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Population and The Human Predicament in a Nutshell

Paul R. Ehrlich—

What should be taught in every middle school but isn’t.

Humanity has been acting like an idiot child who is heir to a great fortune. She keeps writing checks on her account to pay for her every need and desire. She never inspects her balance. Homo sapiens similarly inherited a vast bonanza of fossil sunlight, other concentrated resources, and free garbage disposal and is busily using it up at an accelerating pace with no thought to the future. The scientific community has been warning about the lethal idiocy of perpetual population growth for decades, but its words have fallen on deaf ears. For example, more than 1,000 scientists signed the “World Scientists Warning to Humanity” in 1993, calling for a reduction in consumption and a limit to population growth, and more than 15,000 scientists joined a repeat warning in 2017. The press paid no attention.

In 2022 a large team led by the top global economist, Sir Partha Dasgupta, produced a 600-page study of civilization’s relationship to its natural capital assets—basically its life-support system. The study concluded that if everyone had the rough equivalent of a Mexican standard of living, Earth might be able to sustainably support 3.2 billion people. But there are more than twice that number today: the expanding human population passed the 8 billion mark in 2022. And that achievement prompted the two most important newspapers in the United States to congratulate our species on its fecundity and opined that almost everything was going fine.

Of course, things are not going fine.  For starters, some 3 billion people are living in poverty, having together less access to resources than the ten richest persons. Since poor people rightly want a higher standard of living and the rich show little sign of being willing to give up their overconsumption, explaining this imbalance to middle-schoolers would give them a better grasp of the human predicament than that possessed by most government officials and media moguls. Humanity’s aggregate impact on its life support systems is a product of how many people there are, how affluent they are (how much each consumes on average), and what technologies and arrangements they make to service that consumption.  Every human being should understand and keep in mind this impact equation when thinking about the future.

Despite the warnings of scientists and pledges from international meetings to take action to deal with escalating climate disruption and the loss of natural capital, most of society barely pays attention. Instead of learning the facts of survival, by the media we are barraged with financial, celebrity, and sports trivia. Local, national, and international problems are given mostly cursory coverage, and the crucial role of overpopulation underlying most of them is virtually never covered. Ignored are positive feedback loops connecting population growth with climate disruption, disappearing biodiversity, and faltering agriculture, the population connection to depletion of soils and groundwater, global toxification (and falling human sperm counts), as well as the population growth and consumption factors that are increasing the odds of pandemics and a large-scale nuclear war. All these factors mean that keeping to reproductive business as usual leads quite directly to a collapse of civilization—the first collapse in human history that will be global.

Can that collapse be avoided? Only by actions on a much larger scale than the mobilization of American society following Pearl Harbor. It would need to be initiated with similar rapidity, be pressed in all nations, and persist for centuries. A first major step would be to fix broken educational systems so that they teach, expand on, and document the points made above. At the same time, a major push is needed to give full rights and opportunities to women around the world, which would accelerate the trend toward one-child families everywhere—a win-win situation, because persistent misogyny and rapid population growth are intertwined with racial prejudice and economic inequity as threats to human well-being. To preserve humanity’s life-support system and reverse our world’s rampant inequality, we must act decisively and immediately. The fate of our children and all children after them depends on it.

Paul R. Ehrlich is cofounder of the field of coevolution and a pioneer in alerting the public to the problems of overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, and deterioration of the environmental systems that support humanity. His previous books include Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, and the bestselling The Population Bomb. He lives in Palo Alto, CA.

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