Sunday, August 31, 2008

Paul Ehrlich, the Modern-Day Malthus, and His New Book

Forty years ago Paul Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, caused a furore with its predictions of disaster due to the exploding population. Many scoffed when his dystopian predictions didn't come true. Now he and his wife, Anne, have written another book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, and his prophecies are much more urgent.

The world's population has increased by about three billion since 1968 and it's getting uncomfortably crowded.
In their new book, the Ehrlichs step back and analyze the big picture, looking carefully at how humans have evolved, and in the process how we are laying waste to the planet. As biologists, they are particularly concerned about the sixth major extinction: humans wiping out other species. But they explore all the other problems such as dwindling energy resources including peak oil, poverty, looming water shortages, toxification of the world, and atmospheric degradation including global warming.

They conclude that cultural evolution has not kept pace with technological progress, and that for solutions, humans should look to social changes, including improving governance and eradicating poverty, rather than counting on miracle technological fixes.

When I interviewed Ehrlich, he said, "We need to vastly improve human ethics and re-design North America around people, not cars and possessions." Dominant Animal is a compelling book by two scientists who have spent their lives studying human population, its development and the impact on the environment. We should listen to them.

Let me know what you think about Dominant Animal.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Population Issue Makes the News

Although the "population problem" is rarely discussed in any meaningful way by politicians or mainstream media, on 26 July 2006, the Vancouver Sun ran a column I wrote that generated considerable feedback, some of which I'd like to share with you. You can check out the column here:

Problem of Population Growth Needs to Be Met: No one wants to tackle the prickly question despite its extensive environmental impacts

It starts: "The most frightening — and fascinating — thing I know is a graph of human population growth over the past millennium. Starting in about 1800 the curve suddenly spikes almost straight upward, and this incredible growth in human numbers continues today. In my lifetime alone, population has increased by over four billion people. And thanks to technological innovations and cheap oil, the impact of each person on the globe has increased even faster.

"Under this onslaught, Earth's vast cradle of resources, including oil, food grains, fish stocks and water, is being severely depleted, and the environment is being trampled underfoot. Humanity's unflagging desire to procreate and improve our lifestyle (read, own more and bigger) is finally catching up with us. It is truly scary, for the graph can only be interpreted one way: dire times lie ahead.

"The fascinating part is that few care. It's the damnedest contradiction! Humans can send people to the moon, split the nucleus of an atom and transplant a heart. Yet we won't do anything about the population freight train that's steaming toward a cliff. Why?"


The article goes on to show how politicians and environmental groups are ignoring human population growth, which is yoked to a growing economy like two oxen (as I've mentioned in this blog). It also shows that savings made by conservation will be negated by population growth. If we care about the future, we need to drag the issue into the open and start talking about it.

Here are some of the (edited) responses I've received:

1) We fully agree.

"The bad news is that these are baby steps, and are totally swamped by developing countries like China and India, which are charging full-tilt ahead to raise their living standards."

And, indeed, when they look at the West, why shouldn't they? It appears that while China and India are trying to catch up with the West, we are trying to catch up with the Middle and Far East (in terms of population numbers). What an absurd race!

MW, Vancouver, BC

2) It was good to see you raise the issue of the "problem of population growth" in the Vancouver Sun today. I teach an economics course and always start the course with the basic economic concept that as humans we have seemingly unlimited demands for things and our economic systems, at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, all measure their success by the level of growth that has been achieved. Population growth underlies this global growth in demand and, as you point out, is exacerbated by the fact that income levels and economic activity are rising the fastest in the poorer countries where most of the people are located.

I was in Australia recently at a conference on Water Supply and Pricing and there was a speaker from UNESCO who was accountable for strategies on water issues. They have developed a strategy called ‘UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Scientific Cooperative Programme in Hydrology and Water Resources’ which develops strategies for dealing with challenges facing the world in the area of water supply. Not one of these strategies deals with population growth which clearly is one of the underlying problems. If the worlds’ population had not grown by 4 billion people in the last 55 years or so there would not be the same stresses on water that we now face in this world. But the even scarier problem is what impact continued population growth will have on water supplies. I asked this fellow from UNESCO why addressing population growth was not on the list of issues to be addressed and he indicated that while he understood it clearly was one of the underlying challenges to water issues, it was much too politically sensitive to be raised. He suggested that countries like India and Pakistan would never support any such reference to this issue.

I can only hope that more people like yourself raise this issue and that at some point it is taken seriously. Unfortunately history suggests that difficult issues like this are seldom taken seriously until we are forced to by impending dire consequences.

JB, by email

3) Your piece is brilliant … I have been a student and activist concerning what I perceive as major issues, and overpopulation — and its subsequent despoilation of the planet — is one of the main ones, if not THE main one.

NT, by email

4) Hi Hans, I was deeply involved in the environmental movement in the '70s with a group based out of U.B.C.

With growing concern I have also observed the fact that not only do precious few seem to care about the massive impending global trainwrecks rushing at us, I don't know more than a few people who have the slightest interest in even talking about them. Anytime I try and raise the subject of global warming, impending oil shortages or the problems of population growth, people give me an indignant, blank (why would I give a sh-t!) stare and quickly shift the conversation to another topic.

Even more disturbing is the opposition to any proposals to address global warming or population growth if they might have the slightest negative impact on the economy. Even though global extreme weather disasters are fast becoming "reality TV," there appears to be a widespread belief that there is no cost associated with doing nothing. [Even] assuming global warming is a gigantic hoax and that there is no downside to population growth (neither of which I believe), conserving resources would [still] seem to be a logical and reasonable proposition, except for the fact that it would probably negatively affect consumer spending. Here, more is indeed more when it comes to economic health.

Contemporary marketing strategies aimed at turning people into addictive, mindless consumers, and a state information overload might at least partly explain the paralyzing apathy of most. But still it seems odd that people who would normally have enough sense to seek shelter in the face of an (unproven) threat of impending rain or, worse lightning, would not be mobilized to act against a threat whose effects are seen almost daily on the news. Perhaps we as a society have reached a point where we can no longer distinguish fiction from reality.

DM, Sechelt, BC

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Help Women Curb Reproduction

Recently, in response to my article on population in the Vancouver Sun, I heard from Jane Roberts, a Nobel Peace prize nominee. Jane is co-founder of 34 Million Friends, a grassroots effort in the United States to support the United Nations Population Fund. She is a resident of Redlands, CA.

Below Jane shares with us her letter to the editor of the Washington Times (a conservative Washington paper), which appeared on 29 July 2008.


On June 26, the Bush administration, for the seventh year in a row, refused to release congressionally approved funds for the United Nations Population Fund.

The fund, supported by 181 countries last year, not only offers reproductive health care and family planning in 151 countries but also studies population and poverty trends. It's a good time to talk about population. The fate of women is central to any population debate.

The planet is home to 6.7 billion people, and about 75 million more births occur each year than deaths. Ninety-eight percent of this growth happens in the poorest countries.

In these countries, there is high maternal mortality (more than 500,000 maternal deaths in childbirth each year) and nearly 10 million deaths of children under age 5. Four million of these deaths happen in the first month of life due in large part to the ill health of the mother.

In 1968, world leaders proclaimed that individuals have a basic human right to determine the number and timing of their children. Forty years later, modern contraception remains out of reach for hundreds of millions of people.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, 210 million pregnancies occur in the world every year, and 42 million of them end in abortion, half of which are risky and illegal. About 70,000 women per year die from unsafe abortions.

This is unacceptable. Universal access to family-planning help and the highest standard of reproductive health must become the order of the day. Yet there has been a sharp reduction in international funding for reproductive health in general, and in particular in the area of family planning.

The family-planning component of the worldwide reproductive health budget has fallen from 55 percent to 7 percent, says Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.

Women, if educated and given choices, have fewer children, and they educate them better and keep them healthy. The women often earn incomes, and that improves family and community life. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently said: "In women, the world has the most significant but untapped potential for development and peace." The fate of women is closely linked with population issues. Population is important. Women are important. We ignore both at our peril.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


According to The Optimum Population Trust (a UK think tank on population policy that is absolutely opposed to any form of coercion in family planning), each new birth in the United Kingdom "is responsible for on average about 160 times as much climate-related environmental damage as a new birth in Ethiopia or 35 times as much as a new birth in Bangladesh." It'll be much worse in Canada and the US, I'm sure.

The reference for these stats was in an article in the July 25, 2008 Telegraph (a UK newspaper), by Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor: "Limit Families to Two Children 'to Combat Climate Change'." The subtitle was "GPs should tell parents not to have more than two children to help in the battle against climate change, according to doctors."

According to the article, John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health, at University College London and GP Dr. Pip Hayes, from Exeter, suggested in the British Medical Journal that "GPs should talk to their patients about the consequences of having a large family, and provide advice on contraception, population and the environment."

The authors said, "We must not put pressure on people, but by providing information on the population and the environment, and appropriate contraception for everyone (and by their own example), doctors should help to bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars."

What an enormous stride ... suggesting population policy because of climate change! But while we're making suggestions, why not suggest one-child families? If we all keep replacing ourselves (with two-children families), how are we to bring the global population down?

Is having fewer children an effective way to tackle climate change? Is there an ideal number of children? Should doctors talk to their patients about family planning from the perspective of climate change? Have you ever broached this topic with friends or family of child-bearing age? If so, what kind of response did you get? I'd like to hear from you.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bipolar Humans

The bipolar nature of human beings amazes me. On the one hand, we are geniuses who have created art and music of incredible beauty and passion. We have peered into the atom and unravelled its structure. Humans have walked on the moon, and space probes transmit photos of planets millions of miles distant. We can replace a human heart, understand the intricacies of the DNA molecule and are close to decoding the very makeup of life itself.

We are so smart, yet we have another side. Namely, we are driven by two basic traits that threaten our very survival: violence and the urge to procreate. When stress rises and the going gets tough, we humans resort to violence. Just look at Darfur, Iraq or even big city slums in the United States, which are infested with gangs and lawlessness.

And we continue to increase our numbers so that resources like oil and food grains can no longer keep pace with our collective consumption. The globe is warming, water shortages are looming and the stress on the planet and human civilization is rising rapidly. The pot is bubbling ominously and soon the lid will pop.

What a dichotomy! We have the intelligence to create the most wondrous art and amazing technology, but we lack the intelligence to control the destructive side of our instincts and our psyches. In my dreams I picture politicians working together worldwide to implement programs for curbing population growth.

I also dream of funding being diverted from technological research into research to study human character with the goal of transforming violence into love and caring.
Sadly, these are only dreams and the harsh light of reality tells me that one side of our bipolar personalities will destroy the other, and likely civilization with it.

Yes, this is dark. But do you agree? What can we do?