Thursday, May 7, 2009

How Can Two Be Too Few?

Just about every environmental problem we currently face can be traced back to overpopulation -- starvation, dwindling natural resources (e.g., clean potable water), the unrelenting demand for energy, loss of nature and biodiversity (e.g., severe overfishing of our oceans), and unlimited streams of pollution and filth that choke our rivers and lungs and contaminate our food supply. There are already more than 6.7 billion people on this planet, with an estimated 3 billion more to come by 2050. As such, I argue, our population growth should be restrained.

Now, I realize that not all countries are on equal ground here. Folks repeatedly argue that some countries, predominantly in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g., Ukraine, Germany, Italy), are experiencing negative population growth, while others, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, a growth explosion. Negative growth may result in increased economic insecurity as demographics shift from a population with a large foundation of young productive workers--workers whose productivity is the foundation of support for a country’s social programs--to one with a large number of retired and elderly citizens.

There are also arguments made by those who have religious beliefs that reject use of contraception. They do not believe in birth control. What do you say to these folks? I’m not sure how to reason with these groups, some so dogmatic in their values, that they would preach abstinence-only sex education instead of condom use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (e.g., HIV) in Africa--even when the population most at risk is women, the majority being married.

Educated people have difficulty discussing this topic without becoming overly emotional. ‘Enough!’ a friend recently said, cutting me off when discussing this topic over dinner, ‘some people just want big families.’ In the interest of the greater good, for the betterment of the planet as a whole, perhaps--just maybe--some of our wants and desires should be curbed. Who is to say that just because we want something, we should be able to have it--be able to do it? Why are people so threatened when you suggest that the number of children a family has, be limited? Exactly why is this idea so controversial?

Back in the day, large families made sense. Perhaps you needed more hands to help make ends meet on the farm, for example. Infant and child mortality were high thanks to the infectious diseases (unopposed by antibiotics) that ran roughshod through unprotected populations. But our ability to extend life, sometimes through extraordinary medical interventions, has caused the number of humans on this planet to swell. From a global perspective, the trends are clear. Our planet, in terms of the number of humans it can carry, is stretched to its limits.

A 2008 article in Salon reported on the topic of population control and is one of the most balanced discussions I’ve seen. Approximately 40 years ago, the average family size consisted of five children. This number has fallen in recent years to approximately 2.6 per family. Why the decline? Better access to family planning services (e.g., contraception, abortion) and increased educational and occupational opportunities for women are thought to be major contributors. When given the choice, women do appear to make appropriate decisions regarding family size.

There’s no question that the problems surrounding overpopulation and limited resources are complex. Unbalanced consumption is also a huge factor contributing to the perils facing this planet. The United States has the third largest population with over 300 million people. However, when you consider our consumption levels, we surpass countries like China and India, both with population levels over one billion. In the end, there is no benefit gained by reducing population numbers if consumption levels continue to grow unchecked.

The solution I support isn’t based on financial ability, class or race. It is not eugenics. It is based simply on a number. Replace yourselves--you and your partner. Replace yourselves and then stop reproducing. Limit your offspring to two children. After that, feel free to add to your family by adopting a child who desperately needs a loving home.

In the end, nature will take care of itself. I believe we can see this happening before our very eyes. How else do you explain increasing infertility rates, the dramatic rise in autoimmune diseases, the reemergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and the constant warnings to limit our fish consumption due to mercury contamination (to name just a few)? Just think, if we don’t begin to address our wicked ways and show a little restraint, nature will steer us in a certain direction--kicking and screaming--whether we like it or not. Nature will limit our ability to reproduce. Nature will see to it that we die young. Nature will throw at us increasingly virulent and pathogenic infectious diseases to limit our numbers and cull the herd. I truly believe that we should limit our population growth, not because planet Earth requires it for survival--this planet will continue to exist no matter what we do. We should take this proactive step to help ensure our place on it.

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