An Unfruitful Plea

Tom Flynn

In his editorial (“The Two Imperatives of Planetary Ethics,” page 6) Paul Kurtz emphatically calls for secular humanists—and humans generally—to take action against oceanic dead zones and global poverty. Coastal-water eutrophication leads a grim lineup of ecological threats: global warming; freshwater depletion; and contamination by antibiotic residues, synthetic chemicals, and heavy metals, to name only a few. So ominous has the situation become that even many Christian conservatives are redefining themselves as stewards of the planet, no longer as its exploiters by divine right (see our April/May 2008 cover story, “The New Creation Stewardship”). As for poverty, its toll is inarguable, especially when we reflect that some two billion people, approximately the total population of planet Earth in 1942 when the original Oxfam was founded, live on $2 a day or less.

I chose that statistic because it points up a factor that Kurtz’s ethical imperatives share, one that’s too seldom discussed today. Both ecological destruction and global poverty are intimately linked to overpopulation. But that topic seems almost taboo.

It’s a taboo we need to shatter.

From the overuse of fertilizers that drives eutrophication to the carbon loading that drives global warming, most of the hazards threatening our biosphere are per-capita problems: they would be less oppressive if there were fewer people. Poverty and malnutrition have per-capita aspects as well: the green revolutions of the 1960s and 70s would have provided bountiful nutrition for all if third-world populations had not surged in response—driven as much by reduction in death rates as by increases in births. Since the desperately poor contribute little to their countries’ GNPs, it follows that rickety third-world economies would not be significantly smaller today if national populations had grown less explosively. Were that the case, the same modest resources could be distributed among fewer claimants, potentially reducing poverty.

The last time Free Inquiry ran a cover feature on overpopulation (August/September 2004, “What Is the Optimum Population of the U.S.? The World?”), I offered the controversial suggestion that humanity should seek over the long term to reduce its numbers to around 2.5 billion, the global population of the 1950s. Many who find that idea too radical nonetheless agree that we should seek to keep human numbers from overshooting the current 6.7 billion any farther than can be avoided. And, in fact, there are grounds for hope: most Western countries are now in a process of voluntary demographic contraction (the average German woman has just 1.3 children). Even in the United States, population would stabilize at current levels if not for immigration. Sadly, the response of Western leaders has been not to welcome falling birthrates but to resist them, offering childbirth bounties or soliciting new streams of immigrants.

You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but there’s a growing consensus among population experts that present population levels are ecologically unsustainable, not just in the third world but in developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom (where each newborn’s lifetime carbon footprint is some 160 times larger than that of an infant in Ethiopia).

That’s why a July 2008 editorial in the British Medical Journal (the U.K. analogue of The New England Journal of Medicine or JAMA) is so welcome. Physicians John Guillebaud and Pip Hayes noted that there are 6.7 billion humans and that “humankind’s consumption of fossil fuels, fresh water, crops, fish and forest exceeds supply. These facts are connected.” Since the days of Thomas Malthus, a “sevenfold increase in the population has led . . . to unprecedented food shortages, escalating prices, and riots. Until these events Borlaug’s ‘green revolution’ had seemingly proved Malthus wrong. Yet fertilisers, pesticides, tractors, and transport are dependent on fossil fuels, which apart from being in short supply, exacerbate climate change.”*

Noting that recent British Medical Journal editorials on climate change had been silent about population, Guillebaud and Hayes asked, “Should UK doctors break a deafening silence here? . . . Should we now explain to UK couples who plan a family that stopping at two children, or at least having one less child than first intended, is the simplest and biggest contribution anyone can make to leaving a habitable planet for our grandchildren?”

Kudos to Drs. Guillebaud and Hayes for their forthrightness and, yes, courage for posing these tough questions in the U.K.’s premier medical journal. (Care to guess the odds that any such viewpoint will soon appear in the New England Journal of Medicine?)

Speaking frankly about overpopulation need not raise the specter of coercive practices associated with some “population control” efforts of decades past, Guillebaud and Hayes note. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that simple education and advocacy concerning contraception suffice to reduce fecundity when “accompanied by correct information about its appropriateness and safety; when barriers are removed; and when the principles of marketing are applied.”

You don’t need to be a physician to call attention to the links between environmental degradation, poverty, and overpopulation. Secular humanists should be outspoken on this score whenever opportunity presents. Those of childbearing age might also consider leading by example and having one fewer child—even if their doctor fails to recommend it.

Personally, I’ve been a population activist for many years. I long ago decided to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and simply resolved not to have children. It’s a decision I have never regretted—and yes, I know that dire consequences would ensue if everyone followed my lead. (Fat chance of that.) So long as some couples insist on having many children, we need others who will make the voluntary choice to have none. Look at it this way: by not having the two children a zero-population-growth commitment would “entitle” us to, my wife and I have made up for two thirds of the runaway fruitfulness of Todd and Sarah Palin.

Humor aside, it seems society is finally ready to get serious about what Kurtz has called “our common abode.” Getting serious about the planet means getting serious about human numbers. Or we’re not really being serious at all.

 


* The editorial by Guillebaud and Hayes will be reprinted in full in a future issue of Free Inquiry.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


In his editorial (“The Two Imperatives of Planetary Ethics,” page 6) Paul Kurtz emphatically calls for secular humanists—and humans generally—to take action against oceanic dead zones and global poverty. Coastal-water eutrophication leads a grim lineup of ecological threats: global warming; freshwater depletion; and contamination by antibiotic residues, synthetic chemicals, and heavy metals, to name only …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.