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‘Population and the Environment’

One hopes that human wisdom and ethics will continue to grow, but indefinite growth of population and industry on a finite earth is a logical impossibility.

Today we are pressing against the absolute limits of the earth’s carrying capacity. There are many indications that the explosively increasing global population of humans, and the growth of pollution-producing and resource-using industries are threatening our earth with an environmental disaster. Among the serious threats that we face are catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, extinction of species, and a severe global famine, perhaps involving billions of people rather than millions. Such a famine may occur by the middle of the present century when the end of the fossil fuel era, combined with the effects of climate change reduce our ability to support a growing population.

This book will attempt to discuss some of the measures that will help us to stabilize global population and to achieve a sustainable global society. Most of the material is new, but I have made use of book chapters and articles that I have previously written on these issues.

Stabilizing global population

Experts agree that the following steps are needed if we are to avoid a catastrophic global famine and a population crash:

  1. Higher education and higher status for women throughout the world. Women need higher education to qualify for jobs outside their homes. They need higher status within their families so they will net be forced into the role of baby-producing machines.
  2. Primary health care for all. Children should be vaccinated against preventable diseases. Materials and information for family planning should be provided for all women who desire smaller families. Advice should be given on improving sanitation.
  3. The provision of clean water supplies near to homes is needed in order to reduce the incidence of water-borne diseases. In some countries today, family members, including children, spend large amounts of time carrying water home from distant sources.
  4. State provision of care for the elderly is a population-stabilization measure because in many countries, parents produce many children so that the children will provide for them in their old age.
  5. In many countries child labor is common, and in some there is even child slavery. Parents who regard their children as a source of income are motivated to produce large families. Enforceable laws against child labor and slavery contribute to population stabilization.
  6. General economic progress has been observed to contribute to population stabilization. However in some countries there is a danger of population growing so rapidly that it prevents the economic progress that would otherwise have stabilized population. This situation is known as the demographic trap.
  7. Forced marriage should be forbidden, and very early marriage discouraged.

The battle for birth control

Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on The Principle of Population, the first edition of which was published in 1798, was one of the first systematic studies of the problem of population in relation to resources. Earlier discussions of the problem had been published by Boterro in Italy, Robert Wallace in England, and Benjamin Franklin in America. However Malthus’ Essay was the first to stress the fact that, in general, powerful checks operate continuously to keep human populations from increasing beyond their available food supply. In a later edition, published in 1803, he buttressed this assertion with carefully collected demographic and sociological data from many societies at various periods of their histories.

Malthus considered birth control to be a form of vice, and as “preventive checks” to excessive population growth he instead recommended celibacy, late marriage and “moral restraint” within marriage. Had he been writing today, Malthus would undoubtedly have agreed that birth control is the most humane method of avoiding the grim “positive checks” that prevent populations from exceeding their supply of food – famine, disease and war.

The battle for birth control was not easily won. Part of the opposition to contraceptive methods came from industrialists who were happy to have an excess supply of workers to whom they could pay starvation wages.

Excerpted from Population and the Environment by John Scales Avery. Copyright © 2018 by John Scales Avery.