New eco-threat: falling population
By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
March 28, 2010
In 1968, Stewart Brand founded the legendary Whole Earth Catalog,
whose tagline promised simply "access to tools." Luring an audience
that sought self-sufficiency, it quickly became a counterculture
must-read. Though often associated with hippies, the Whole Earth
crowd might be more aptly characterized as geeks. Reverential of
science and suspicious of dogma, Brand helped forge a modern green
ethos, centered on alternative technologies and smart design.
In the decades since, Brand has written a number of books and founded
several organizations. His recent manifesto, "Whole Earth
Discipline," is a lucid and provocative polemic, focusing on
large-scale fixes for a planet in jeopardy. Some of his conclusions
will strike many environmentalists as betrayals. But Brand sees them
as outgrowths of the same pro-science pragmatism that informed his
earlier work. He endorses, for example, nuclear power and genetic
engineering, arguing that their potential benefits for people and
the environment outweigh their exaggerated perils.
Another unorthodox view involves human population. As a Stanford
University undergraduate, Brand studied biology with Paul Ehrlich,
author of "The Population Bomb," a controversial warning that
overpopulation would soon lead to mass starvation as well as
ecological crisis. In 1969, Brand, alarmed, organized a "starve-in"
where he and a few dozen others fasted for a week to dramatize the
expected famines. Since then, agricultural and demographic changes
have created a different picture. Brand and some other analysts
predict a population peak at 9 billion by midcentury, followed by a
decline, possibly a steep one. There is vigorous debate about
projections of total population, but it is clear that fertility rates
are dropping in large swaths of the world. And, surprisingly, Brand
believes depopulation could be bad news for the environment. He
talked to Ideas about this issue by telephone from his office, a
landlocked fishing boat in Sausalito, Calif.
IDEAS: It's hard, I think, for a lot of people, especially
environmentalists, to believe that overpopulation isn't a threat.
BRAND: It's a funny mix of good news and bad news. The bad news is
population is continuing to increase, and the last doubling is going
from a large number to a doubly large number. The good news is it's
leveling off. And then the bad news is maybe it's leveling off too
fast and headed down in a destructive way in certain parts of the world.
IDEAS: So now birth rates are dropping even in some developing countries?
BRAND: Yeah. And that's sort of a surprise.
IDEAS: In 1969, you staged a "starve-in" to publicize the dangers of
overpopulation described in Paul Ehrlich's book. What changed in the
aftermath of that?
BRAND: Paul Ehrlich did not know that at the very moment he was
writing that book, Norman Borlaug was really cranking up with what
became known as the Green Revolution, which was dramatically
higher-yield crops....Borlaug bought the idea that professional
demographers had by then, which was a thing called a demographic
transition, which is that when people get a certain distance from
desperate poverty, they start to have fewer children, and as they
become more affluent, they have fewer children still. And the way to
cut down on too many children in the world is to introduce prosperity
generally....And lo and behold, that set in motion the sequence of
events that then were further multiplied by the takeoff of urbanization.
IDEAS: So as people start to have fewer kids and those kids have
fewer kids, you're expecting that there might be a rapid decline and
that this could actually lead to a crisis at some point.
BRAND: Everybody in the world was scared of Japan economically 20
years ago. And one of the reasons they were so powerful was that they
were getting the demographic bonus, which is when you start having
fewer kids, the parents or not parents after all are a lot freer
to be productive economically. So you have a youngish generation
which is working like hell and not being distracted taking care of
kids. And so, you get a boom....But then you pay for it later because
the next generation of hard-working kids isn't there. And as the
hard-working generation, that cohort, gets older, they start to move
from being productive to being dependent, and there's not too many
people for them to be dependent on, in the younger generation. And
then you start to get a nation that looks like Florida.
And that's why I wind up being mildly pro-natal as an
environmentalist, because I think when an economy's really cracked,
you get in a situation where taking care of the environment the
natural infrastructure, as I call it tends to go down the old
priority list. And it sometimes falls right off it.
IDEAS: Do you think there's an ideal global population?
BRAND: You know, I don't know. Carrying capacity turns out to be so
negotiable. Of hunter-gatherers, there's no way in the world to have
6.8 billion hunter-gatherers. There's not enough mushrooms [laughs].
And squirrels and wild fish. So humans change carrying capacity by
inventing agriculture. They change carrying capacity by inventing
cities....Anyway, I say it's negotiable because these carrying
capacity issues are things that humans are affecting. Often in our
favor but sometimes, like with climate change, in our disfavor.
IDEAS: So if disasters from climate change do lower carrying
capacity, does that render these arguments moot? Would you still
support a mildly pro-natal policy?
BRAND: That's a good question. It may well be that dealing with a lot
of the issues we'll be facing, you'll want young people to do it. And
so you'll need to be pro-natal enough to have some.
IDEAS: The obvious question from a green perspective is, wouldn't a
big drop in population mean less impact on the environment,
especially lower greenhouse gas emissions?
BRAND: It would play out not as, "Oh, look how much more paradise
we've got to wander around in here," but "How is our society broken
and what can we do about it?" kind of thing. So yeah, in strict terms
of greenhouse gases, fewer people are better. In those terms the best
thing for the world would be an all-out nuclear exchange between the
US and Russia. And that's not on anybody's...[laughs] There are a few
really misanthropic greens who would like something like that. I'm
not one of them.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a contributing writer for Ideas. She can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.