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Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders Paperback – April 29, 2014
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The 15 essayists each have a wealth of experience and acquired wisdom from decades of working in the population and sustainability field. First though, is the beautiful essay, The Art of Living by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), that should be required reading for all economists. “It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement,” wrote Mill.
Al Bartlett contributes the first essay, his mind sharp right to the last. He calls on each government to have an Office of Common Sense but warns: ‘…don’t venture in there until you understand the arithmetic of population growth (or exponential growth).’ At the end of the book we find Al’s Laws Relating to Sustainability, the first of which is: ‘Population growth and/or growth in consumption of resources cannot be sustained’ and the last, the 21st, is: ‘Extinction is forever’. Al died peacefully on 7 September 2013 but his work on the ‘exponential function’ and his laws live on.
The remaining essayists are a Who’s Who of the population movement: the Ehrlichs, Lester Brown, Bill Ryerson, David Pimentel, Malcolm Potts, Martha Campbell, Lindsey Grant, Don Collins and more. The book is divided into two parts: the first on family planning and the empowerment of women and the second on environment and limits to growth.
For 15 years now, the energies of Bill Ryerson of the Population Media Center that he founded have been focussed on creating in the developing world successful long-running serialised television and radio ‘soaps’ in which characters evolve into role models for the audience. The aim is to encourage smaller families, elevate the status of women and end exploitation of children, and so on. Bill also writes well and he does here with great clarity in an essay called: ‘Do what your mother tells you’. It includes such admonitions as ‘Do your homework’ and ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’, but all applied to how we might achieve global sustainability.
Lester Brown, who probably along with Ryerson deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, pulls no punches in his essay on redefining security. In his top five threats to global security, armed aggression doesn’t even make the list. Rather the major threats include climate change, continuing population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices and a growing number of failing states. We must address these threats, he argues, since civilisation itself is hanging in the balance.
Martha Campbell deserves wider recognition for her work in the reproductive field. She writes here on why there is silence and sensitivity on the issue of population growth. She is critical of the small number of activists who went around after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, arguing that family planning programs in developing countries, particularly those set up by the US and European countries, were designed to encourage women to take contraceptives whether they wanted them or not, and were therefore coercive. ‘Oddly and unfortunately,’ writes Campbell, ‘these same activists who focussed on coercion in the past avoided mentioning the coercion of huge numbers of women in many countries who were, and still are today, forced to have pregnancies they did not want.’
The final essay is from Paul and Anne Ehrlich who address whether a collapse of global civilisation can be avoided. Many civilisations have collapsed in the past, they note, but today the increasingly interconnected and highly technological global society, in which we are all embedded, is threatened by an array of environmental problems. Collapse could occur quickly with, say, a ‘small’ nuclear war, or more and slowly because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over scarce necessities. They argue that no civilisation can survive, however, if it fails to feed its population. Today, two billion are poorly nourished and yet the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates an increase in food production of 70 per cent is required to feed the anticipated 35 per cent increase in population by 2050.
This book is an excellent manual for those of us already converted on the population issue, but is also an excellent means of persuading others.
All Americans hoping for population sanity and secure future for their descendants, will find stirring essays and insights of longtime advocates of population reduction in the book: Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders.
Editor Marilyn Hempel deftly uses this anthology to bring together the proposed responses of fifteen giants in the field of human population and development if they were asked to advise an assemblage of the world’s leaders on the future of humanity and the biosphere.
Among those wise elders contributing is Lindsey Grant, former senior State Department official on environmental issues, with an update of his essay on the ideology of rampant, destructive and unsustainable economic growth, “Capitalism: Growth, Greed and Collapse.” Other giants of population reduction advocacy in this collection include Paul and Anne Ehrlich, David and Marcia Pimentel, Lester Brown, Malcolm Potts, and the late University of Colorado physicist Al Bartlett.
Noted population biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s essay restates advice familiar from their long careers along with the book’s most comprehensive road map for urgent radical international reflection and action in Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided? This essay alone should be required reading for the heads of government of G-20 nations.
In his Letter to the President of the U.S., agricultural expert Lester Brown warns again of growing world food insecurity driven by population growth, rising affluence, and slumping productivity. He appeals for demanding and tough policies to stretch the world food supply while ending further loss of farm land to pollution, desertification and urban encroachment, while safeguarding world bio-diversity.
The Pimentels, also agronomists and experts on the world’s now threatened food security, see world population reduction as a near certainty over the next century to two billion or less, with U.S. population – now over 300 million -- falling to about the 100 million or so that is compatible with the nation’s true long-term carrying capacity. These reductions can be achieved with a minimum of suffering by starting now with rational and humane but hard choices of humanity itself, or left to the cruel and inexorable workings of nature. It’s our choice, and it must be made soon.
Readers of this volume might ask themselves how much they would be willing to transform their expectations and values to meet this new and demanding ethos of survival. The book is a warning. We in the comfortable, high-consumption western industrial world cannot be reminded of these realities too often.