The Population Crisis and the Left

by Ronald Bleier

NOTE: In the following passages from their latest book on The Population Explosion, the authors, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, address the question of why the left (and others) avoid addressing the question of overpopulation.
Excerpts from The Population Explosion,
by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich,
New York: Simon and Shuster, 1990, pp. 20-23.

[emphasis in original]

"Nor is unwillingness to face the severity of the population problem limited to the Vatican. It's built into our genes and our culture. That's one reason many otherwise bright and humane people behave like fools when confronted with demographic issues. Thus, an economist specializing in mail-order marketing can sell the thesis that the human population could increase essentially forever because people are the `ultimate resource,' and a journalist can urge more population growth in the United States so that we can have a bigger army! Even some environmentalists are taken in by the frequent assertion that `there is no population problem, only a problem of distribution.' The statement is usually made in a context of a plan for conquering hunger, as if food shortage were the only consequence of overpopulation.

"But even in that narrow context, the assertion is wrong. Suppose food WERE distributed equally. If everyone in the world ate as Americans do, less than half the PRESENT world population could be fed on the record harvests of 1985 and 1986. Of course, everyone doesn't have to eat like Americans. About a third of the world grain harvest -- the staples of the human feeding base -- is fed to animals to produce eggs, milk, and meat for American-style diets. Wouldn't feeding that grain directly to people solve the problem? If everyone were willing to eat an essentially vegetarian diet, that additional grain would allow perhaps a billion more people to be fed with 1986 production.

"Would such radical changes solve the world food problem? Only in the VERY short term. The additional billion people are slated to be with us by the end of the century. Moreover, by the late 1980s, humanity already seemed to be encountering trouble maintaining the production levels of the mid-1980s, let alone keeping up with population growth. The world grain harvest in 1988 was some 10 percent BELOW that of 1986. And there is little sign that the rich are about to give up eating animal products.

"So there is no reasonable way that the hunger problem can be called `only' one of distribution, even though redistribution of food resources would greatly alleviate hunger today. Unfortunately, an important truth, that maldistribution is a cause of hunger now, has been used as away to avoid a more important truth -- that overpopulation is critical today and may well make the distribution question moot tomorrow."

The authors point to "a taboo against frank discussion of the population crisis in many quarters, a taboo generated partly by pressures from the Catholic hierarchy and partly by other groups who are afraid that dealing with population issues will produce socially damaging results.

"Many people on the political left are concerned that focusing on overpopulation will divert attention from crucial problems of social justice (which certainly need to be addressed IN ADDITION to the population problem). Often those on the political right fear that dealing with overpopulation will encourage abortion (it need not) or that halting growth will severely damage the economy (it could, if not handled properly). And people of varied political persuasions who are unfamiliar with the magnitude of the population problem believe in a variety of farfetched technological fixes -- such as colonizing outer space -- that they think will allow the need for regulating the size of the human population to be avoided forever. ..."

"America and other rich nations have a clear choice today. They can continue to ignore the population problem and their own massive contributions to it. Then they will be trapped in a downward spiral that may well lead to the end of civilization in a few decades. More frequent droughts, more damaged crops and famines, more dying forests, more smog, more international conflicts, more epidemics, more gridlock, more drugs, more crime, more sewage swimming, and other extreme unpleasantness will mark our course. It is a route already traveled by too many of our less fortunate fellow human beings."