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.
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Ehrlich and Weisman agree with critics who say population alone isn’t the issue. Lifestyles in developed countries in North America and Europe consume a lot of resources. Everyone living in an industrialized nation puts a much heavier burden on the environment than does someone living in, say, Asia or Africa. Though family sizes in the developed world are smaller, the number of households hasn’t shrunk commensurately.
“It’s actually the number of households – and not the number of people – that has a bigger impact on the environment,” says Matthew Connelly, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York and the author of “Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population.”
“This is not a population crisis,” Professor Connelly argues. “The crisis is us, the consumption patterns of the wealthiest people in the world. That’s what’s unsustainable.” The problem in trying to control populations “is that we don’t know how to do it,” he says. “We don’t have a good theory to explain, much less predict, why people have babies and why they have as many as they do.”
China’s strict one-child-per-family policy, established 30 years ago, has cut its population growth significantly. But it has also created a huge gender imbalance, as families have chosen male children over female, he says.
“There’s a long history of governments trying to make it illegal for parents to have large families,” Connelly says. “China is just the most notorious example.” But, he asks, “Is that the kind of country we’d like to live in, where the government could make it illegal to choose the number of children we have?”
Doom-and-gloomers assume technology is static
Those arguing that a calamity awaits if population isn’t reduced are looking at the past and trying to project it into the future, says Ted Nordhaus, an environmentalist and coauthor with Michael Shellenberger of “Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.”
“They assume that technology and resources are static,” Mr. Nordhaus says, and that breakthroughs and discoveries that could dramatically improve living conditions on earth won’t be found.
“The greatest antidote to rapidly growing population is prosperity and development,” Nordhaus says. “As people become more prosperous, birth rates decline.... It’s an economic development challenge, not a population challenge.”
But that doesn’t mean that we need to just sit back and do nothing. “We can’t take a laissez-faire approach to this,” he says. “We can’t just assume technology advancement will happen as quickly as we would like it to. There are all kinds of things we need to do to invest in productivity improvement.”