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Catastrophe By The Numbers

April 2024
15min read

In terms of consumption and pollution, America is the most overpopulated nation on earth. We think we can afford it—but we are leading the world to

T he poet, who a century and a quarter ago, “dipt into the future, far as human eye could see” and “saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be,” would, if he dipt into it today, find disaster for the human race squarely ahead down the road our species is travelling with gathering speed. Even in 1842, however, when Tennyson’s paean of optimism and affirmation was published, there was no need to have been unprepared for the fate mankind now appears bent on bringing on itself. More than forty years earlier, the professor of history and political economy at East India College in Haileybury, England, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, had called attention to the fact that the power of the human race to reproduce itself is infinite, while the capacity of the earth to support its numbers is finite. By 1842 birth rates and death rates in England, which had been in a rough balance a century before, showed a wide disparity. Owing to a fall in the death rate, the annual excess of births over deaths had reached thirteen per thousand persons, which meant that in another fifty years the population would double.

Death rates for the human race as a whole have been tumbling ever since, as science has been bringing the big killers of mankind under control and extending its beneficent sway from the advanced parts of the world to the less favored. The paradoxical result has been that human existence is threatened. Scientists concerned with the world’s future have for a decade and more been urging mankind to grasp and be guided by the ominous statistics——so far with little response. The figures cannot be too often rehearsed.

The population of the world, from an estimated five million 8,000 years ago, reached 500 million about 300 years ago, having doubled about every 1,000 years. It reached one billion before 1850, having doubled in less than zoo years. Two billion was reached about 1930—the doubling period having been reduced to about eighty years. The population of the world is now over 3.5 billion, and the doubling period is now down to about thirty-five years. Every day the population goes up by 190,000—the equivalent of a fair-sized city.

The joker in the population pack—the terrible, cruel joker—is that with a rate of population increase that is constant, or even somewhat declining, the population will not only continue to grow, but the amount by which it grows will every year become greater . The principle is that of compound interest. If the present rate of population increase were to continue, at the end of only 650 years there would be one person for every square foot of the earth’s surface. Such a horror could not, of course, actually come to pass. If birth rates had not long since been sufficiently reduced to bring them back into balance with death rates, nature would have achieved t he same end by scourging mankind with one of the traditional mass killers—war, famine, and plague—or with a more modern agent, crippling psychic ills.

The rate of population increase is highest in the poorer countries. What most of us have failed to grasp, however, is that the rate of increase is menacing in the United States—menacing to ourselves and, because of our disproportionate demands on the world environment, menacing to everyone else. As in other technologically advanced countries, though less so than in some others, the birth rate in the United States has markedly declined in the past century. Nevertheless, our population, having passed ioo million in 1917, passed 200 million in 1967. Even at the present low fertility rate (the birth rate for women of childbearing age), which is the lowest since the 1930’$, it will reach 400 million before a child born today is seventy years old (by which time the population of the world will have reached fifteen billion). When the Republic is as old again as it is now, in 2162, the number of Americans will be getting on toward 1.5 billion, while many children born that year may live to see the equivalent of the entire population of the world today jammed into the United States.

To picture what is in store for us as the population mounts we do not have to peer into the future far as human eye can see. We need only apply a little imagination to the effects of population pressure that we are already enduring. Nearly all of the problems we are wrestling with today are being rendered far more difficult of solution by the addition of nearly 5,500 lodgers to the national boardinghouse every day—such problems as providing adequate education and job training, housing, medical services, parks, playgrounds, sports fields and swimming pools, highways, airports and rapid masstransit, and the wherewithal to relieve the plight of the poor in slums and rural backwaters. If we are finding urban problems today almost more than we can manage, how are we going to handle them as the cities are swelled by ever more millions? Our streams and lakes arc already so befouled with human, industrial, and agricultural wastes that to clean them up will cost one hundred billion dollars, we are told. Our garbage is piling up around us: a million tons more every day, according to specialists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Noise, taking a toll in health and efficiency and generally adding to the strain of life, has been doubling in volume every ten years. The cost of maintaining a nation of 200 million in the ever more expansive style to which we are accustomed comes high, and it bears not on the American people alone. With one seventeenth of the world’s population, we consume two fifths of its production of raw materials, and, even with allowance made for the finished products we return, the disparity is enormous. Into the common atmosphere of the earth we Americans annually pour 140 million tons of pollutants, of which some ninety million come from transport (we burn more gasoline in motorcars than the rest of the world put together) and more than fifteen million from electricpower generation (of which our share of the world’s total is a third). Our contribution to the carbon-dioxide content of the atmosphere, which has gone up by over io per cent in the past century (and which by creating a “greenhouse effect” could result in the melting of the polar ice caps and the inundation of all the world’s ports and coastal plains) is comparable to our share of the world’s fossil fuel combustion—34 per cent.

Within thirty or thirty-five years we may expect to have ioo million more Americans generating refuse, water pollutants, and toxic gases; demanding their share of the world’s resources and of our own—forests and minerals, soil and water. We shall have the same ioo million more taxing those services which already the nation is supplying with difficulty—where, indeed, it is not already woefully in arrears. As the population continues to soar, the costs of providing for its needs will far outpace it. For example, to supply water-deficient areas of the western part of the continent there is already being proposed a North American Water and Power Alliance to redirect southward the flow of several large Canadian rivers now emptying in the north at a price of one hundred billion dollars: just to have water come out of the faucets.

A nd that will be only part of it. The inflation of any commodity results in its devaluation, and so must it be with human life. Humanity, from having been an object to be loved and cherished, will become one to be escaped, which will scarcely be possible as the teeming hordes press in on the resorts of privacy, convert the cities into the psychological equivalent of concentration camps, and necessitate a regimentation and computerization of life in order to manage the packed masses. Human inflation must also strike at the individual’s estimate of his importance. The average American, from having been one hundredth or one thousandth part of a rural community or town two centuries ago, has become one two-hundred-thousandth part of a city today; if he is on the young side of middle age, he can expect to be reduced to one thirty-millionth part of a megalopolis. As the individual is overwhelmed by and lost in a society of ever more monstrous and inhuman forms, we must anticipate a progressive multiplication of the symptoms of anomie and alienation, which range from apathy and despondency to aggression and violence.

We shall also witness the desolation of what remains of the natural world around us and the closing of avenues of escape from the mounting tensions of an increasingly overwrought, high-pressure civilization. Beaches, lakes, mountains—the green kingdoms that have always stood for the living world in our eyes and have been the matrix of every human culture—will be overrun, debased, and obliterated by the products of that civilization, human and material. The process accelerates rapidly today. The cottages crowd rank on rank along the shores and lakesides. The suburbs spread like a skin eruption ever farther into farm land, and with them come the shopping centers and industrial plants, converting fields and forests to asphalt, masonry, and neon lights in eighty- and hundredacre swoops. To the rear, even as they spread outward, the cities are cut to pieces by freeways on which, beneath thickening palls of smog, swelling streams of motorcars race eight abreast.

Of course, events in the world at large may preclude the climax of this spoilage. Despite our poor, the average American can purchase nine times as much in the way of goods and services as the average Latin American, and more than twenty times as much as the average Asian or African. And the have-not peoples are ill content with this dispensation. There has been let loose in the world a so-called “revolution of rising expectations.” Actually, those expectations only aim at revolution. They amount to a demand, affecting billions, for the health and comforts the West has shown to be attainable. We might ask ourselves what course those billions are likely to take as they see the disparity between what they have and what we have grow wider—as it is doing—and if they see no prospect of substantial relief from their poverty under the institutions they are accustomed to. At the same time we might ask ourselves what the consequences would be if their expectations of the more abundant life were met: what overwhelming demands would be made on the resources of the globe, and what damage done to the environment of life if the incomes of the disadvantaged billions should approach our own and all peoples began to live on the American model—felling forests for paper as we do, burning fuels and pouring pollutants into the air and the rivers and the sea as we do, and consuming an equivalent share of the earth’s minerals. “The ecology of the earth,” says Harvard nutritional expert Jean Mayer, ” —its streams, woods, animals—can accommodate itself better to a rising poor population than to a rising rich population.”

What remains clear is that the higher the rate of population growth among the economically laggard peoples—and, to repeat, it is now the highest in the world —the slower any improvement in their lot is likely to be, and the more costly to the earth and its ecology would be the dramatic improvement we have taught them to expect. Year by year the alternatives ahead grow more dangerous. With a continuation of present rates of world population growth, either progress or lack of progress in satisfying the wants of the multiplying billions will alike become ever more hazardous, ever more certain to be destructive of world order.

How vast a human multitude the planet can feed is moot. Fanatic agriculturalists speak of 50 billion and more and present us a graphic picture of the world’s forests being “sheared off at ground level” by “a huge steel blade … pushed by a heavy crawler-type tractor” to provide farm land. That forests are indispensable in preserving watersheds and water tables and tempering climates, that the need will be for more forests in the future to provide lumber and pulp, does not seem to concern them. But at least they point up the insanity of devoting our energies, not to creating conditions in which man’s potentialities may be realized, but to converting this splendid earth into a dreary food-factory to provide a mere subsistence for overflowing billions with whom no one in his right mind could wish to see the planet burdened.

The nightmare that the population explosion has in store for their descendants has been persistently pictured for the American people. Congress, no longer palsied before native obscurantism or the medieval theology of the Vatican, has—admirably—appropriated substantial funds for research into human reproduction and for the dissemination of information on contraceptive techniques. Yet the public on the whole continues to show itself passively or actively on the side of catastrophe—not on the side of its prevention.

In the face of all warnings, we Americans brought over 3.5 million new human beings into the world last year, to send the population of the United States up by 1.5 million. And with each of these added lives representing a burden on the earth equal to a half dozen or more Asians or Africans, we should perhaps not expect those unenlightened folk to be much moved by our exhortations to them to reproduce less. A Gallup poll in November a year ago showed that 41 per cent of Americans considered four or more children ideal for a family, the percentage being 50 among Roman Catholics, 56 among Negroes, and higher than average among the poor—47.

Admittedly, there were once good reasons for large families. At the time of the American Revolution, only half of the children born lived to sixteen. Most of us were farmers, and on the farm children were an asset. In any case, land and resources appeared inexhaustible. Let it be acknowledged too that while times have changed drastically, asking couples to limit the number of their children is asking a great deal. Watching a human personality gradually take shape, one that you have helped bring out of nothing, is an incomparable satisfaction. Children lend a kind of charm to life that nothing else can.

T hat the traditional indulgent view of large families should die hardis not surprising. The fact remains—and it is a fact of which there is no excuse for ignorance—that those who reproduce as if they were living in the past are preparing for the children of the future a world in which life will scarcely be worth living. Yet evidently little stigma attaches to their doing so. If suburban mothers hesitate to traipse across the shopping center with a train of offspring, nothing in their bearing betrays it. A father of ten grins with self-satisfaction out of the television tube on “Generation Gap,” while another parent beside him apologizes for being, by comparison, an underachiever. A prominent clergyman of the nation’s capital and his wife are evidently unembarrassed at having brought nine children into the world. Newspapers regularly report the plight —and complaints—of parents of twelve on relief, without any suggestion that society has rights in the matter, rights which have been grossly violated. Public figures who have become known partly because of their concern with the nation’s future, like columnist Jack Anderson and entertainer Dick Gregory, can have nine and seven children, respectively, and not feel that they owe the pubic an apology any more than John Wayne, who also has seven children. The governor of New Jersey, Richard J. Hughes, had three children by one wife, acquired three more with a second wife, and by her had an additional three. Presumably his career has not been impaired as a result—or Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s by his having six children, or ex-Congressman Hugh L. Carey’s by his having had fourteen.

The crucial test of public opinion on the issue came last year when a strong bid for the presidential nomination was made by a dynamic and appealing young politician whose ten children (with an eleventh on the way) marked him as entirely disqualified to address himself to the problem that Dwight Elsenhower had called one of the most critical of our time. During his campaign for a Senate seat Robert Kennedy had indeed lightheartedly confessed to this disqualification. The next year he had gone further. Speaking in a country in which one of the world’s most rapidly growing populations had for two decades been outstripping an already inadequate food production by to per cent—Peru —he gaily challenged his audience to outbreed him. (“Deadly dangerous,” the Washington Post termed the ploy, and with reason. If all the speaker’s eleven children and their descendants reproduced as he had, there would be over 214 million descendants of the Robert Kennedys in the ninth generation, and seven times as many as there are people in the entire world today in the eleventh.) Not only, however, did Senator Kennedy’s exemplification of the procreative irresponsibility that is pushing the world toward catastrophe create no bar to his political ambitions; no public figure, editorialist, or columnist that I know of deemed it important enough to mention as bearing on his eligibility for the supreme office.

In a statement hailed by family-planning groups, the heads of thirty governments in the United Nations have announced “that the opportunity to decide the number and spacing of children is a basic human right.” Not to limit but to decide the number. What this “right” is, of course, is the “right” of any part of the human race to make the planet uninhabitable for the whole. It is the “right” of any passenger in a lifeboat to help himself to as much of the provisions as he wants, regardless of the consequences to his fellows.

Just as early humanoids were probably unaware of any connection between sexual intercourse and its subsequent issue, so their descendants today, one could almost believe, are unaware of any between the number of children individual couples have and the growth of the population as a whole. That would explain how the Reader’s Digest can run an excellent article hammering home the implications of the problem, and in an advertisement a few months later, beam upon John and Mary Ann Forristal of Houston and their nine children as a representative Digest family. It would explain the report issued in November, 1968, by a committee of highly qualified citizens set up by the President to recommend steps to deal with population pressure. On one page the report tells us that the current rate of growth of the American population “cannot be maintained indefinitely,” on the opposite that the national objective is “a society in which all parents can have the number of children they want when they want them.” What we do if the number of children parents want must produce a rate of population growth impossible to maintain, which is the case at present, the committee does not say. Last July, in the strongest public statement on population yet made by an American President, Mr. Nixon detailed the enormous scope of the problem and proposed the creation by Congress of a “Commission on Population Growth and the American Future”; then he went on to vitiate all he had been urging with the pious pronouncement that the government’s pursuit of the goal of population control would “in no circumstances … be allowed to infringe upon the religious convictions or personal wishes and freedom of any individual, nor … to impair the absolute right of all individuals to have such matters of conscience respected by public authorities.” One wonders how close to final debacle we shall have to come before a President summons up the nerve to do what is clearly imperative now and gives the American people to understand that if they care anything for posterity, for their country, and for the handiwork of the Creator that has made North America so hospitable and inspiring to human habitation, they are going to have to accept a ceiling on the number of children per couple, and that the national interest will be best served if that ceiling for the present is no more than two.

Even if such a national policy were enunciated, however—as sooner or later it will have to be—there will remain the question of how individual couples are to be brought to conform to it. What results could be expected from a mere appeal to conscience?

Harmful ones, Garrett Hardin of the University of California argues persuasively. The person whose conscience is appealed to, says Professor Hardin, is caught in a “double bind” of a kind that can induce schizophrenia. For he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If he ignores the appeal and has three or four children, he stands to be publicly condemned as selfish, irresponsible, and antisocial. If he obeys it while others ignore it, he can only feel he has been had—one whom others “secretly condemn … for a simpleton.”

O f course, we should not have to fear these consequences if an appeal to conscience were uniformly acceded to. But one thing that experience of this world should teach us is the futility of expecting human beings in the aggregate to curb their instincts or desires for any length of time just for the general good. Were it otherwise, we could have government by exhortation instead of by laws—laws with teeth in them. Can it be imagined that wartime rationing that depended on voluntary compliance would be of any effect? And rationing is what we are talking about.

To move human beings to what is uncongenial and unnatural to them requires the carrot and/or the stick. For the great majority of us, over the long run, nothing else will serve. The question is, what sort of carrot and what sort of stick would be most likely to prove effective in preventing the earth from being swamped by people and at the same time provide an equitable apportionment of the right to bear children? That is the question to which those most concerned with the future of life on earth should address themselves—or show how these ends may otherwise be achieved.

Professor Hardin favors coercion—but “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” Social sanctions could perhaps meet the need. If anyone with three or four children automatically brought obloquy and ostracism on himself as an antipatriot and an offender against the Deity (who presumably would have some interest in the preservation of his magnificent creation, the earth), we might have the answer. But the world might be close to irreversible disaster, or over the line, before such an effective consensus could form, even in the United States.

Meanwhile, economic levers are available. Federal and state income-tax exemptions now authorized for every minor child could be denied in the case of children over the number of two, born nine months or more after the enactment of the legislation. Annual payments could be made to sexually mature females who refrain from bearing children, and in lesser amounts to those who stop with two. Fines, proportionate to the offender’s capacity to pay, could be levied against parents for each child they produce in excess of two; beyond a certain limit the offenders could be deprived of the right to vote. (Why should those indifferent to society’s future be given a voice in it?) At the same time, of course, anti-abortion laws—which in any case represent a tyrannical denial by the state of the rights of an individual—should be repealed; contraceptives should be made freely available to all, and every effort should be made to devise simpler, surer, safer methods of contraception.

Obviously, strong opposition to any program equal to arresting the population explosion is to be expected, especially on the part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But public opinion can be swayed. The Vatican has changed its mind in the past, and can and must change it again. The more public discussion there is, the sooner the public will become accustomed to and will accept measures to deal effectively with a crisis that four thousand scientists at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science termed—along with the related crisis of pollution—the most serious facing mankind. Too-long delay in meeting it can result only in having the issue taken out of our hands, for under the strains to which the population explosion must increasingly subject civilization, the institutions of representative self-government will be among the surest to give way.

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