Letters to the Editor of Worldwatch

November 16, 2008 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Raymond Reddy for sending me these letters which appeared in Worldwatch magazine in follow up to the population edition of September-October.

World Watch November/December 2008 www.worldwatch.org Page 2
Get Serious about Numbers

Worldwatch has gone stale on population issues. It billed its September/October issue as being devoted to population, but it flopped: “totally bland, no message of urgency, no call to action, no directions to activist organizations, and virtually no discussion of the interplay of global population with climate, energy, food, and water.” Those words are part of an e-mail that I immediately fired off to Worldwatch after reading its “population” articles. What follows is only a portion of what was in my mind when I sent that harsh e-mail.

If the guts of the recent issue were not about “the interplay of global population with climate, energy, food, and water,” what were they about? The short answer lies in the title given to the introduction, “Women: Population’s Once and Future Key.” This focus on women and not upon numbers originated at the United Nations’ 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The high ideal of “talk about women, not about numbers” is the major explanation of the refrain we hear so often, that “population has fallen off the radar screen.”

The overarching issue of the twenty-first century is the health of the Earth. We must argue clearly and vocally that the health of the Earth must take precedence over all else, and that includes the health of women. If the Earth’s health fails, then all humanity will suffer terribly, including millions upon millions of women.

That the Earth’s health is failing is the message contained in many, many studies, articles, books, and TV programs that spew forth every month, each one arguing that we are now on an unsustainable course, we must change, and time is short. If so, what should we do? Green this and green that is one approach, and a worthy one. Another is to attack the population monster, but how? I argue that we must reverse the focus-on-women policy that was adopted at Cairo. We must emphasize numbers and stir the public on the need for urgency in addressing overpopulation.

To accomplish the monumental persuasion task, whom do we approach and with what arguments? We must approach the people in government who hold the purse strings. Perhaps I am unduly prejudiced, but I do believe that presentations making the connections between population and the world’s great degradations and strife will be far more effective than presentations focused on the needs of women. Only after success in persuading about the magnitude of the problem will the question arise, “What do we do about it?” It is then that the discussions will move to the fact that while effective programs vary enormously from culture to culture, all successful programs have two essentials: ready access to a full array of family planning techniques, including abortion, together with a strong focus on the health, education, and empowerment of women.

But saving the Earth must come first, and that means talking about numbers, their importance, and urgency. The global total today is 6.7 billion, causing great degradation of our atmosphere, oceans, and soil; of our fisheries, forests, and rivers, lakes, and streams. As I write these words, 34 countries are in need of food assistance, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. And surely all know by now that energy shortages and climate change are worldwide phenomena that can only be exacerbated by an ever-enlarging human population.

The “most likely” United Nations projection for our 2050 world total has been inching upward—8.9 billion was projected in 2002, 9.1 billion in 2004, 9.2 billion in 2006; the current 2050 projection by the much-respected Population Reference Bureau in Washington falls between 9.3 and 9.4 billion—almost a 40-percent increase over our present 6.7 billion. This 40 percent population increase in just 42 years raises the most important question of the century: “Can the world’s great ecosystem degradation and the increases in civil strife be halted or reversed in time to avoid a civilizational collapse?” No one can be specific about the straw that might break the camel’s back, and therein lies the urgency. To achieve a lessening of the world’s 2050 population, we must act now. As was said by Maurice Strong, the Secretary-General of the 1992 World Environmental Summit in Rio de Janeiro, “Either we act to reduce population voluntarily and soon, or nature will do this for us, but much more brutally.”

We are in the middle of a “slow emergency.” To prevent an unnecessary several hundred million people being present in 2050, birth control programs must be broadened and made more effective—now. And do not underestimate the compounding power of small changes with long lead times. Consider the divergent histories of Egypt and Ethiopia. In 1965 both countries had fertility rates of 6.6 children per woman. Egypt had a population of 21.8 million, 3 million more than Ethiopia’s 18.4 million. Egypt started its family planning clinics in the 1960s and 1970s; Ethiopia only recently. Current populations are Egypt, 77 million, and Ethiopia, 87 million. With Egypt now having many fewer children than Ethiopia, the major difference is poised to occur: Egypt at 121 million in 2050 but Ethiopia at 183 million. Similarly, actions today mean results in 2050.

We must disabuse the media of the nonsense that population declines in Europe, Russia, Japan, and Korea show that the population explosion is over. Those populations are in decline, yes, but the total declines of those populations by 2050, per the UN 2006 Revision, are less than 1/25th the increases expected in the rest of the world by 2050. That’s right, less than 1/25th.

We must talk about the numbers at national levels as well. When stories appear about nationwide poverty, strife, and genocide, we must get the media to discuss population growth as a factor. Consider figures for 1950, for today, and for 2050. Here are a few: Afghanistan 6, 28, and 79 million, respectively; Pakistan 37, 170, and 292 million; Somalia 2, 9, and 21 million; Sudan 9, 39, and 73 million; and Yemen 4, 23, and 58 million. Or consider hurricane-ravaged Haiti, at 3, 9, and 15 million. The projections for Africa as a whole: 242 million, 922 million and over 2 billion. Can these numbers for 2050 materialize peacefully? or will the growth first be slowed or ended by Malthusian calamities of disease, famine, and war? What will be the implications for the United States and our pocket books?

Migration and urbanization, the youth bulge aging, fertility and mortality—each of these population issues deserves discussion in a separate article, as well as their connections with climate, energy, food, disease, and strife, but none can be described properly without numbers. Only with numbers can we understand the true magnitude, importance, and urgency of the world’s population problem. Without numbers, how can we begin to understand and appreciate the ballooning of the world’s population, from 6.7 to 9.3 billion by 2050? Numbers, numbers, numbers—let’s get overpopulation back on the radar screen!

John Bermingham
Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.

Most leaders in government, NGOs, and the media have ignored the advice of the many notables who since Malthus have warned about the tragic consequences of excessive population growth and overpopulation. Environmental publications in each and every issue discuss global warming, pollution, etc., and promote measures to alleviate them. But they usually don’t even mention population, the cause or aggravator of all the problems, let alone suggest measures to counter its growth.

So I’m glad to see articles in the September/October Population Forum issue that have included discussion of such measures. This is progress. But please consider what we really need to do, as I see it.

The result of the failure to have stopped the growth many years ago is that humanity went into population-driven consumption overshoot of its life-supporting biological resources circa 1985, thereafter perforce drawing down the planet’s natural interest-generating capital. Now we are overshooting by about 25 percent by conservative estimate, and this is increasing by about 1 percent per year. Vital nonrenewable resources, including oil and fresh water, are also being rapidly depleted

The onset of overshoot was an epochal tipping point, a point of no return, sometime after which, almost certainly, world population will be reduced by higher death rates and lower birth rates. (The more we proactively reduce the latter, the less the former will increase.)

The global resource-cum-ecological condition is analogous to the financial condition of an individual who depends on an investment which earns a certain rate of interest, but who requires more than that to live on, and ever more as time passes. He will have to draw upon his capital and it will be depleted at an accelerating rate.

It may be too late to avert an explosion in the global death rate, as we likely cannot prevent even the per-capita increase in consumption/depletion of biological and nonrenewable capital, let alone achieve sustainability for a growing world population. Sustainability, meaning escape from overshoot, can only be achieved by reducing consumption of biological resources to below the amounts that are being regenerated, and by reducing consumption of nonrenewable resources faster than the rates at which they are being depleted. It is inconceivable that we could do this without negative population growth (NPG), when most of the world’s people are still poor and striving to raise their standard of living.

In principle, global population should immediately be reduced by at least 20 percent (corresponding to an assumed 25 percent overshoot), stopping overshoot momentarily. And immediately thereafter NPG should be established at a rate that compensates for the continuing depletion of nonrenewable resources and the inescapable increases in per-capita consumption and general environmental impact. As this cannot be done, for obvious reasons, the population reduction must take place over time. Therefore it must be much greater than 20 percent because so long as overshoot prevails the planet will be able to support fewer and fewer people indefinitely. If we fail to act aggressively the biosphere and civilization will eventually be demolished.

The risk of a demographic die-back, sooner or later, is severe, and an escalating environmental catastrophe is under way as destitute Third World people strip the natural areas for sustenance. Our only chance of averting the former and halting the latter is to quickly reduce birthrates to achieve NPG.

Proposed beneficial measures intended to have the consequence of birthrate reduction as a byproduct, such as women’s empowerment, industrialization, and poverty eradication, are far too little, too late to escape overshoot and resultant gigadeath. Moreover, their success generally depends on prior fertility decrease.

We need rapid reduction in birth numbers through the rapid expansion of direct birthrate reduction programs, effected by governments and NGOs, and I recommend firm timetables for national and global population reductions. Birthrate reduction programs, which will vary according to each national situation, may include components ranging from the distribution of free contraceptives, through media entertainment-education programs which induce people to have fewer children (as described in the article by Connolly, Elmore, and Ryerson) [“Entertainment-Education for Social Change,” p. 28], to compulsory limitation of reproduction (to mention some of what exists, not to advocate any particular measure).

It would cost practically nothing to achieve NPG, indeed the outlay would produce phenomenal net gains. Almost all population growth today originates in the developing countries. At a cost of well under US$100 per averted birth there (as studies have shown), it could soon be reversed by an annual investment of, say, $7.8 billion in expanded birthrate reduction programs ($100 × 78 million annual growth = $7.8 billion). This is about 0.01 percent of world economic product, and among manifold benefits it eliminates the need for over $1 trillion in annual infrastructure costs to accommodate 78 million added to the planet.

The longer we wait and the more timid our efforts to slash birthrates the fewer people the Earth will support and the smaller the chance that we can avert a twenty-first century global holocaust.

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