Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Population Issues And Policies
Part 2 of 2
The environmental impact (E) is a function of population (P), technology (T), and consumption (C):53
E = (P,T,C)
Therefore, even if we make improvements in the types of technology employed, and reduce our per capita consumption, the environment can still deteriorate if population increases more than proportionally. We will explore the consequences of changes in consumption and technology in depth in chapter 5, but let's briefly explore some of the implications of the equation.
Assuming that fertility rates will continue to decline until they eventually reach replacement levels, the best estimates are that population (P) will reach 8 to 10 billion before leveling off or declining. Making a further assumption that consumption per capita (C) will increase no more than 2 percent per year (that's only two‑thirds the growth rate of the past 25 years), total consumption will increase ten to thirteen times today's level over the next century. Thus, to hold pollution and environmental damage constant would require a ten‑ to thirteen‑fold improvement in technology.
Unfortunately, most technologies do not advance like computer technology. They do not change by a factor of ten every few years. Quite the contrary, there has been very little improvement in environmental technology in the last fifty years. Our society still relies primarily on fossil fuel for its energy needs, and the increases in efficiency have been relatively slight. One of the primary reasons for the slow improvement in efficiency is the huge capital costs involved in reducing the pollution that results from use of fossil fuels.
efforts to increase productivity by substituting fossil fuel‑driven machines for
human labor‑one of the primary means of increasing productivity
The need to feed the burgeoning population of
Asia, and Africa is resulting in deforestation of an area the size of Austria
every year. The primary reason for growth in deserts worldwide is due to the
population exceeding carrying capacity of the land."55
In Africa, the need for firewood is resulting in the persistent growth of the
Sahara desert. In Indonesia and other parts of Asia, erosion has become a major
problem as mountainsides are deforested to provide additional acreage for crops.
In Central and South America, slash and burn techniques will destroy in six
years forests that took sixty million years to develop. In
25 percent of all tropical rainforests have been destroyed since the 1960s to
provide pasture land.56
Tragically, the rainforest land serves as pasture land for only six to eight
years before becoming completely nonarable.
Species loss: The loss of tropical rain forests will result in an unprecedented increase in the rate of species extinction. There are an estimated 31 million plant and animal species in the world, although scientists have thus far catalogued only 1.4 million.58 More than half of the estimated species live in the tropical forests. Considering that over 40 percent of the tropical rainforests have already been destroyed, the potential loss of species is a biological holocaust. E. O. Wilson estimates that we may be losing as many as 17,500 species each year and the trend is accelerating.59 Aside from the esthetic loss, the potential medical benefits of these plants will never be realized. For example, rainforests are the source of 70 percent of all plants recognized by the National Cancer Society as having anticancer properties. 60 In 1997 scientists discovered that by slightly modifying the chemical formula for the poison produced by a rare species of tree frog, they could synthesize a nonaddictive alternative to morphine for relief of pain.
Pollution, Ozone Destruction, and Global Warming: Worldwide pollution and the spread of dangerous toxins have been discussed extensively in the environmental literature, and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that even formerly pristine areas such as the Galįpagos Islands and Antarctica are being threatened by wind and waterborne pollutants. There is no place to hide. There is one positive note, however. Due to the worldwide agreement to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the rate of increase in ozone depletion is declining. Scientists now believe that the ozone layer will begin to rebuild early in the twenty‑first century. This is one catastrophe that may have been narrowly avoided through cooperation of the world's nations.
Global warming is the direct result of the energy it takes to support every additional person in the world. Specifically, the primary source of global warming is the buildup of gases in the atmosphere. The world is pumping six billion tons of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases into the atmosphere annually.61 The loss of the world's rainforests contributes to the problem, as rainforests absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. As we shall see in chapter 5, the evidence is indisputable that there is a trend in global warming. The debatable issues are what is causing it, how fast the warming trend is accelerating, and what the consequences will be. There is not yet scientific agreement that the warming is due primarily to the buildup of greenhouse gases as opposed to some cyclical trend due to other natural causes. However, the evidence pointing to CO2 as the primary suspect continues to build. Moreover, by the time we can be certain as to the causes, it may be too late to reverse the trend. Therefore the case for global warming is not like a murder trial where we have to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt to find the suspect guilty. Rather we should seek to err on the side of prudence.
In 1996, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500 scientists reported on their collective studies on the potential for global warming. They estimated that the increase in average temperature would be 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100 if greenhouse gases were not reduced.62 While this increase may not sound like much, it would be the greatest shift in temperature in the ten thousand years of human civilization. The effects of this warming are still subject to much debate, but there is increasing agreement that, at a minimum, the subsequent rise in sea levels throughout the world would threaten the habitat of hundreds of millions of people.
Although energy saving technological improvements may slow the warming trend, they are not enough. For example, even though China improved its energy efficiency 3.7 percent a year between 1979 and 1991, the increase in total output and population growth caused a 40 percent increase in total energy use just between 1980 and 1986.63 In addition to energy saving technology, the world must switch from fossil fuels to less polluting sources of energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal.* Continued reduction in population growth is an essential prerequisite for reducing the growth in the demand for energy.
of the earth's interior heat. The main practical application is in finding
natural concentrations of hot water for use in electric power generation and
direct heat applications such as space heating and industrial drying processes.
Water shortages: In recent decades, use of freshwater has been increasing 4 to 8 percent per year. 64 Freshwater pollution is due to three primary sources: excess nutrients from sewage and soil erosion, which cause algae blooms that eventually deplete the oxygen content of the water; pathogens from sewage that spread disease; and both heavy metals and synthetic compounds from industry, mining, and agriculture that accumulate in aquatic organisms, and eventually can be consumed by humans. Water shortages are becoming acute in many parts of the world, especially East and West Africa and North China.
In 1996, a World Bank report indicated that eighty nations, housing 40 percent of the world's population, already have water shortages that could cripple their efforts to expand industry and irrigate agriculture during the next few decades.65 More ominously, a study by Robert Engleman and Pamela Leroy of Population International estimate that by the year 2025 up to fifty‑two nations, containing 3.5 billion people, may be facing chronic water shortages.66 Many countries do not have even that much time. The UN Habitat Conference warned that by the year 2000 or shortly thereafter, a water crisis threatens because "many countries will have half as much water as they had in 1975."67
matters worse, roughly 95 percent of the world's urban areas are dumping
untreated, or only partially treated, sewage into rivers and coastal waterways.68 The world must brace itself for a "water shock" as wrenching as the oil shock
of the 1970s. The World Bank has estimated it will cost $600 to $800 billion
over ten years to meet even minimal water standards.69
The water crisis will result in national conflicts over water rights, in some
cases leading to warfare.
Earlier, I mentioned it is alleged by some optimists that increasing population will actually improve the quality of life. Some economists have tried to support this view by pointing out that along with the increased population since the 1950s, the world's total output has increased five fold. But David Korten notes that over the same period, the number of people living in absolute poverty has kept pace with population growth: both have doubled.70 While it may be true that average life expectancy has been lengthened because of the increase in modern medicine, it is questionable whether most people are any happier today than forty years ago. We may have simply increased the life span in which people can be unhappy. Or we may have purchased some or all of the increase in happiness from future generations by incurring large national debts and destroying the resources that would add to the security and happiness of our descendants. By this I do not necessarily imply raw resources ―for which substitutes may be found― but natural resources such as open space, clean air and water, species diversification, etc.
The Pollyannas contend that a larger population will result in more potential geniuses to solve the myriad of problems facing humankind. The truth is that the chances of recognizing and developing the capabilities of a genius are inversely related to population growth. We will never know how many of the seven million children on the streets of Brazil may be potential geniuses. The most clever among them will learn how to cheat and steal to survive, but they will never make a positive contribution to society. On the other hand, as Japan has demonstrated by limiting their family size, a nation can devote the necessary resources to make certain that all of its children reach their maximum potential.
In 1996 the world birth rate was 2.6 children per woman. Even if the birth rate continues to decline to an average 2.2 children per woman, the world population would still more than double to 12.5 billion in only fifty years and reach about 21 billion by the year 2150."71 On the other hand, if the world could quickly reduce the average birth rate to 2.0, a population level of "only" 7.8 billion by the year 2050 would be achievable, after which there would be a slow decline in population to about the same level as today by 2150.
A decade ago this seemed unlikely, but throughout the world countries are beginning to make significant progress at lowering their birth rates. For example, Kenya, which had the highest birth rate in the world, averaging eight children per family, has brought their average down to five. Their 2.8 percent growth rate is still far too high, but is a major step in the right direction. China halved its growth rate in the past ten years, to about 1 percent annually.72 South Korea, Taiwan, and Cuba have made similar remarkable progress. The Caribbean dropped its population growth from 2 percent per annum to 1.5 percent. Even Central America made some progress, declining from 3.2 percent to 2.7 percent.
Conversely, reducing infant mortality in Africa worked to its disadvantage, as population growth increased from 2.7 percent to 3.0 percent annually. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that a growth rate of 1.5 percent rate would result in a doubling of population in forty‑seven years. Kenya's 3 percent population growth leads to a doubling of population in just twenty‑three years, while the 1 percent rate of Cuba would lead to a doubling in seventy years, and Italy's rate of less than 0.1 percent would not double its population for almost seven hundred years. (Ironically, the Vatican's pro‑birth doctrines have been totally ignored by those in the Pope's backyard.)
Despite the progress made in slowing the world's population growth the question remains, will it drop fast enough to avoid disaster? Recent estimates are that world population will peak at 8 to 10 billion sometime in the twenty‑first century. While this is better than the 12 to 15 billion forecast based upon the trend in 1980, it is not encouraging if the long‑term carrying capacity of the earth is only about 2 billion people as some environmentalists believe. And, as China has painfully discovered, it is difficult to hold the fertility rate below 2.1 per woman (the zero population growth rate).
As explained, the key to reducing population growth is government sponsored family planning. At a minimum such programs must provide free, or at extremely low cost, a variety of forms of contraception including condoms, birth control pills, sterilization, and abortion on demand, coupled with an education program on how to correctly use each means. Using contraception to space pregnancies not only has the beneficial effect of reducing population growth, but also would result in a decline in maternal deaths by up to one half, thus reducing the number of orphans‑a major problem in many countries today.73
Simply making contraception easily available is not enough. Every developing nation that has succeeded in reducing its birth rate has done so by aggressively promoting family planning. Costa Rica devoted 40 percent of its family planning expenditures to education, information services, and radio promotions. It succeeded in reducing its birth rate by 40 percent between the 1960s and 1980s.74 In Thailand, manufacturers of condoms support sports teams. The traffic police distribute condoms free on New Year's Eve in a program call "cops and rubbers." By extremely aggressive advertising the number of people using birth control in Thailand has reached 65 to 70 percent and the birth rate has fallen from 3.2 percent in 1970 to a little over 1.0 percent by 1996.75
Even the Catholic LDCs are beginning to shed the yoke of Rome's opposition to contraception, but it is a race against time. Brazil has dropped the average family size from six children to three. Sixty‑five percent of the people now use birth control. Most of the other South American countries are also making progress. In Central America, however, except for Mexico and Costa Rica, there has been little progress and the future of most of those countries is bleak. Mexico has reduced its average family size to 3.8 children with 45 percent of the population using birth control and 20 percent eventually choosing sterilization. The ambitious national goal is to reduce population growth to 1 percent per year by the turn of the century. Even 1 percent must be only the interim goal, with the ultimate objective of a negative growth rate since all indications are that Mexico has already exceeded its long‑term carrying capacity. As a consequence, the pressure for Mexicans to migrate to the United States will remain intense for many years.
Asia is a case of extremes, with some countries such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia making excellent progress while at the other end of the spectrum are countries such as India and Bangladesh. The latter nation is particularly unfortunate since 98 percent of the people know of at least one method of birth control, but the nation is so poor that only 40 percent have access to the means. Bangladesh is making some headway and has reduced its average family size from 7.7 children to 5.5.
However, unless much more progress is achieved, this hopelessly overpopulated nation will again double its population in only twenty‑six years.76 Bangladesh will never achieve demographic stability through economic growth. It requires an influx of family planning aid to make contraception free and strong government incentives to reduce fertility rates. If all else fails, they may have to adopt the Chinese approach.
Many of the
Moslem countries, such as Iran, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, and
Kuwait are experiencing growth rates of up to 3 percent. Although, recently,
progressive Moslem clerics have endeavored to show that contraception does not
violate the Koran, the availability and knowledge of birth control is still
Finally, even Africa is beginning to reduce its birth rate, although in some countries more through war, famine, and disease (especially AIDs) than family planning. Whether Africa will bring its population growth under control through birth control or the consequences of disease and starvation is still an open question.
In recent years, substantial progress has been made in providing contraception to the world's men and women. A major problem persists, however, in getting them to use it. According to John Bongaarts, president of the Population Council, there are only 87 to 100 million women in developing countries outside of China who indicate that they would like to delay their next pregnancy, but fail to use effective birth control even when it is available.77 This is mainly a guess; other estimates indicate that about half of the world's married couples use some form of birth control, sterilization being the most popular.78 Use of birth control is by no means evenly distributed around the globe. In Africa, only 25 percent of the women who do not want any more children are utilizing some form of contraception.79
UNICEF's "State of the World's Children" report for 1992 indicated that if women could decide on how many children to have, the rate of growth in the world's population would drop 30 percent.80 This is somewhat misleading because to get the actual impact we must apply this percentage to the current growth rates. A 30 percent decline applied to a 1.7 percent growth would reduce the growth rate to 1.2 percent annually. Such an improvement would be insufficient to solve the population problem. We need to figure out how to reduce the other 70 percent of the growth. This is no easy task.
Charles Galton Darwin, the grandson of Charles Darwin, has postulated that a purely voluntary control of population will, of necessity, fail as a means of population control. The reason is due to the law of natural selection articulated by his illustrious grandfather. In this instance, adults who have a strong desire to produce children will produce more children than those who choose to use contraception. There is empirical evidence to support this theory which shows that "daughters of mothers who had more children than the norm for their generation also had more children than the average of their generation."81
As explained in The Science of Morality, when one of the basic human desires is out of harmony with the needs of the environment, society must intervene by creating or exploiting other desires that will counter the biological need. The best way to achieve this is to increase the education of women and provide them with employment opportunities. Having alternative employment opportunities will enable them to satisfy the desire for security and material well‑being that they would be unable to fulfill with a large family.
The opportunity to obtain good jobs may be enough for women of sufficient intelligence. It may not be enough for women whose only employment opportunities are low paying, undesirable jobs, unless they have no alternative source of support. Matters are made worse if the cost of having children is born by the community at large while the benefit (psychological or otherwise) is gained by the mothers. That is exactly how the present welfare system works in America.
The situation would be exacerbated by free health care. To reduce the birth rate of poor women it is necessary to eliminate any subsidy for having children. There might even need to be positive or negative incentives to encourage women who cannot afford children to refrain from having them. Garrett Hardin goes so far as to suggest making aid to poor women contingent upon the adoption of fertility‑reducing measures such as sterilization or an enforceable contract to have fewer children.82 Hardin's suggestion might sound harsh, but we must always consider the far more disastrous consequences of overpopulation.
Equally as important as the education of women, is the availability of some form of social security. Where ample social security is available, one of the main incentives for having children ―to care for the parents in old age― is removed. In such circumstances, the evidence suggests that people will reduce their family size to improve the material quality of their lives and that of their children.
We already mentioned the Congressional action to cut off family planning funding to China because of their population policy and the allegations of forced abortions. Whether or not they are coerced, the religious right is opposed to permitting any abortions and is willing to destroy the entire family planning program solely because it permits abortions. The unintended result of past cuts in family aid is a greater number of unwanted pregnancies leading to an increase in the number of abortions worldwide. It is an ironic tragedy that in his unreasonable opposition to contraception, Pope John Paul II, more than any other person, is responsible for the excessive number of abortions worldwide. In countries where abortions are illegal, abortions are performed without adequate medical care, and often result in the woman's death and commensurate increase in the world's orphans.83 No wonder scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke has called the Pope the most dangerous man in the world.
implemented a pronatalist policy similar to the Pope's:
There is much irony in the religiously motivated decision regarding the U.S. policy of cutting funding for international family planning services. Conservative politicians have no qualms about sending billions of dollars in military aid to the LDCs that have often intensified wars and resulted in the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children. The same politicians that balk at destroying a group of fetal cells will often ignore the crushing poverty that must inevitably result if population growth is not brought under control. As Werner Fornos points out, if Ethiopia had launched a family planning program in 1970 which was half as effective as Thailand, the population in 1990 would have been reduced by 1.7 million, which equals the number of people forced to rely on emergency food aid from the rest of the world.84 Moreover, the food aid was counterproductive since it only meant that those people survived to give birth to an even larger number which will starve during the next famine.
In the early 1960s thirty million Chinese died of famine. Much of the problem was due to the failure of the collective farming system under Mao tse Tung. However, periodic famines existed long before Communism in China and the magnitude of the problem was growing with the size of the population. In the early 1970s, Chinese demographers realized that at the existing fertility rate the population would double to two billion people shortly after the turn of the century. They also knew that the inevitable check to this unsustainable growth was mass starvation. Drastic ills call for drastic remedies. The Chinese government decided that it had to dramatically slow population growth by the year 2000.
China's family planning efforts were impeded by the lack of the government's capability to care for people in old age, coupled with the custom that it was the son's responsibility to do so. Hence, when a couple had a daughter, they wanted to have additional children until a son was born. The government tried to institute elderly care programs, but lacked adequate means to do so, especially in rural areas. So China developed policies that would reward a couple for having only one child, penalize a couple for a second child, and severely penalize couples who were so socially irresponsible as to have a third pregnancy. More specifically:
· Salaries were increased for couples who had one child and promised to have no more.
· An adult grain ration was provided for one child, but less for additional children.
· A pension equal to 100 percent of their salary was provided to childless couples, 80 percent to one‑child families, and less than 70 percent to two‑child families.85
· Marriage licenses were only provided to men at age twenty‑eight and women at age twenty‑six.
Other, more coercive, measures were at times adopted by local authorities who were determined to meet population objectives. These involved making women report when they missed their period and, upon occasion, pressure to have an abortion. More distressing was the widespread practice of female infanticide by rural couples because pensions were not available to them, and because it was the only way the couple would be permitted to have another baby ―hopefully a boy who would eventually care for them. It should be noted that female infanticide is strictly forbidden by the Chinese government. To stem this disturbing practice, the government has outlawed the use of ultrasound examinations to determine the sex of a fetus.
Although China's population control program has not been without pain, it has been extremely successful. Instead of 1.8 billion people by the year 2000, the population is now projected to reach only 1.2 billion.86 The reduced growth in population may avoid the mass starvation of millions of people. Still, China's population is probably too large for long‑term sustainability. It is estimated that the carrying capacity of China may be only 700 million.87 There is no doubt that China's population control program is headed in the right direction and the United States has no right to criticize it. Instead, the United States should be attempting to curb its own population growth before American society reaches the point where we must implement the onerous policies of China.
The question is, can other LDCs achieve equally impressive results in slowing their population growth with less repressive measures? As stated, the key is to implement family planning programs before such drastic steps are necessary. It would be extremely useful if Catholic and Muslim prelates led the way by revising their dangerously outdated doctrines, but it is doubtful that such antiquated, authoritative religions will serve as anything other than an impediment to be overcome. However, effective, noncoercive population planning could be still be implemented in most of the underdeveloped world if the United States would reassert the leadership it once exerted.
The cost of providing the knowledge and means for family planning to all women worldwide is estimated to be only $17 billion per year, increasing to $21.5 billion by 2015.88 This sum represents the total aid from all the developed nations. The U.S. share would only be about $1.8 billion. This is less than the cost of one Stealth bomber and would easily be recovered in savings from future emergency relief. (The funds could also be obtained by diverting some of the military aid provided to Israel, Egypt, and the LDCs.) Furthermore, reducing population growth will remove a major cause of national unrest which can lead to revolutions and international conflicts. It is to America's shame that we allowed the religious right to impede family planning aid for almost a decade, and now they threaten to do so again. It is in the self‑interest of the United States to do all it can to support the LDCs through technical assistance and aid for family planning.
The LDCs are equally to blame for their lack of family planning. They have devoted an exorbitant amount of money to military armaments. They could easily have financed family planning by redirecting a portion of their excessive military expenditures.
One final note: some wild‑eyed optimists believe that after filling the earth to capacity we will just move to other planets, sort of like the Europeans who moved to the new world of the Americas. We already know, however, that there are no inhabitable planets in our own solar system. (Of course we could build some ecopod to house a few dozen or perhaps even a few hundred people on a barren and inhospitable moon or perhaps Mars, but only at a huge cost.) To find a livable planet, we need to travel to other solar systems, and there is the rub.
As Garrett Hardin explains, the nearest star to the earth is Alpha Centauri which is four light years away.* Traveling at the present rate of space speeds ―about twenty‑five thousand mph― it would take 114,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri. Even assuming we could boost the speed to twenty-two million mph ―which may or may not be theoretically possible― it would take 125 years for the trip, i.e., four to five generations. And at the present birth rate, to keep the population of the earth from increasing further we would have to send off a quarter million people a day! Considering that it costs about $1 billion to build a submarine to house 140 sailors for a year, the cost of just one vehicle to house and support a quarter million people for 125 years is almost unimaginable. Even with economies of scale, one trillion dollars per spaceship would seem a bargain. And we would need to build one a day!89
* There is no evidence that Alpha Centauri has any planets ―in fact the odds are against it. The closest star with planets appears to be over eight light years away, and the likelihood that those planets are inhabitable is extremely small. Moreover, what if we discover there is already intelligent life on another planet? Does that give us the right to invade and conquer the indigenous people (assuming we could) so that we can export our surplus population? It never occurs to science fiction writers that from the perspective of any other planet with an indigenous population, we would be the space aliens. Perhaps only Native Americans can appreciate this irony.
World famous entomologist Edward O. Wilson provides an excellent example of the dangers of maintaining a compound growth rate in population.90 Imagine a pond in which you plant one lily pad. Suppose this lily pad doubles the second day and continually doubles every day for thirty days at which time the entire pond is covered in lily pads. On which day do the lily pads cover only half the pond? The answer is, of course, the twenty‑ninth day! In other words, for those who don't understand compound rates of growth, the situation can look controllable just before disaster strikes. Even at the reduced rate of growth of recent years, the world population will double again in less than fifty years. In many LDCs, doubling of the population will occur in twenty to twenty‑five years. Are we willing to risk the consequences?
The world's present rate of growth, or ultimately any positive rate of growth, will lead to increased strife among a growing population competing for shrinking land and water resources, greater income disparity, environmental destruction, and less freedom, as increasing population requires a proportional increase in rules and regulations to maintain order.
World population growth can be curtailed through wider availability of contraception and abortion. Just as importantly, the LDCs must improve the education of women, increase job opportunities for women, and provide minimum assistance to people in their old age.
growth rate of the world's population has declined, an increase of seventy
million people a year is still far too high to be sustainable. Africa, Central
and South America, and many Moslem countries are in dire need of an immediate
and dramatic reduction in their birth rates.
To support population control programs in the LDCs, the United States should immediately:
· Increase support to the UNFPA and the IPPF to at least $1 billion per year.
· Tie aid to LDCs to their efforts to implement effective family planning programs.
· Increase research and development for new contraceptives.91
With the adoption of the above recommendations, it would be possible to bring the world's population growth rate down from the present 1.4 percent per year to 0.5 percent in thirty to forty years. The optimal solution is a negative population growth rate for several decades after population peaks, until the world population falls back to the carrying capacity of the planet.
79. Bonnie Johnson, "Overpopulation and Reproductive Rights,"
Free Inquiry (Spring 1994): 13.
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