Political Population Poppycock, and the Ethics of Misinformation

In "Unrealized Horrors of the Population Explosion," Clyde Haberman, 70, beats an obsolete, dead horse, repeating observations made in previous articles over past decades that Paul Ehrlich's predictions of horrors stemming from our exploding population have not come true.


(Source: Alan Weisman/Library Foundation of Los Angeles)

His misplaced focus masks the real, constructive discourse on overpopulation occurring elsewhere and promotes overpopulation denial, a politically convenient vehicle for doing nothing, in the service of short-term profit instead of the persistence of civilization.

Haberman contrasts Ehrlich's reality-based insights (e.g., infinite growth cannot occur on a planet of finite resources) with the flawed, shallow and sometimes snide remarks of Stewart Brand, creating an unequal, irrelevant and misleading discussion of the issue. The question that Brand posits, "How many years do you have to not have the world end [to reach the conclusion that] maybe it didn't end because that reason was wrong?" simply illustrates his lack of historical insights. We walk upon the ruins of civilizations felled by resource constraints.


The discussion becomes increasingly misleading as Haberman credits Norman Borlaug, a lifelong population activist, with helping create the Green Revolution but ignores Borlaug's own admission that it was only a temporary, nonreplicable solution to feeding the world. Yes, hunger rates have gone down -- for now -- but the number of hungry, currently over 2 billion (roughly two thirds of the 3.5 billion humans present when Ehrlich's Population Bomb was published), rises even as arable lands and freshwater sources decrease. The brutal fallacy that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet remains.


Kids get it: a population poster created by a high schooler (credit: Angela McCauley at www.npr.org)

Haberman fails to note the connections among overpopulation, climate change, and consumption. Ehrlich and others pointed out how the interaction of both consumption and population increase destroys our resource bases. Climate change is just another byproduct of that toxic interaction; it would not pose a catastrophic threat if every country in the world consumed at the U.S. rate -- and the total global population were under 1 billion. Numbers do matter.


Elsewhere I note that the planetary conversation on humane solutions is changing, but not as quickly as the disappearance of our resource bases: Forests are fragmenting and disappearing, aquifers are drying, and climate change is disrupting our water supplies and food production and desertifying arable land.


Family planning outreach in Nigeria (source: Marie Stopes International at flickr)

Proven solutions to creating sustainable populations humanely include increasing access to reproductive information and materials, increasing female reproductive rights and education, and changing cultural priorities, all strongly promoted by Ehrlich.

Asking "How long can population rise?" ignores the far more important question: How can we accelerate these known solutions to avoid far greater inhumane disasters than already exist? A global cultural ethos that prioritizes those solutions is needed.

But not addressing the above potent question compounds the injustice of the 3 million children who die yearly (noted in the accompanying video) due to inadequate resources.


In predicting horrific overpopulation scenarios in 1968, Paul Ehrlich raised awareness about it, changing "business as usual."

Particularly ironic for a writer of history, Haberman makes the classic mistake in his text (the video corrects this) of ignoring that Ehrlich's ability to raise awareness about the issue helped change the demographic outcome he had predicted -- "business as usual" changed.

Ehrlich himself admits that he was making predictions to raise awareness -- and he succeeded, although not enough to solve the problem. The provocative nature of the New York Times piece indicates it is also on an "awareness" campaign -- of The New York Times itself.

But with its repetition of population myths and important omissions, and Haberman's failure to produce an incisive, realistic discussion of solving the current and evolving horrors of overpopulation, the piece has only drawn awareness to the declining quality of the "news" that The New York Times sees fit to print. It is a sentiment echoed in most of the hundreds of online comments the piece has garnered.


Credit: Chris Jordan at www.jarty.net