Archive for the 'Population' Category

Respect “The Population Bomb”

Monday, May 27th, 2019
The cover of a book that made a big difference

            A friend sent me a copy of Paul Ehrlich’s classic “The Population Bomb”. I had never read it although it helped to launch concern about human population in the USA. It was different and better than I expected. This little book sold over 2 million copies and introduced many people to the hazards of overpopulation.

            First a little background about Dr. Ehrlich. He is a biologist specializing in butterflies and moths. He has been studying a species of butterfly, a checkerspot, for longer than any other species has been studied by a single person. He has published over a thousand scientific papers and 50 books, which range from “The Birders’ Handbook”, which describes the natural history of all the birds of North America, to “Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic” about orthodontia, breast feeding and diet). My favorite “Conservation Biology for All” which Ehrlich edited. It is available free, online.

            I had known about Ehrlich’s population activism after “The Population Bomb” was published in 1968. Indeed, I joined ZPG (Zero Population Growth, later renamed “Population Connection”), the organization he helped to found that same year. When I finally read the “Bomb” I was surprised—it wasn’t the diatribe on population that I expected; the book has a much broader view of life on Earth. Much of what is predicted in the book has happened, although not necessarily in the way expected.

            The “Bomb” is much more than a rant about human population. Indeed, it touches upon many concerns that were not commonly discussed 50 years ago, but which now have become major causes of worry. Foremost is climate change. “The Bomb” lists problems that the world was facing in 1968, including “…too much carbon dioxide—all can be traced easily totoo many people.”Does that theme sound familiar?

            Later, Paul Ehrlich was one of the founders of the Society for Conservation Biology, the professional group of scientists working to slow extinction of species. “The Bomb” touches on the importance of nonhuman species, and how our increasing numbers causes increasing extinctions. It uses DDT as an example of toxins in our environment and the lack of governmental control of the millions of available chemicals. Malnutrition and starvation were great concerns in the late 1960s, and “The Bomb” predicted that there would be more hunger as people increased—but also foresaw the possibility of improved agricultural technology that would give some time to slow population growth. Other subjects touched on in this readable book include the value of sex-ed, the importance of avoiding coercion, the promise of using the media to educate about population, and the impact that some religions have in encouraging large families.

            Some people feel that our planet has unlimited resources, and that our greatest resource is people—thus, the more humans, the better. A professor of economics, Julian Simon, was a spokesman for these cornucopians. Simon maintained some absurdities. He stated: “We now have in our hands—really, in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years.” Let’s say that the population grew at a slow 1% each year. In seven billion years it would have increased by 3 x 1030249616. This number is a lot larger than a google (10100), and much, much larger than the estimated number of atoms in the universe, which is only 1080! It is difficult to have much faith in someone who would make such an absurd statement.

            “The Bomb” educated readers and catalyzed a huge change in our attitudes about population and family size. I remember reading an article in Life Magazine on ZPG, but never saw any of Dr. Ehrlich’s many appearances on the Johnny Carson show—I was in medical school. The world would be a lot better off now if we had all heeded the book’s message.

            In an article on the 40thanniversary of the publication of The Population Bomb, Anne and Paul Ehrlich wrote of two regrets. Their choice of title was: “Population, Resources, and Environment”, but the publisher chose otherwise. The other concern had to do with authorship. Anne and Paul wrote the book together and consulted many other experts to be certain of the factuality of their statements. The publisher, however, insisted on having just one author. Since Anne has been cited as coauthor of much of the couple’s work, I had wondered whether Paul wrote this bestseller alone. Now I know that it was our chauvinistic society that caused Anne’s name to be left out.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2019

See how Rwanda has Changed

Monday, March 25th, 2019

     A friend told me about the International Conference on Family Planning to be held in Rwanda, and asked if I planned to go. I responded: “I am ambivalent about Rwanda; the country has a bad emotional feeling for me, despite what the Rwandans have done to deal with their genocide.”

     Nevertheless, Gail and I found ourselves in Kigali last November. We had a pleasant stay at a modest hotel near the beautiful modern convention center. The city’s lack of litter amazed us! While most cities we have visited have trash in the streets, there was none in Kigali. We learned about one of the reasons for this: the government has mandated that every Rwandan donate their labor to the country on the last Saturday morning of each month. After the community work there is a community meeting with community leaders to discuss problems. This service is called “Umuganda”.            Umuganda dates back hundreds of years but has been resurrected to become a tool for reconciliation. In the local Kinyarwanda language this word means “coming together in common purpose” and is just one way the Rwandan government promotes peace in the country. Another policy was a benefit to us. Whereas French used to be the prevailing European language (the country was a Belgian colony), now English is the primary language of instruction.            The article “Remember Rwanda” was one of the reasons that I had not felt good about visiting Rwanda. It suggests that one of the causes of the genocide there was overpopulation. People in many parts of the country in 1994 had too little ground to grow food and too little to eat. They became violent because they were starving.
            The Rwandans have made an amazing turn-around! People are no longer labeled as either by ethnicity (largely artificial distinctions)—they are all Rwandans. School children visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial to learn about their country’s history and ways to promote peace—so did we.
The healthcare system has improved markedly. Recall how important it is for a country to have a low under-five mortality rate if it is trying to slow its growth. Well, this important measure of child health in Rwanda is just a fifth of what it was just 15 years ago! As Rwanda’s Minister of Health, Dr. Diane Gashumba said “Investing in Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is one of the smartest investments a country can make.” The number of doctors in the country is low, but they are well distributed. Each village has a small clinic which is often attended by a nurse or community health worker. Almost all Rwandans have inexpensive health insurance, making it easy for the people to access primary health care. Unexpectedly, Rwanda has a unique system to deliver family planning.
            Notice that the Minister of Health is a woman! There are many women in the Rwandan government, including half of the cabinet ministers. Their parliament is also dominantly female, with 60% of the seats of the lower house held by women—the highest percentage in the world! People in the government are young, with the youngest cabinet minister just 31 years old.
            Education has taken a turn for the better, too. Whereas most African countries charge tuition for even elementary students, Rwanda abolished school fees for basic education in 2003. Enrollment soared! Recall that education of girls and women is one of the best ways of empowering women and increasing the use of family planning.
About half of Rwandans are Roman Catholic and are supposed to not use “artificial” contraception. The Church runs many of the Rwandan hospitals and clinics, so they cannot distribute contraception. However, the government has found a way around this limitation. Near each Catholic facility is a small family planning clinic that compliments the care of the Catholic facility.
            FamilyPlanning2020, the organization that is delivering family planning care in 69 countries, collaborates with the Rwandan governmental programs. They have provided an additional quarter million men and women with contraception since 2012. The most popular method is the “Depo” shot that is quite effective and lasts 3 months. Unfortunately, few men participate—only 1 in 12 couples uses condoms and vasectomy is rare.
            People in Rwanda are still poor—the average annual per capita income is less than $2000. However the government is making great strides to improve the lives of its people. They are strengthening the 3 most important things to help slow population growth: increase access to family planning, educate and empower girls and women, and promote the heath of children.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2019

Combat Overpopulation Denial

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” 

           Milton Friedman

            I first met people who denied the population problem in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development. They supported their claim that there was no population problem with the statement that all the world’s people could fit into Texas.

            Well, they are correct, however there are problems with this contention. If everybody crowded into Texas we would each have almost a thousand square feet! That’s plenty of room, wouldn’t you say?

            What about food? where would food come from, and how would it get distributed to all those people? What about drinking water? How would we stay warm in the winter? And what would happen to all the waste? Clearly people require more than just a thousand square feet.

            How much land does each person currently use? The best way of calculating this seems to be the Ecological Footprint. The EF has been calculated for people in many countries, and combines the land needed to live on, grow our food on, the area needed to develop natural resources and also the land to dispose of our waste. It is a comprehensive method of evaluating a person’s impact on Earth, although it does leave out one factor. More about that factor below.

            The area of land in square feet, and the world population, are both very large numbers, of course. The EF only includes what is called “bioproductive” land—leaving out mountains and deserts. It turns out that an average citizen of the world is using about 291,000 square feet of land, or about 6 2/3 acres. This is more than 290 times the area allotted if we all squeezed into Texas! The people who deny overpopulation use an argument that is based on drastic misinformation.

            Indeed, not only could we all not fit into Texas for any period of time, but also we don’t really fit into Earth. To be sustainable, with our current population and level of consumption, we would need 1.7 times the land area available to us. We have overdrawn on our global savings account in order to enjoy our consumptive lifestyle.

            We can already see the effects of overpopulation and overconsumption. Perhaps most evident is climate change. Land is eroding, fisheries are depleted and toxic chemicals are ubiquitous. Furthermore, we are killing off other species at terrifying rates—at least 1000 timesnormal. Although the Ecological Footprint is an excellent tool for comparing what people are using with what is available, it has a major limitation. It does not leave any resources for other species.

            I haven’t read the book “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline”, but I’ve read reviews. The authors, neither of whom is a demographer, maintain that the world is not overpopulated and, indeed, needs more people. They are concerned that the birth rate is falling more rapidly than the UN and other demographers realize. I wish they were correct, but I disagree!

            The Wall Street Journal review of the book uses the term “global population collapse”—but there is little reason to believe that this will happen this century; we’re still adding 80 million people to the planet each year. The review is concerned that the growth of the economy will slow. Only a madman or an economist can believe that perpetual economic growth is possible. 

            What is wrong with this book? There seem to be many errors. The authors don’t focus on subSaharan Africa, where the average woman still has almost 5 children, and parents want large families. The authors seem to ignore demographic momentum, which causes growth to continue for several decades even after a country reaches replacement family size.

            The major problem with “Empty Planet” is that nowhere (in reviews I’ve read) do the authors compare the resources we humans are using with what is available. The Ecological Footprint does that, and the result is not pretty. Unfortunately that book is not alone in not considering the finiteness of our planet. Even though Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize for economics, he was not thinking globally when he wrote the quote at the beginning of this column. Our global “pie” is fixed in size. We in rich countries are endangering people in other countries with our growing population and extravagant lifestyle. We are also endangering our progeny.

© Richard Grossman 2019
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.