Editorial - April 2, 2000
A lot of attention is given these days to programs and organizations that address environmental and quality-of-life issues yet the biggest issue that humanity faces is overpopulation. No matter how energy efficient we become, no matter how green our manufacturing becomes and no matter how much technology and human expertise we throw at increasing our food supply, the world’s population will outstrip all of our best intents and capabilities. At least as much effort as goes into agricultural and energy technology should be going into coming up with solutions to our population problem.
According the U.S. Bureau of the Census the world’s human population grew by 78 million people last year. In other words, every 20 minutes another 3,500 people are born. Our population has doubled in the last 40 years from 3 billion to over 6 billion people. The population issue is not a problem that is coming soon. It is here now. There are already too many people. 800 million people today do not have enough food to eat or enough clean water. It is estimated that about 27,000 species are becoming extinct every year as we cut down rain forests, develop land for agriculture, build ever larger cities, pollute our ocean and waterways, and over-fish coastal waters. The climate is changing due to the pollutants we put in the air and people in the cities are becoming increasingly violent and anti-social. Something must be done.
There are serious political, economic and social obstacles to effecting population control, however. First, there is biology. We are designed to reproduce. Without conscious effort to the contrary, we would all have as many children as possible. The desire for sex, offspring, vicarious immortality, and pressure from potential grandparents all contribute to increasing population.
Economically the world labors under the belief that growth is good. Everyone wants to increase his/her income. Businesses want to increase market-share and both want to see more consumers for their products and services. The thought of a shrinking market is terrifying to stock holders. This attitude also stands in the way of efforts to reduce world population.
On the social-political side is the expansion of religion and culture via reproduction. Several major religions are against birth control. I believe this is because, possibly subconsciously, they want more of their kind to spread their beliefs. China has successfully colonized Tibet by increasing its presence so there are now considerably more Chinese living in Tibet than there are Tibetans. Human rights issues also stand in the way of all but the most voluntary means of controlling birth.
Still, the problem remains, and it is urgent. There are too many people! What are the possible solutions to this problem? Currently, the largest efforts are toward education about birth control. These efforts are having some positive effect. The average global population growth rate peaked in 1963 at about 2.2% and has decreased slightly over the last 30 years to a little over 1.3% in 1998. The U.S. will spend about $500 million this year on international family planning education, a significant part of which is going to the world’s poorer nations, which have the greatest population growth rate. Even this apparently benign and concerned effort is seen with resentment by some in the developing countries. They see it as a Western conspiracy to be sure there are less of "them" and more of "us". Still, education about contraception and the desirability of having fewer children should be stepped up. It is having a positive effect.
This education policy hasn’t been enough to stop population growth, let alone reduce population. The politics of population is such a controversial issue that many governmental and non-governmental organizations won’t even discuss it. The bone of contention is an assumed "right to reproduce" that would be countermanded by any efforts beyond voluntary birth control.
There are other human activities that the majority of people in the U.S. agree are unacceptable, however. Take smoking, for example. It is now illegal to smoke in public buildings in many states. In California, it is even illegal to smoke in bars. Is this an assault on a basic right? The majority says, "No," because smoking infringes on the quality of life of non-smokers. Consider this in regard to reproduction. Does excessive reproduction infringe on the quality of life of others? This is a crucial question whose answer could lead to more radical actions to stop population growth.
Some people believe we should look at further steps from a governmental level to curb growth. The first and least offensive step could possibly be incentives for having a small family. Tax credits could be given. Couples could be paid if they accept voluntary sterilization. These are financial incentives that might be attractive to people. The next step might be disincentives or penalties for having too many children. Rather than the tax burden decreasing for large families (as it is now in the U.S.), the taxes could be increased if a couple has more than two children. The increase could be designed to be more punitive as the number of children goes up.
There are serious liabilities with the disincentive way of controlling populations because, once again, the poor would receive the worst of it. Statistically, the poor have more children than the better off. It would be discriminatory. Still, the liabilities of disincentives fall far short of the problems that could come from making reproduction illegal after a certain number of children which would actually be consistent with the laws now being effected against public smoking. Hopefully, we can attain population sustainability without have to resort to these extreme measures.
On the education side, there needs to be some effort to discourage the "growth is good" paradigm. The fears associated with a shrinking market are due to only looking at one side of the supply-demand equation. The current fears are that decreased demand will yield less income. On the positive side, increased supply relative to demand will result in lower prices for goods and services. I will bet that, should the population stabilize or even be reduced, our quality of life overall will increase rather than decrease. A decrease in population could even shrink the gap between rich and poor.
Another political and education issue involves increasing the empowerment of women and the promotion of a more gender-equal social structure. The efforts in this regard have shown some promise in helping to reduce population growth, particularly in the poorest nations where the growth rate is highest.
I believe it’s time we begin serious discussion at every level, from two people about to get married talking about how many children to have, to the largest governments and organizations. These discussions should be frank and they should be serious. All options should be carefully looked at. We need to start curbing our population now if we want to avert the disaster of mass famine on a scale never dreamed of before. A future of disease, starvation and the decimation of life on Earth can be changed if we use our intelligence and our will to control ourselves. We are the only creatures on the planet with this possibility (as far as I know). We are the only ones capable of seeing into the future and then acting to avert a population-growth-caused planetary disaster. It would be a shame if we could not agree to reduce population together. It would be a shame for humanity to die off, taking most other species with us and leaving an unlivable planet, knowing that we had the potential to change that future merely by having fewer children.World Overpopulation Awareness (overpopulation.org) and The Population Institute (www.populationinstitute.org). Many of the statistics in the above article were found at these sites. Also check out Zero Population Growth (ZPG) (zpg.org). and Negative Population Growth (NPG) (www.npg.org), two of the largest and best-known organizations dealing with the population issue.