Planetary Suicide in Slow Motion

Edd Doerr

Climate change is a “Chinese hoax,” proclaimed President Donald J. Trump during the campaign. On moving into what some wit now calls the “Offal Office,” the Electoral College–selected president proceeded to stock his administration with climate-change deniers and opponents of environmental protection, as if to say, “We don’t need no stinkin’ Great Lakes cleanup or huffy scientists or fuel standards.”

That 97 percent of climate scientists concur that climate change and global warming are real and are anthropogenic (human-caused)—and that, according to a recent Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans agree—seems to have no effect whatever on Trump and his administration. Trump wants to promote coal mining, though 69 percent of Americans “want to restrict carbon emissions from coal plants,” according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (New York Times, March 22). Meanwhile, reports keep piling up for all the literate and TV-viewing world to see about climate-change developments. Here are some recent examples:

  • Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, so large that it is visible from space, is dying due to increasing worldwide ocean temperatures and acidification. As the New York Times pointed out on March 19, “Coral reefs are found in shallow waters in only 0.2 percent of the oceans, yet they support fully a quarter of all marine life and provide protein for millions of people.”
  • Permafrost, which covers one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land area, is thawing and releasing vast amounts of heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere, adding to the heat-trapping carbon dioxide spewing into it from increased burning of coal, oil, and gas.
  • Global temperatures are rising as more and more huge chunks of Antarctic and Greenland ice break off and contribute to sea-level rise, while warming oceans cause water to expand, causing further sea-level rise. This is already noticeable in many parts of the world, including the United States’ mid-Atlantic coast. As 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, there will be population shifts away from coasts, but where will all the people go? Who will be forced back? Who will pay for the population shifts and all the legal and political and insurance problems?
  • It’s not just coastal areas that are affected by climate change. Mexico City, at a mile and a half above sea level and with over twenty-one million people, is suffering from severe water shortages and ground subsidence. This merited a two-page report in the New York Times on February 18.

All the scientific evidence is available, but it is rarely packaged so that the citizens and voters who need to see it can do so readily. So here, in overly condensed form, is my attempt to present a comprehensive picture of human-caused climate change and its various components and concomitants, together with a connecting of all the dots.

The dots include atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane buildup; global warming; sea-level rise; Greenland and Antarctic ice-shelf melt; ocean acidification; coral-reef destruction; permafrost thaw; glacier shrinkage; deforestation; desertification; environmental degradation; soil erosion and nutrient loss; biodiversity loss; overfishing; overuse of both renewable and nonrenewable resources; cultivation of marginal land; overgrazing; pesticide overuse; fresh-water shortages; radioactive and toxic waste accumulation; and more. All of these are accompanied by increased crowding, socio-political instability, and violence. Brooke Horvath’s review of George M. Woodwell’s book A World to Live In in the December 2016/January 2017 Free Inquiry amplifies this.

The facts and the science are there for all to see. But very largely missing from even the limited attention paid to climate change is much serious discussion of what has been driving climate change: human overpopulation. Human numbers have more than tripled since World War II to well over seven billion. Were it not for the fifty million-plus abortions per year worldwide, and many thousands of maternal deaths and disabilities, world population would today exceed a clearly unsustainable ten billion.

Scientists and serious writers have been calling attention to the overpopulation problem for over half a century. We have the important work of Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, Al Gore, and many others. Ironically, however, it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who initiated one of the most important pieces of work on this issue, and another Republican president, Gerald Ford, who oversaw the completion of that project. In 1974, Nixon ordered government agencies to produce a study of “Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests.” The National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200 report was completed and then signed by Ford and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft in 1975.

Then matters got weird. As soon as Ford signed the NSSM 200 report, it was stamped “classified” and buried for nearly twenty years, until it was unearthed and published by population scientist Stephen Mumford, who got wind of it from a 1991 issue of the conservative National Catholic Register. Summaries and reviews of the NSSM 200 report may be accessed in my articles “The Strange Case of the Missing Population Report” and “Population Study Finally Published” in the Americans for Religious Liberty journal Voice of Reason of Spring 1992 and Summer 1994, respectively. The report is available online, and it is printed with commentary in Mumford’s 1994 book The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy.

To cut to the heart of the matter, the NSSM 200 report recommended universal access to contraception and abortion. But the report lay buried until shortly before the 1994 United Nations Cairo population conference, and most people still are unaware of it. Meanwhile, in 1973 the Supreme Court handed down the important Roe v. Wade ruling upholding the right of women to choose to terminate problem pregnancies, and an unending religio-political conflict got under way. Congress passed the Hyde and Helms amendments to block federal aid for domestic abortions and U.S. aid for abortions overseas. Republican presidents and politicians have tended to oppose free choice on abortion, while Democratic presidents and politicians have generally come down on the pro-choice side.

Even before he settled into the “Offal Office,” Trump made clear that he opposed women’s rights of conscience on abortion, promised to have Roe v. Wade overturned, and in January issued an unprecedentedly stringent global gag rule blocking U.S. aid to any organization overseas that has anything to do with abortion.

In the real world, Americans have a wide spectrum of views on when and for what reasons women may have pregnancies terminated, but solid majorities of Americans oppose tampering with Roe v. Wade. In my state of Maryland in 1992, voters statewide voted by 62 percent to 38 percent to lock Roe v. Wade into state law if the Supreme Court’s ruling should be overturned. Meanwhile, Republican legislatures across the country have worked overtime in recent years to make abortion and family planning less and less accessible, particularly for the vast numbers of women of limited means in “red” states.

So who is behind the efforts to deny women freedom of choice on abortion? In the Western world, it’s the leadership of the Catholic Church and the more conservative end of the Protestant traditions—leaders who really do not speak for majorities of their own members, who have abortions at about the same rate as women outside their traditions. In much of Africa
and Asia, it is conservative Muslim leaders.

Opposition to women’s reproductive choice is not only based on certain levels of misanthropy, paternalism, ignorance, and disdain for women’s rights but also on the unscientific religious notion that human personhood starts at conception, a view not held by such leading Christian theologians as Augustine and Aquinas. The notion is supposedly backed by the Bible, but that is awfully weak support. The Bible actually suggests, in Genesis 1:27 and 2:7, that personhood begins with the first breath. This would accord with the scientific view that personhood requires a functioning brain, which is not possible until sometime after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. (About 90 percent of abortions are performed by thirteen weeks, 99 percent by twenty weeks, and the rest only for serious medical reasons.) This is the view of personhood expressed by the 167 distinguished scientists, including twelve Nobel laureates, one of whom was DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who signed an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in 1988 in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. (Disclosure: I’m the guy who organized the brief.)

Now, as of spring 2017, abortion rights are under serious attack. All who care for women’s rights and lives must fight back, vote, organize, and work with others across the whole religio-political spectrum. Among the organizations working to defend abortion rights are Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholics for Choice, and assorted humanist groups, to name but a few.

Furthermore, all this is linked to the white-hot fight over the diversion of public funds to church-run and other private schools through vouchers, tax credits, and other gimmicks, led by Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Vice President Mike Pence, and too many Republicans in Congress and state legislatures. If we lose the battles over abortion rights and public education, we will see tax-supported church schools indoctrinating kids against women’s rights and reproductive choice, leading to serious weakening of efforts to deal with climate change. We will see planetary suicide speed up.

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.


“Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, so large that it is visible from space, is dying.”

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