What Needs to be Done

November 6, 2008 | Paul Ehrlich

The monumental task before us is to solve the human predicament – the combined crises of overpopulation, wasteful consumption, deteriorating life-support systems, growing inequity, increasing hunger, toxification of the planet, declining resources, increasing resource wars (especially over oil and gas reserves and water), and a worsening epidemiological environment that increases the probability of unprecedented pandemics. The basic views of the scientific community on the predicament can be found at www.dominantanimal.org (click on “Further Information”). Here we just outline some of what needs to be done as a series of interrelated steps in which we hope you will exercise leadership:

One: put births on a par with deaths The United States has been way behind in the population area. First, as the most overpopulated nation on Earth (because of its combination of a giant population and high percapita consumption), it still lacks a population policy. Furthermore, its population is projected to increase from 304 million to 439 million people by 2050. And, despite earlier pledges, the US in recent years has failed to help curb population growth in poor countries. Worse yet, the Reagan administration’s “Mexico City policy” for killing women worldwide by suppressing access to legal abortion had only a hiatus during the Clinton years and was reestablished by Bush II. That policy should be dropped immediately, along with ideological restrictions imposed on government websites dealing with reproductive health.

Human beings have always fought against early death from accident, hunger, and sickness, and in the past century or so have employed improved sanitation and the use of pesticides and antibiotics to raise life expectancy. But given the frightening potential consequences of the explosion in human numbers that has followed reductions of the death rate, it is essential to pay equivalent attention to reducing high birthrates as well. Programs to educate and open job opportunities for women, and to make effective contraception universally available, must be an integral part of development policies in poor countries. Placing women in important cabinet posts in a new U.S. administration should have high priority and would send a strong signal in support of women’s empowerment (even in developed nations, prejudice against women is widespread).

Public support of prudent population policies needs to be encouraged everywhere. The United States must play a crucial role in supporting such policies, providing both moral and financial support. The goal must be to halt population increase as soon as humanely possible, and then reduce human numbers until births and deaths balance at a population size that can be maintained with desired lifestyles without irreparable damage to our natural life-support systems. And, of course, a global discussion over the next several decades will be required to reach a consensus on those lifestyles and thus on the appropriate maximum population size – which we already know must be smaller than the present 6.7 billion. Fortunately, the target can be tentative, since (if we’re lucky) it may well be a half century or more before a worldwide decline can begin, so there will be decades to consider and evaluate the best level at which to stabilize our numbers.

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