Overpopulation, Climate Change, and November 6

Edd Doerr

In the early 1950s, I was a guest on a Sunday evening talk-show in Indianapolis discussing the overpopulation problem. World population then was less than a third of today’s seven-billion-and-counting. The following morning’s newspaper headlined a hysterical rant about the audacity of discussing something so controversial in anything above a whisper. The talk-show host was fired.

Even earlier, UNESCO director, scientist, and humanist Julian Huxley had been pushing for international action on overpopulation, even using the familiar “hockey stick” metaphor, although world population in 1950 was just 2.2 billion. Paul Ehrlich and other scientists began churning out books and articles on the subject. In 1975, the Republican ( gasp!) Ford administration produced the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200 report, confirming what Huxley, Ehrlich, and other scientists had been saying about overpopulation and recommending United States and worldwide action to stem population growth by making contraception universally available. It even noted that population growth could not be reined in without widespread legalization of abortion.*

Then a curious thing happened. The NSSM 200 report was stamped “classified” and deep-sixed until nearly the eve of the 1994 United Nations Cairo conference on population, when it was published with commentary by population scientist Stephen Mumford—and even then was generally ignored. (I seem to have been one of the few writers to have reviewed Mumford’s important NSSM 200 book.)

For at least a quarter of a century, climate scientists have been sounding the alarm about climate change and global warming. Al Gore highlighted the matter with a book and a television program, also using the hockey stick metaphor. But climate change, which is due in large measure to human activity, is loudly pooh-poohed by conservatives, Republicans, and fundamentalists.

During its 1972 and 1973 terms, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a pair of related rulings (Baird v. Eisenstadt and Roe v. Wade), acknowledged (not created) the constitutional right of all persons, married or single, to practice family planning (“artificially,” in contrast to the relatively useless “natural” method approved by the Old Boys’ Club on the Tiber) and to terminate problem pregnancies through abortion. Since then, fundamentalist-tending religious “leaders” (Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim), aided by public apathy and conservative political opportunism, have been maneuvering to strangle abortion and contraception rights—or access—through legislation in Congress and the states. (We might note that these religious leaders are also pushing to get all taxpayers to support pervasively sectarian private schools, most of which promote a misogynist antichoice ideology.)

It should be abundantly clear that failure to deal with overpopulation and climate change, and to do so now, will inevitably mean catastrophe: Four-Horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse horrors for billions of humans (shortages of fresh water, fossil fuels, good farm land, forests, important ecosystems, and so on) and possibly the end of civilization. The leaders and enablers of the anti-choice, anti-contraception, anti-climate change movements are criminally irresponsible. Or perhaps they’re clinically nuts.

As we approach the crucial November 6 elections, we need to decide which candidates for offices—high and low—are mostly likely to get serious about the problems summarized above, not only in the privacy of the voting booth but in every possible way that we can influence the elections.

Labels and Bottles

Polls this summer showed that about 19 percent of Americans report being religiously “unaffiliated.” So, what does that mean? Here are some observations based on my decades of involvement with this large area of interest.

“Unaffiliated” means just that: not affiliated with any religious organization. It tells nothing about what an unaffiliated person believes. It is not synonymous with unbelief. In any event, everyone is a nonbeliever in whatever conflicts with what he or she believes. Fundamentalists are unbelievers in evolution. Protestants are unbelievers in the authority of the pope, and Catholics tend to be unbelievers in “sola scriptura.” Humanists believe in one fewer deity than Christians. And there are folks who say “I am spiritual but not religious,” whatever that might mean.

Unaffiliated is not synonymous with humanism or secularism or atheism. Unbelief is not necessarily humanism. There are atheists who agree with the Vatican, the bishops, televangelists, and Republican leaders that abortion is to be condemned and outlawed. There are atheists, like the late Milton Friedman, who support having government force all taxpayers to support pervasively sectarian private schools through school vouchers. Friedman’s voucher plan was actually imposed on Chilean taxpayers by the brutal Pinochet military dictatorship. There are atheists who are very far from being humanists.

Nor does “affiliated” necessarily mean much. Over 80 percent of Americans may claim a religious affiliation, but well under half of those attend religious services regularly. And a religiously affiliated person, whether he or she attends services regularly or not, may or may not be a traditional believer. Many Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others, whether they attend services or not, are for all practical purposes really humanists. They may attend services or accept a religious label for any of a wide range of reasons—family, business, political, social, geographical, professional, habit, and the like. For example, if you live in a small town in the south, it may be necessary to attend a Baptist church to survive.

Then, too, there are humanists who are not troubled by the word religion and some who are. The late Unitarian minister Paul Beattie used to say that “Secular humanism is my religion.” But Beattie would probably have been a fan of Paul Ryan politically. Go figure.

Here’s the bottom line. As Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” My phrase would be, “The label tells you very little about what might be in the bottle.” In fact, the label may be deceptive, extremely so. We have to be skeptical of labels. We need to look beyond labels to see what people really stand for. There are many people with “religious” labels who are more humanistic than many people who loudly beat their chests, like gorillas in a Tarzan movie, and shout about their atheism. With November 6 looming, we cannot allow mere labels to fool us into doing something really stupid.

 


* I wrote on NSSM 200 previously in my December 2011/January 2012 column. Stephen Mumford’s article “The Catholic Doctrine and Reproductive Health” appeared in FI, Winter 2001.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


In the early 1950s, I was a guest on a Sunday evening talk-show in Indianapolis discussing the overpopulation problem. World population then was less than a third of today’s seven-billion-and-counting. The following morning’s newspaper headlined a hysterical rant about the audacity of discussing something so controversial in anything above a whisper. The talk-show host was …

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