Two Children per Family are Enough
We are coming upon the fortieth anniversary of “The Population Bomb.” It’s time to take stock of the situation then in 1968 and in the years leading up to 2008. There is no question that the author of the book, Paul R. Ehrllch was wildly off the mark with some of his forecasts. He predicted massive famines in the 1970s and 1980s that never materialized; the Green Revolution pretty much prevented that scenario, at least temporarily. Many other writers, academicians, scholars, journalists have been proven wrong over time, but Mr. Ehrlich seems to have received more than his fair share of criticism and outright hostility. Perhaps all this castigation and scorn are unjustified. His predictions might have been premature rather than completely wrong.
The population bomb has perhaps been delayed instead of defused and averted. We need to remember that Mr. Ehrlich correctly predicted the world’s population would continue to outstrip a nutritionally adequate food supply, although by far less than what was feared in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, many poor still go to bed hungry.
For uncounted millennia and until 1800, the human numbers were under one billion. We hit two billion around 1930 and today we have over 6.5 billion homosapiens on this planet, an unsustainable level. There is much discussion these days about reducing the size of our carbon footprint. What about the number of those carbon footprints? Certainly on the right, yet even from the left, insufficient attention is being paid to the need for first stabilizing and then significantly reducing the world’s population. This quagmire may not be the number-one environmental issue at hand, but it will be a critical factor in our chances for survival. This is particularly true as China and India, with a billion plus people each, rapidly industrialize.
The already-industrialized countries, especially the U.S., deserve substantial blame for their lavish lifestyles. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but consumes roughly 25% of the planet’s energy resources and pollutes the world with approximately 50% of its toxic wastes. At least Australia’s new Labor government has quickly ratified the Kyoto Protocol; this is an excellent first step. Implementing it and getting the U.S., China, and India on board will certainly be a challenge. Clearly a planet with far fewer people as well as far more earth-friendly economic practices must become the order of the day, and soon.
According to Achim Steiner, the executive director of the UN Environment Program, “The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns”: the very definition of overpopulation. Today the warning signs are stronger, more frequent, and more obvious. All major ecosystems are in decline: a minimum of five percent of original rainforests being destroyed per decade, according to the World Bank; coral reefs are dying, species disappearing, petroleum production peaking, radioactive and chemical wastes spreading, topsoil eroding, and too few alternative crop varieties are being cultivated.
Saving seeds, engaging in organic agriculture, planting trees, encouraging more public transportation, adopting more stringent conservation measures, utilizing alternative energy are all worthy pursuits that are necessary to ensure the survival of the human race and our natural world. Nevertheless, without a considerable drop in the absolute numbers of humans, we as a species still might not make it past this century. That threat of ecological collapse on a planetary scale is slightly more urgent than the inconvenience Western Europe, Japan, South Korea and other post-industrialized countries might endure if there are too many retirees and insufficient new workers coming into the labor force.
If the severity of this approaching disaster is obvious, what is blocking some effective remedies? It really comes from two distinct sources: religious fundamentalism and the neo-liberal economic model of capitalism. Many religious conservatives fancy themselves as “pro-life.” They are often nothing of the sort. Besides being adamantly against abortion, these groups are mostly against contraception, which can save lives from the scourge of AIDS. A recent study conducted by John Hopkins University and Columbia University claim that condom use in Uganda has cut HIV transmission by more than two-thirds.
Most anti-abortion extremists also typically ignore vital issues such as adequate prenatal care, vaccinations, infant nutrition programs, domestic violence prevention, detection of DU contamination in embryos, and pressing environmental issues of the day; that is every aspect of life is disregarded, except for the human fetus. Their real agenda is not about fetuses, but rather control over women’s bodies and lack of choice regarding when and how many children to bear.
The current obsession with growth, unrestrained free trade, and rapid industrialization is the modern, capitalist paradigm. Reduced populations would ultimately cut into sales of large, profit-driven enterprises. This is something corporate CEOs fear, at least in the long-term. Yet it is also true that bureaucratic, one-party states can also prevent responsible family planning. Romania under Ceausescu is one such example; access to birth-control devices and information was nearly impossible during most of his autocratic rule. However, today the vast majority of vociferous opposition to family planning services emanates from the right, not the left.
Economic and religious conservatives are increasingly intertwined. In the past, many moderate Republicans, including George H.W. Bush, supported Planned Parenthood and similar organizations. He did that until deciding to pander to the right-wing core of the GOP in 1980 in exchange for becoming Reagan’s vice-president. On these matters, the silence from the corporate media is deafening.
As Bill Moyers stated, our right-wing opponents deserve one thing at least: a good argument. Few would argue that China has made spectacular strides in economic development over the past thirty years. Yet the Chinese are experiencing a widening income gap and massive environmental degradation as well, which would have been much worse without their strict one-child policy for most families.
The total world population will eventually come down. The numbers could be reduced through war, famine, disease, or through rational and humane policies and programs. Some of these are already in place by national governments and various international organizations. However, adequate funding and effective outreach remain problematic.
It is morally imperative to have no elements of violence, coercion, or deception concerning population control. Because of Indira Gandhi’s policy of forced sterilizations in the mid-1970s during her emergency rule, national family planning in India was setback for decades and has only recently gained public support and funding from the government. While financial incentives may help, well-designed, properly funded health care and education programs are the key, especially for women and children. Well-educated women tend to want smaller families. Population reduction will be a vital component toward achieving a world with political freedom, economic prosperity, social justice, and ecological harmony.
Joseph Schouweiler teaches international studies at Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org