Julia Whitty and the "Last Taboo"
Of course we should thankful that the CBC, at last, made the Population Bomb the topic of a 30 minute interview with Julia Whitty, author of "The Last Taboo" featured in Mother Jones. If I was writing for a general audience, I would devote most of my observations to the very many good and important things that Whitty said. I would praise her for putting "Peak Soil" at the top of the list of insuperable problems---a danger that, as she said, has no technological cure. And I would explore the reasons that she advanced for why the subject of overpopulation is still taboo. She was bang-on in identifying immigration and abortion as toxic issues that have intimidated many in North America into silence. Nonetheless I was irritated by some of Whitty's qualifications. Perhaps she felt, with some justification, that it was best to embrace some of the standard anti-Malthusian objections in order to take the wind of out of the sails of critics poised to repeat them. She took pains to characterize Thomas Malthus as a rather unpleasant and callous individual, the one whom Charles Dickens used to construct his fictional "Ebeneezer Scrooge". According to her, Malthus counselled neglect of starving people and opposed contraception, and was of the then commonly held belief that only 'better' people should breed. No doubt she would regard me with the same odium. I believe that it is imperative that we offer no food relief for any population that refuses to implement family planning. And I fully subscribe to the Hopfenberg thesis. Like any other species, we expand to catch up to an expanded food supply.
Malthus and his reputation
Whitty threw two sops to the Monbiotists. She readily concurred with a critic who said that population activists usually want to control other people's population, that is, the population of poor people of colour, rather than our own. The focus on over-population lets the developed countries off the hook for their over-consumption. She pointed out that Americans consume as much as 4.7 billion Indians would, and quoted the Ehrlichs in making the same point. Obviously we must address both issues. If Whitty had not said that, our flanks would be left unprotected. And she did assign importance to suppressing fertility rates in America. But in concluding that "we must consume less to allow more to live" she repeated the core creed of soft green environmentalism. Lester Brown has posed the question, "How are we going to feed 9 billion people?". The real question should rather be, I think, "Why would we try?" Whitty spoke about the prospect of containing our appetites as the greatest challenge yet, greater than curbing our population growth, which she said, we already have by halving fertility rates in recent decades. If we managed to feed another 2 billion people-breeders, how could we make 9 billion people consume less than the 6.8 billion we already have? How can we support them without exhausting the very resources she said are being taxed to the max---land, water and fuel? She did remark, after all, that in 50 years we must feed people on half the existing acreage available to us now. Is the priority to save the number of people who are currently alive today or is it to enhance our prospects of survival as a species? If our objective is the latter, then only a triage approach is tenable. As Garrett Hardin reminded us the same year that Ehrilch's Population Bomb was published, desperate times require revolutionary ethics.
Smaller families or higher consumption?
More disingenuous was her assertion that 'coercive' measures were unnecessary and not particularly effective. The old standby---making birth control available and 'educating' women should do the trick. After all, women do want smaller families given the options. "There is a direct corellate between educating women and fertility decline." This mainstay of current cant suffers from several flaws. One is the question raised by the interviewer, Anna Marie Tremonte. Educated women make for a more prosperous economy. But doesn't this prosperity lead to more consumption, which Ms. Whitty, in repeating the green left mantra, said is now our most vexing nemesis? Nations with stable or declining populations can still exert more pressure on land and water resources through increased per capita consumption--affluence may allow more people to build bigger homes on bigger lots or even acquire second homes, as they have on this continent and elsewhere. Whitty conceded that it was a problem that must be addressed with "balance". Hmmm.
I suppose my greatest frustration in hearing the party line on women's reproductive rights and preferences is that their free and voluntary choices may not, no, WILL NOT, lead to a population decline rapid enough to save us. As Robert Engleman demonstrated in his cross cultural study some two years ago, women the world over want, on average, no more and no less than two children. That is at least one too many. At the bottom of most fem-friendly prescriptions is a vast over-estimation of our carrying capacity. Not many years ago the consensus was that it was around 2 billion. Now those who make more exacting calculations, in the face of looming energy shortages, have it at no more than 100 million people--a level that we must attain before century's end. According to Richard Wakefield's computation, that would mean that we would have to lose a population the size of Toronto's every five days for the next hundred years. That is about two people for every one born. A slavish genuflection to the feminist agenda will not come close to meeting that target. Most population-reduction advocates simply don't have the sense of urgency required to face up this stark truth. It is amazing that Whitty has imbibed the Replacement Rate Fallacy. Mother Nature doesn't give a Tinker's Damn about falling fertility rates. She is more impressed with demographic momentum and the number of people riding on her back. Human beings are not fruit flies. When we are born, our parents don't immediately die to make room for us. Generations overlap. In fact, more and more of us reach adulthood before our grandparents die. Mark O'Connor has spelled that out very clearly. http://www.australianpoet.com/overloading.html#rrf
Two things must be remembered. The predicament of overpopulation is more coercive than any measure proposed to solve it. Nothing that has ever been done in China is as coercive as what the lack of water, energy, food and space will inflict upon more and more people as our numbers continue to grow. Instead of looking for humane solutions, we must look instead for the least inhumane of effective solutions. Ineffective 'humane' or voluntary and democratic 'solutions' are not solutions if they do not do the job. If I develop gangrene in my leg while I am alone with you in the wilderness, you hopefully wouldn't avoid cutting it off to save my life because, lacking an anaesthetic, there is no "humane" way to do it. Quite frankly, I can't fathom the inhumane ethics of so-called humanitarians. It is a moral edifice built upon the assumption of affluence, or the denial of any need to make hard choices. The perverse reverence of the quantity of human life at the cost of its quality, together with the right of non-human species to have a life at all. The first question on the table must be whether rapid population decline is necessary to the survival of our species. If it is not, splendid. Then we can dismiss all the draconian measures that clerics and bleeders find so abhorrent. No one would be happier than I. But if it is necessary, then it is necessary. "Coercion" if necessary, but not necessarily coercion, coercion as a last resort, mutual coercion mutually agreed upon. And yes, I am well aware that making such a pronouncement would hand opponents a stick to beat us with, possibly to death. But what if that is what the doctor orders? I am hard put to understand the value of any moral system if we become extinct by following it. Then again, I don't believe that any portion of us will be raptured to safety. I suppose that makes me one of the accursed ones bound for hell.
One cannot help but notice that people who spend their time denouncing China's one-child-per-family (OCPF) regime happily reap the reward of fewer carbon emissions and resource consumption that this policy gifted to the world. The second thing that I think should be remembered is that one must not confuse reproductive rights with pro-creative rights. To say, rightly, that no woman should be forced to give birth to a child that she does not want is not the same as saying that any woman has a right to have as many children as she wants to. I may have the right to drive a car, but I cannot have the right to drive it as fast as I want to. If women choose to have more children than the environment can bear their 'rights' impinge on the rights of others. I need a permit to build an addition to my house or a licence to catch fish, how absurd is it then the most impactful decision of all---adding another consumer---is treated as a sovereign personal right? Not many fish drive Hummers or jump on a jet to Majorca for a vacation.
Most disappointing was Whitty's failure to mention that biodiversity loss. Instead of holding out olive branches to the fem-left---- the folks who sabotaged the Cairo Summit on world population---- it might be a better strategy to challenge them on ethical grounds. As they mount the high horse of women's rights, they should be asked about whether they think that these rights should trump the right of other species to live. Their conventional "people vs. nature" dichotomy should be countered with the assertion that other species, or more precisely, the habitat that supports them, is critical to our own survival. Betsy Hartmann and her ilk will only treat population stabilization as a welcome or even a neutral by-product of "empowering women'. For them, the goal of achieving smaller population levels is an inconsequential one. After all, there may be 300,000 people starving to death right now, but that is all down to unfair trade agreements, corrupt governments and poor distribution. It is all a matter of effecting political and cultural change. Or so they say. Carrying capacity is a concept beyond their grasp. Someone should break the news to them that the "surplus" of food that they count on as available to the starving masses if we get to the Promised Land of just distribution is an artificial one. It is the consequence of the unsustainable fossil fuel inputs of modern agriculture. We won't even be able to feed our current numbers. As Norman Borlaug himself warned, there never will be another Green Revolution. He was careful to say that his invention would only be a stop-gap, something to buy us enough time until family planning could arrest our growth. Alas, like all efficiency paradoxes effected before controls are first put in place, more efficient use of land only served as a growth-enabler.
Population growth is not just a missing variable. It is a prime driver of environmental degradation, and it will remain so for decades to come, if we make it that long. For too long human rights crusaders and social justice campaigners have held the floor. For too long the focus has been on the inequitable relationships between the passengers on our lifeboat, and not where it should be, on the fact that our boat is overloaded. It is time that we stopped appeasing their obsession and rang the alarm bell of overpopulation even louder. There is no social justice among drowned passengers. We can fight the class war after we make it to the next port safely, comrade sister.