Is Population Stabilization Back on the Menu?

Executive Director's Corner

Dear All:

Just when we thought we’d be reaping the benefits of an industrialized world and increased global consumption, CBS’ long running TV news show 60 Minutes threw a wet blanket on the whole enterprise with the airing of, “Earth currently experiencing a sixth mass extinction, according to scientists.”

Through interviews with fishermen, biologists and ecologists, 60 Minutes laid out anecdotal and empirical evidence the earth’s population has overshot its ability to sustain itself in the long run. Net, net, there are grave consequences associated with thinking we can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources!

For most of you, this concept isn’t novel, however, that’s not the point of view or narrative being pushed by corporate mainstream media. Neither is it the point of view of many popular bloggers and social media stars, most of whom were born after 1971. 

During the show, Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich, a biologist and author of The Population Bomb was interviewed.  Published in 1968, the book warned of the perils of overpopulation: mass starvation, societal upheaval, environmental deterioration and was criticized for painting an overly dark picture of the future.

Oh, humanity. It is not sustainable to maintain our lifestyle, yours and mine. Basically for the entire planet, you'd need five more earths and it’s not clear where they're gonna come from.

Just in terms of the resources that would be. . .

Required. Resources that would be required for the systems that support our lives, which of course are the biodiversity that we're wiping out.  Humanity is very busily sitting on a limb that we're sawing off.

No sooner had the episode aired, the social media attacks started. The folks at Doomberg, a highly respected group of energy and utility experts tweeted, “Malthusian malarkey. You first, Paul…”

Those who support Dr. Ehrlich’s views are often called “neo-malthusians” a reference to Thomas Robert Malthus who wrote “An Essay on The Principle of Population” in 1798.  

Neo-malthusians, to borrow from Bryna K. Gallagher’s thesis on overpopulation, are subject to ad hominem attacks designed to impugn those who suggest the large size of human population is problematic. They’re accused of being misanthropes, racists, xenophobes misogynists, imperialists, etc.

In 2013 while living in Los Angeles, I created a video in which I dared ask “Why Is Population a Taboo Subject”, especially since it was the cornerstone of the 1960’s and 1970’s environmental movement and considered a critical component for conservation and sustainability.

David Brower, the prominent environmentalist and former Executive Director of the Sierra Club wrote this foreword in the first printing of Dr. Ehrlich’s book:

“It was only twelve years ago that we even suggested, in any Sierra Club publication, that uncontrolled population is a menace. We went far enough to write: “People recognizing that we cannot forever continue to multiply and subdue the earth without losing our standard of life and natural beauty that must be part of it. . .”

While there are a few reasons those favoring population restrictions fell out of favor, one in particular stands out; the ecological movement became politicized.

Hence, an environmental solution that included limiting population growth, would force the U.S. to be restrictive on immigration. This stance put science at odds with social justice and corporate profits.

For further context, by the early 1970s, U.S. population had pretty much stabilized. And even though the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of immigrants admitted each year, U.S. immigration policy at that time could still be characterized as well regulated and restrictive. For example, when my mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1952, only 172,000 Green Cards were issued. Today, over 1.2 million Green Cards are issued and large numbers of people enter the country illegally.

In How Deeply Did Wall Street Investor David Gelbaum Damage the Sierra Club, Brenda Walker asserts the powerful investor made a secret $101 million donation to the Sierra Club with the proviso they never mention excessive immigration. This certainly helps explain how the Club’s official position in 1989 went from: “Immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.” to their adopting a “neutral” position on immigration in 1996.

With America’s flagship environmental group effectively co-opted and out of the game, corporate interests had free reign shaping the immigration narrative and steering the citizenry and elected officials in the direction of open borders.

The 60 Minutes episode was limited to overpopulation’s environmental impacts, but there are economic ones, too. Since the mid 1970s, as U.S. multinationals moved overseas, we’ve seen income inequality rise. The rush to maximize profits, open new markets, and create new consumers has led to political instability, as well.

One of the many criticisms of Dr. Ehrlich’s work is that we’ve still not fallen off the environmental cliff. Moreover, we’re now feeding more people than ever — over twice as many as in 1968.

I caution those critics, as the “end” may not be as simple as falling off a cliff. Rather, it’s a downward spiral characterized by what can be termed as “catabolic” failure in which each year gets a bit worse than the previous one. The fall of the Roman empire makes for a good analogy, here. While many consider its collapse was 476 CE, it could have fallen in 235 CE or 305 CE or 435 CE. It found ways to adapt and keep going, until it couldn’t.

Similarly, mankind will overcome each crisis in turn. For instance, today, Western European countries are already finding ways to respond to the cutoff of natural gas exports from Russia. And while we may not have figured out how to replace the worldwide reduction of 216 trillion calories due to a 2022 fertilizer shortage, I’m sure our leaders will find some variety of hedonic measures to allow us to muddle through.

But I daresay we’ll not be going back to the relatively carefree, abundant days of the mid to late 20th century.

In closing, I encourage you to watch the 60 minutes episode and then write to the network and praise them for having the courage and good sense to broadcast and bring this information to the public.

In solidarity.

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