. A full-scale dialogue regarding the meaning of “productivity”, might lead to a long needed revision of industrial economies.

The political power of the people can be mobilized. The power of public opinion is evident in much of the world: It helped get the United States out of Vietnam . . . it’s pushing the superpowers toward a nuclear freeze . . . it forced the Israeli government to investigate the Beirut massacres . . . it’s kept the Russians out of Poland . . . and it helped end the so-called Cultural Revolution in China. (On the darker side, it also mobilized the British people to do combat over the Falkland Islands.) Even in the worst dictatorships, the desires of the public can affect governmental policies.

It should, therefore, be possible to mobilize public opinion on all of the issues crucial to a transition to a saner world. Much has already been accomplished concerning war and the environment, but much more is required. Progress has been slower on such topics as greater economic fairness in both national and international arenas, and there has been virtually no movement toward the development of sustainable economic systems. However, the potential clearly exists for getting the public actively involved in such issues.

Resources can be mobilized. One of the main reasons for pessimism about the fate of the Earth is the immense quantity of physical, financial, and human resources that must be mobilized simultaneously to attack the many interrelated problems making up the human predicament. It’s useless, for example, to control population growth if material “throughput” per person is allowed to grow continually . . . or if the technological means for supplying affluence have increasingly negative impacts on the environment.

Still, an ameliorating factor is that many of the necessary resources can be summoned by reallocation. The most obvious place to begin would be to shift them from military to other uses.

The plethora of resources potentially available in this area can be seen in the roughly seven hundred billion dollars spent annually worldwide to support armies, navies, and air forces. In the crudest terms, that’s enough money to double the yearly income of the poorest half of the Earth’s population! It could actually double the rate of capital investment in needy countries. Surely that course of action would increase everyone’s security. The capital, manpower, and expertise now devoted to the military enterprise could, in a decade or so, go a long way toward providing clean water, sufficient food, decent clothing, adequate housing, and basic education and medical care to all who lack them.

The benefits of this single reallocation would not, however, be limited to directly improving the lot of the poverty-stricken. It would also result in a shift away from industries involved in the construction of military hardware, with their consumption of mineral resources and their creation of pollution, to more environmentally benign sectors of the economy. Needless to say, it would also produce incalculable benefits by reducing the threat of war.

Today, one of the most serious misallocations of resources is from human needs to the military, but there are many other problem areas. Consider the enormous emphasis on energy- and material-intensive transportation (especially in the rich parts of the world). Redesigned patterns of habitation plus rearranged transportation priorities could effect vast savings, freeing up talent and resources for other tasks.

Human attitudes can change. To move toward a sane world, people will have to discard numerous deeply embedded patterns of behavior and many firmly held beliefs, such as the convictions that the primary allegiance of every individual belongs to his or her nation state, that wars are natural and inevitable, that progress will go on forever (and consists primarily of acquiring more and more gadgets), and so on. A world in which all–or at least many–of these attitudes did not exist is unthinkable to a majority of our population, even though millions of human beings have lived rich and happy lives without holding any of them.

Even today, not all human societies are warlike . . . and the concepts of the nation state, economic growth, and even progress are quite recent inventions. Furthermore, there’s abundant evidence that attitudes can change very rapidly when the time is right. A now classic example of this was the change in viewpoint regarding family size that occurred in the United States at the end of the 1960’s and in the early 1970’s. What many sociologists had thought would be a long and troubled transition to smaller family units took place in a very few years . . . and with no difficulty at all.

It’s already clear to most people that many of the old ways simply won’t serve any longer. Preparing for Armageddon, turning the old economic crank ever faster, destroying the environment, hating other people, and slaving to get more and more of less and less are not producing populations of healthy, happy people. And only the most obtuse believe, for example, that the rich nations will be able to remain forever afloat in our world’s rising sea of poverty and despair. The time has come for a fundamental reexamination of the human condition, a worldwide effort to find new goals and move toward them. A sane world can be achieved. Whether or not it will be is another question.

The Ehrlichs’ work is supported in part by a grant from the Koret Foundation of San Francisco.