American demographer: Give women full rights to keep fertility rates down ({{commentsTotal}})

While Estonia is worrying about shrinking population, American demographer Paul Ehrlich says that there are already too many people on the planet Earth. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

ERR interviewed a renowned American ecologist and demographer Paul Ehrlich who is best known for his controversial 1968 book "The Population Bomb", which asserted that the world's human population would soon increase to the point where mass starvation ensued. Estonia is a country where the population is falling, therefore ERR found it intriguing to hear Ehrlich’s views on demographics.

Ehrlich suggested in his book that population control is an effective method to avoid over-population if voluntary methods were to fail. Ehrlich has in later years acknowledged that some of what he had written had not come about, but has restated his view that over-population remains a major problem.

How do you view the predictions you made in your book, "The Population Bomb"? Although we do not see hundreds of millions of people starving to the death on the streets, about 800 million are undernourished and some 20,000 die every day...

Some predictions in my book were not predictions but scenarios, which we said to be little stories about the future that will help you think about it, but won't necessarily come true. But to underline, several hundred million people have starved to death since "The Population Bomb" was written. We are often criticized for saying that battle to feed all of humanity is over and yet today the most recent estimate is that there are about 795 million people starving and somewhere between 1-2 billion who are malnourished. So we are doing a lousy job right now.

There is no sign that the situation is getting better. It's just like with the limits of growth, when people look at them they all have been fulfilled. We have been going to the wrong direction. We are not feeding everybody. We have more people hungry today in absolute numbers.

Currently, the average number of children per woman in Estonia is about 1.5, prompting fears that it will be the downfall of our nation. Why should we even participate in the discussion about over-population?

Well, 1.5 is about the number that we should see everywhere and you certainly do not want stop reproducing completely. You want a system where the population size declines gradually. Particularly in Europe and Eastern Europe where the total fertility rate – the number of women who have children in an average family – is below replacement and this is excellent.

It should be especially important in countries like US and to some degree in Estonia, but more in really super-consuming countries. It is the birthrates of the rich that are much too high. They are also too high among the poor as well, but in terms of damage to our life-support systems, the average American adds much much more than average Nigerian and more than average Estonian. Although you guys undoubtedly would like to catch up, I know.

Although society has demonstrated in the past that it is capable of remarkable shifts on a short period of time, the demographical and ecological processes tend to have considerable inertia, do they not?

That is one of the reasons, the huge inertia particularly in the population situation, is one of the reasons why we should have started acting long ago and should be certainly acting now. In other words, even if every woman began to only have on average 1.7 children, the population would continue to grow for considerable amount of time until it slowly began to decline. There is no feasible way, even with mass disasters we are going to have more people in the year 2100 than we have today.

It will take that much time to slow population growth and start towards a number which might be sustainable in the long term. Most people who have looked at it carefully think that the number that might be sustainable in the long-term with everybody having a decent standard of living is somewhere around 2-2.5 billion people. We are now at 7.3 billion people and of course somewhere between 1-3 billion of those people are not adequately fed today, which means that we are not properly supporting 7.3 billion we have today and yet there are still some people who claim that it is easy to support 9.6 billion people in 2050.

What challenges will the additional 2.5 billion people bring?

Well, that means we are now planning to add to the planet more or little more people than already existed when I was born in 1932. Now we are planning to add more than two billion people in the next 35 years. I don't think that it takes any genius to predict that it will be an extremely stressful thing to deal with.

Particularly, if for example in the USA, we have a big program of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. We already have very unequal distribution of everything on our planet and to add another 2.5 billion people to the planet and still hope that it will work out fine when we are wrecking the weather system; have added huge amounts of toxic chemicals to our environment that are showing all kinds of problems now; seeing more and more conflicts over resources, particularly water; when we know very well that the more people we add to the planet, the greater the chances of huge epidemics like Ebola.

If we are all aware of those things we are facing, how can we be relaxed about adding 2.5 billion people to the planet in the next 35 years is beyond my capability and any of my colleagues to comprehend.

You mentioned that it is often considered politically incorrect to talk limiting population growth. However, as a number of academics over the world have underlined the need to keep the population growth in check, is there a humane way of doing it in countries where birth rate is high?

The way to start is first of all to give women absolute rights, privileges and opportunities compared to men. There is no country in the world where it is happening. It does not happen in neither China nor Sweden. And it certainly does not happen in the US. I am sure it doesn't happen in Estonia. But we know empirically that when women have full rights, total fertility rates go down.
The other thing is that there are many-many millions of women and men in the world who don't have access to modern contraceptives, access to safe back-up abortion. Abortion laws that are common in the world only lead to death of women, they don't reduce abortion rates. These are two main areas that every country could start working on very hard to make women's lives better and at the same time make the lives of future generations better by not forcing them to live in vastly overpopulated circumstances.

Nowadays we are hearing more and more about the value of ecosystem services. Is putting a price tag on those things that we take for granted a step to the right direction?

In my opinion, it is absolutely right thing to do because people do not realize that when you are measuring the cost of doing something, we normally miss the cost of destroying the services we are utterly depended upon, so it is a very important thing to do.

It is also important in my view to recognize that we have an ethical responsibility to the other organisms on the planet. Human beings now use about half of the total food supply of all animals. That means that out of millions of species, one species uses half. The other species are parts of our life-support systems and they've got to do with the other half which is shrinking. Small wonder that many of them are going extinct.

So all in all, in the real sense human beings are sawing off the limb that they are sitting on by destroying our own support-systems and we are doing it under the leadership of bunch of people who have no clue about what's going on in our planet. It is sad, but for example most politicians certainly in the US talk only about growth. How can we have more growth? We have known now for many decades that continuous growth is the greed of the cancer cell. Last thing you want is more growth. More things that you want is redistribution and moving the human enterprise to a scale that will allow us to persist as a civilization for thousands of years, not just the next ten or 50.

What do you think tends to be missing from the public debate?

I think that what is missing from the public debate is that first of all people don't keep track of things like how many hungry people are there in the world, what's happening to our life-support systems and so on.

And people who are always saying how easy it is going to feed, house and care for 9.5 billion people in 2050, I'd like to say to them: look, if it is going to be so easy to feed 9.5 billion people in 2050, why don't we try really hard and feed the 7.3 billion we have today. In other words, I am growing tired of hearing how easy it is going to be to take care of more and more people when ever since I wrote "The Population Bomb" – and even before – we weren't taking care of people who existed then.

I think that in rich countries and I'd include Estonia there, people do not understand, what it is like to be in sub-Saharan Africa or parts of Philippines or you name it, parts of South America where people aren't living greatly, where they do not have decent diets and so on. So I really do not want to hear more about how easy it is going to be to take care of future till we do a better job of taking care of them today.

I live in a nation where we call it the Hood Robin effect, derived from ancient English myth of Robin Hood who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Our government takes from the poor and gives to the rich. That's the whole program of Republicans in the US. And yet they are allowed to work on it really hard.

So I'd like to see more equable and fairer distribution of things and more thoughts of how our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to live in this world. I personally get reminded of that every now and then, when I meet my descendants. It used to be hard to relate to that, but nowadays you can literally see your relatives who could in theory still live 80-100 years from now.

Editor: S. Tambur

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