7 Billion? Yikes!

November 4, 2011

I wish I could share John Shook's joy in contemplating the arrival of the seventh billion human -- which has already happened if you listen to the U.N., and will happen early next year if you listen to the U.S. government. I view this milestone -- which, by the way, is arriving about two years earlier than projected near the turn of the millennium -- with great concern. I believe our current situation reflects not how smart we were in listening to the "Population Bomb" advocates of the 1960s, but how thoroughly most of us have ignored them. And I view the coming of Baby Seven Billion, if such it is, as a last-chance opportunity to change our ways ... if it's not already too late.

To be sure, some people around the world paid attention when Paul Ehrlich's Sixties jeremiad The Population Bomb was new. Me, for one. While still in my teens I resolved to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, by never having kids -- a decision I have never regretted. I took comfort a couple of years ago when Oregon State University released a study concluding, among other things, that the greatest contribution individual Americans can make to fighting climate change is to have fewer children, or none.

Still, enthusiasm for the Ehrlich message quickly dwindled. The Nixon and Ford administrations conducted a policy analysis concluding that wide access to birth control and abortion was humanity's only hope. Then the study was mysteriously spiked -- at the behest of the Vatican, according to investigator Stephen Mumford -- and later U.S. administrations did their best to brush population control under the rug. Here are some quotes from my forthcoming op-ed in the December/January FREE INQUIRY:

Consider that 48 percent of the globe’s population is living on less than two dollars per day; if all seven billion humans lived like Americans, you’d need five planet Earths to supply what we’d consume. Even in the United States, whose population swelled by about 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, much of the growth has been concentrated in regions where everything from freshwater supplies to electrical generating capacity is already stressed. (With the economic down­turn, unemployment is now higher in the Sun Belt than in the Rust Belt, yet the South and Southwest continue to attract the majority of immigrants, legal and otherwise, seeking work in the United States.)

By many criteria, America may not seem overpopulated. Yet even here, further population increase genuinely threatens both national and global welfare. In part this is because Americans consume so profligately; a recent Oregon State University study found that over time, an American child will generate seven times as much carbon dioxide as a Chinese child. 169 times as much as a Bangladeshi child.

Yet when was the last time you heard an earnest discussion about overpopulation? When did you last hear terms like population bomb mentioned in a contemporary context?

It’s too often assumed that overpopulation as a topic went out of fashion thirty years ago or even that it’s taboo. So what better time than hu­manity’s passing of the seven-billion mark to move this critical subject back to center stage?

Most of all, we need to recognize that overpopulation is not a problem that went out of fashion with rust-colored shag rugs and avocado appliances. Our world was overpopulated in the sixties; it was even more overpopulated in the seventies; and it’s desperately overpopulated now. In all likelihood there has been a “too many people” problem since experts began expressing systematic misgivings on the subject in the 1950s. In large part, our world of today bears the marks of our past failures to come to grips with population issues. From rush hour in Atlanta to starvation in South Sudan, we are living in the dystopian future that sixties “population bomb” prophets predicted. Granted, conditions aren’t quite as apocalyptic as writers like Paul Ehrlich foresaw—we’re not living in a Mad Max horror-world scoured by food riots—yet—but we should scarcely imagine from that that we’ve ducked the Malthusian bullet altogether.

 In the op-ed, I'll delve further into the idea that overpopulation is not just a Third World problem, but an American problem too. And I'll tackle one of the great third-rail issues. Given that Americans are reproducing at a rate of just 2.0 children per woman -- that is, below replacement rate -- how come America's population grew by 10 percent during the first decade of this century? Spoiler alert: It has to do with immigration, and I'll close with a call to re-evaluate U.S. immigration policy, not on any of the tired old grounds reliably thrown about in typical immigration debates, but as a way of -- maybe -- tackling America's population crisis (yes, it has one). Shameless plug: The December/January issue containing the whole of my no-doubt scandalous op-ed will be in the mail to subscribers (and on newsstands) around November 15. Don't miss it!