Speaking—at Last!—of Forbidden Things

Tom Flynn

Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, with a foreword by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2012, ISBN 0-8203-4048-0) 342 pp. Hardcover, $69.95, softcover, $24.95.

To call this book overdue is a high understatement. Editors Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist have assembled a masterful anthology challenging environmental activists to reengage with the issue of overpopulation. As Cafaro observes in his epilogue, “lessening the human footprint is inseparable from limiting the number of human feet.”

Tragically, that is a radical observation. “[T]he activist community has become balkanized,” notes contributor Tom Butler, “with NGOs focused on overpopulation being essentially shunned by conservation and environment-related nonprofits that should be their natural allies.” Contributors Don Weeden and Charmayne Palomba put it more starkly. “The word population” has “become an anachronism, taboo, and virtually unspeakable” among greens.

What happened? A critical milestone was the United Nations Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994, whose agenda stressed female empowerment over demographic concerns. Increasingly, environmental activists assumed that more autonomous women would end overpopulation simply by choosing to have smaller families. Raw human numbers were no longer the problem, this logic went; the real crisis lay in excessive consumption by Westerners.

But the problem doesn’t lie solely in Western consumption, excessive as that is—if only because Western consumption rises in proportion to the number of Westerners. Meanwhile swelling numbers in the developing world aspire to Western-style patterns of consumption. Fairness says they deserve their chance; ecology tells us that future cannot be sustained. No matter how badly we are willing to ravage the Earth, even for today’s global population to live and consume like Americans we would need four Earths, and in short order we would make them unlivable.

Life on the Brink bridges the gap between environmentalism and population activism, marshaling twenty-six distinguished contributors to drive home the message that greens—like everyone else—must face foursquare the need to stabilize, then to lessen, human numbers.

The diversity among green activists is well-represented here. Some contributors base their arguments for restraint on principles of human benefit; others hail from so-called deep ecology, contending that other creatures or the biosphere as a whole merit moral standing equal to or greater than humankind’s. Some even argue from a politically liberal perspective for greatly reducing immigration into the United States, both in order to curb American overpopulation and to avoid our nation’s serving as a safety valve for the shortsighted demographic policies of other nations.

These issues are, of course, controversial among humanists. Let’s face it, some of us put humans first without regret; others see much to admire in deep ecology. Some view immigration policy through the lens of fairness, not demography. For some, discussion begins and ends with a certain sonnet by Emma Lazarus, as if poetry equated to policy. Life on the Brink invites thought and discussion, both worthy replacements for the imprudent silence lately shrouding an issue that demands the attention of us all.

Here’s my take. Whether you are attracted or repelled by a future in which the whole of Earth’s biological output is turned to the support of human needs, even that will not be sustainable if current population and consumption trends continue. If you yearn instead for a future in which humans coexist among the rest of nature, living perhaps in islands of civilization carefully scattered about a re-wilded planet (as contributor Roderick Nash envisions), then it is only so much the more urgent that the issue of overpopulation no longer be neglected.

What can I say? Read this book.


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).

A review of Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, with a foreword by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich.

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