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Earth’s big problem: Too many people.

But how can we ease population without taking draconian steps? By developing in ways that we should be anyway, experts say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2009

Rush hour: Commuters arrive at Churchgate station in Mumbai. India has 1.14 billion people, second only to China, which has 1.33 billion.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Newscom/FILE


Are there too many people on Earth?

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That question is rarely raised today, in part because it conjures up the possibility of governments intruding into the most private and profound decision a couple can make. In a worst-case scenario, authorities could impose discriminatory policies that would limit births based on such criteria as race, ethnic origin, cultural background, religion, or gender.

But with huge, vexing questions such as food security, poverty, energy supplies, environmental degradation, and climate change facing humanity, some are asking whether aggressive measures to control population growth should be on the public agenda.

Politicians generally stay clear of suggesting population-control policies, recognizing the deep-seated concerns they raise. President Obama did not mention the issue as part of his campaign last fall. But the new Obama administration has promised to take a fresh look at solutions to energy and environmental challenges and has brought in a new slate of scientific advisers. The United States remains the only developed country without an official population policy.

Might the new administration dare to raise the idea?

“You’ve got to get a president who’s got the guts to say, ‘Patriotic Americans stop at two [children],’ ” says Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University. “That if you care about your children and grandchildren, we should have a smaller population in the future, not larger.” Professor Ehrlich wrote the groundbreaking 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” which predicted disastrous effects from unchecked population growth.

Earth’s population is about 6.8 billion people today, or four times the population of a century ago. Even though birth rates are lower than during the 1960s and ’70s, the world is adding 75 million to 80 million people per year and is expected to peak at more than 9 billion by midcentury – far too many, say some population experts.

Whether this growth can be sustained and still provide a decent living standard for people is itself controversial. Some, including Ehrlich and Alan Weisman, the author of the best-selling book “The World Without Us,” argue that even today’s population is too large to maintain without ravaging the environment and creating an inhospitable planet.

How much would today’s population have to shrink to become sustainable? “I don’t think anybody knows,” Mr. Weisman says. “All I know is, ‘less is better.’ ”

Weisman’s book imagines a world in which humans are extinct and suggests that nature could bounce back relatively quickly from the burden placed on it by its billions of human inhabitants.

Demographers calculate that if suddenly every family on earth limited itself to one child, by 2150 the world’s population would be 1.6 billion, exactly what it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

He’s not arguing that that’s a perfect number of humans. But “it would create a lot more space for [other] organisms to live ... a much healthier ecosystem for us all,” he says.