Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990.

Connections and Solutions: II

Halting population growth in less-developed countries will be much harder than in industrial nations, for several reasons. The most important is their age compositions. Because these populations contain huge numbers of young people, to end growth quickly (except through high death rates), completed family sizes must drop well below replacement -- almost to the vicinity of one -- for a period of time. That is what China embarked on with its one-child-family program, and it is no trivial task. Collectively, the developing nations (excluding China) now have an average family size of 4.8 children, so a decline of more than three offspring per family is required.


Children are highly valued for powerful economic reasons in peasant societies -- a factor that has been a barrier to family-planning success in many developing nations. Children are [204] needed as a source of labor or income while young and as social security fortheirjgarents old age. In societies where as many as 25 percent of all children die before reaching their fifth birthday, large families are seen as necessary to ensure that some will survive to be adults.

Today, more children survive than in the past, but infant mortalities in the poorest nations are still high by our standards, and the compensating tradition persists. Poor farmers with large families end up with several sons among whom they must divide their land. A few generations of subdividing lead to farms that are marginal or submarginal in size or or quality. Poor people don't have the luxury of long-range planning. Where food is going to come from today, this month, and this year are problems for now. The size of future farm plots is beyond today's planning horizonfthe sons must worry about that later.1

Sons represent needed labor and potential support for parents in old age. They help work the farm or they go to the city to find work and, when possible, send money home. In the absence of a social-security system, sons are the principal hedge against starvation in one's declining years. Small wonder family planning has had little impact in much of the developing world, where both economic pressures and the traditions they have shaped (often codified in religions) are strongly pro-natalist. The route to successful population control in less-developed countries is through changing these fundamental attitudes, and the best way to do that is to alter the conditions that created the attitudes in the first place. We'll return to this idea later.

Other problems, of course, must be overcome in addition to providing motivation for people to have small families. In nations with primitive medical, transport, and communications systems, simply extending family-planning programs to remote rural areas can be very difficult. In the past, the motives of aid donors wishing to provide population-control assistance have been suspect, and often with good reason when racism or other prejudices have been behind their actions.2 On the other hand, corruption among local officials dispensing aid is also a serious problem. [205]


What, then, is the best strategy for achieving population control in poor nations? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to examine the most successful population-control program in the world -- that in the People's Republic of China. The Chinese have gone through many ups and downs in population policy, although since the late 1960s their domestic policy has been one of "planned population growth" -- perhaps best summarized in an official statement in 1974: "Man must control nature, and he must also control his numbers."3 By the late 1970s, even the official rhetoric (previously full of condemnations of the idea of overpopulation) had become frankly Malthusian. In short, the Chinese came to the need for population control late, but then their rigidly organized society allowed the government to implement steps that might well be impossible in a democracy.

Admitting that rapid population growth was hindering their development, the Chinese government established an intensive program of "birth planning." Through the extensive health-service system, "barefoot doctors" and family-planning workers distributed information, birth-control pills, IUDs, condoms, diaphragms, foams, and jellies. "Voluntary"4 sterilization, for couples who were finished with childbearing, and abortion as a backup were provided at local clinics and hospitals. The vacuum technique for abortion, now used around the world, was developed by the Chinese in the 1960s.

The program's goal in the 1970s was for each couple to have two well-spaced children. Incentives to comply included paid maternity leave, time off the job for breast-feeding, free child care, essentially free contraceptives, and paid time off for abortions and sterilizations. Cooperative parents were rewarded with better housing and with educational opportunities for their children. Marriage and childbearing decisions were made through the governing council of the commune or the work brigade; pressure from one's peers was an essential facet of the program. One member of the council usually was responsible for the community's birth planning. In rural areas, respected older women with children were [206] organized into "women's cadres" to promote the birth-planning program.

All this was in place when population surveys in the late 1970s shocked the national leadership by indicating that, instead of the earlier estimates of 900 million people in 1979, the Chinese population had already climbed to a billion. Among other problems, this cut the scale of China's per-capita economic growth by 10 percent.5

The government decided something must be done. Estimating that the basic carrying capacity of the nation was about 650-750 million people (a number still almost certainly too large for the long term),6 China made a momentous decision. For the first time in history, a nation set as a goal shrinking its population. It resolved to stop growth at 1.2 billion and then start a decline toward the sustainable size. To accomplish this, the one-child family was promoted as an ideal, with the hope that the average family size would drop to 1.5 children.7

Key points to remember about the Chinese program include:

  1. It is indigenous; no significant outside aid has been involved except technical assistance in conducting demographic surveys and censuses.
  2. It is being carried out in a nation where the government has put substantial effort into providing equal rights and education for women.
  3. It has been part and parcel of an extremely successful program to bring basic health care to the entire population, with emphasis on maximizing infant survival and maternal health.
  4. It has used peer pressure as a major motivating tool, even though the basic policy was centrally designed and applied from above.
  5. There has been considerable openness on the part of the central government about the successes and failures of the program, including abuses of human rights that have at times occurred. Whether such openness will continue following the recent bloody repression in China remains unclear.

China's population-control program has been the most successful on record: it reduced fertility by more than half in about a dozen years. In 1979, the one-child family was made an official goal to be achieved by half of all couples, with two children being the limit for the rest. By the mid-1980s, the average completed family size had dipped to 2.1, just about regplacement level.

Despite its success, there are two sad things about the Chinese program. The first is that the nation waited so long that, when a serious attempt was made to bring down birthrates, the program had many elements of coercion that are offensive to those of us who believe reproductive behavior should basically remain in the control of the individual. The Chinese government, rightly or wrongly, concluded that there was too little time to change attitudes toward childbearing so that individual decisions would, collectively, produce a socially desirable result.

We must hope that our government doesn't wait until it too decides that only coercive measures can solve America's population problem.8 One must always keep in mind that the price of personal freedom in making childbearing decisions may be the destruction of the world in which your children or grandchildren live. How many children a person has now has serious social consequences in all nations, and therefore is a legitimate concern of society as a whole.

The second sad thing about the Chinese population-control program is that it has not accomplished enough.9 Resistance in traditional rural populations has prevented the one-child goal from being met in many areas and has led to many abuses. The resistance has been one reason for coerced abortions and sterilizations. The desire to have a son within the one-child limit led to an increase in female infanticide (a traditional but in recent decades largely suppressed response of Chinese parents wishing sons). Because of these difficulties, the one-child-family program was relaxed. In addition, the new capitalism in the farming sector has raised the perceived value of children and led to a rebound in the birthrate. In 1989, the average completed family size was about 2.4, and the growth rate appeared to have climbed from about one percent in the mid-1980s to some 1.4 percent. [208]

China's population passed 1.1 billion in 1989, and now demographers believe it will reach 1.5 to 1.7 billion before attaining ZPG. That is, in absolute numbers China will add about the equivalent of double today's United States population before growth stops. For a nation that already has more than four times the population of, but no more arable land than, the United States, with severe pollution problems because of its dependency on coal for energy, with falling grain production, and with natural ecosystems already severely compromised by massive deforestation, destruction of wetlands, and desertification, any population increase is too much. Moreover, these population projections could be too optimistic if the birthrate continues to go back up. Perhaps the basic lesson from China's experience will turn out to be that even a very strong program of population control, pushed by a repressive government on a regimented society, can fail if a nation starts too late.

China's future is a big question mark despite its great and effective effort to overcome its overpopulation. Much will depend on whether the movement for more democracy is allowed to reemerge, how the nation's relations with the rest of the world unfold, and how population policies develop in the next few years.

India's population situation is increasingly ominous despite much earlier (but relatively ineffective) effort compared to China. India was the first nation to recognize its population problem and try to do something about it. In 1952, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood in the United States, Mrs. Elise Ottesen-Jensen of Sweden, Lady Dhanvanthis Rama Rau of India, and some other advocates of family planning established the International Planned Parenthood Federation. That same year, India instituted the first official family-planning program in any less-developed nation.

For the first ten years, the effort made little progress, concentrating on surveys, pilot projects, and experiments with the rhythm method. Then, in 1965, with the nation's food situation deteriorating, India reorganized its family-planning program. The population then was some 480 million people, and birth and death rates were estimated at about 43 and 20 per 1,000 respectively.10 The goal of the reorganized program was to [209] reduce the birthrate to 25 by 1975.11 No such luck. By 1975 there was some progress, since India's birthrate had dropped to 35, but the death rate had declined to 15. The growth rate had thus dropped only from 2.3 to 2.0 percent. The population, meanwhile, had reached 600 million. But the program had too little emphasis on needed social change and too much on distribution of birth-control technology. In 1989, the birthrate had inched down to 33, but the death rate had declined to 11, so the growth rate had only dipped slightly during two and a half decades, while the population rose to 835 million.

India's family-planning efforts suffered a major setback in 1976 when Indira Gandhi's government, recognizing that the population-control effort was floundering, stepped up pressure on government employees (who comprise a large fraction of the work force) to be sterilized after having a third child. The move was so unpopular that it was a major cause of Gandhi's being voted out of office in 1977. Since then, some progress seems to have been made in reducing birthrates in India's growing middle class, but little elsewhere. In 1989, Indian scientists told us the entire program was basically "on hold" because elections were coming up and family planning was considered too controversial.

To be fair, though, India is a democracy, and China is a dictatorship. China's ability to impose a unified policy on the populace from the top down doesn't exist in India. Moreover, Chinese society is relatively homogeneous, and, for the number of people involved, linguistically simple with a widespread common written language. India, by contrast, has dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects, a great hindrance to dissemination of information, a problem exacerbated by the caste system.

China has had other advantages that have arisen from other policies. Among these were the establishment of the "barefoot doctors" basic-health-care program, which focused strongly on maternal and child health, and a huge and successful effort to educate all young people. The opening of opportunities for education and employment of women no doubt was also important.

India has not given high priority to making these advances, [210] but has instead put its limited resources into such things as building of steel mills, huge energy projects, and the production of consumer goods.12 This misallocation of resources is reflected in national statistics. India's infant mortality rate is twice as high as China's (96 per 1,000 live births as opposed to 44); 59 percent of India's adult population was illiterate in 1982, compared to just over a third of China's; and school enrollment of children in India is by no means universal.13

Clearly, India's demographic situation, combined with the bleak prospects for agricultural expansion on the subcontinent (and some prospect of declining production), darkens her future. Time has grown extremely short. Far more effective efforts both toward meeting people's basic needs and toward population control will be needed to give that overpopulated nation any chance of surviving intact to 2050. Mobilizing India's immense human resources to this end will be difficult, but the presence of an industrial "core" of the nation, including a sizable cadre of well-educated people, could help.


Turning to sub-Saharan Africa, we find still more dismal prospects. Most African nations, unlike India, don't have the advantage of a "core" of development. Most have very few well-educated people and no heavy industry or high-tech capabilities.

Kenya's population numbers are grimmer than India's. In 1965, Kenya's population was about 9.5 million people, its birthrate about 50 per 1,000, its death rate 17, and its growth rate 3.3 percent (doubling time a little over twenty years). By 1985, Kenya's population had more than doubled, its birthrate had climbed to 54 (average completed family size about eight children!), its death rate dropped to 13, and its rate of natural increase was at a world record of 4.1 percent -- a rate not matched by a national population for as long as demographic statistics have been kept. At that rate, Kenya's population would have doubled again in just seventeen years.

Readers of The Population Bomb were asked to consider the significance of doubling times then implied by vital [211] statistics in developing nations. It was pointed out that in order for a nation like Kenya just to stay even, to maintain the inadequate living standards of 1968, it must in some sense double its production of food and other necessities in under two decades: "The amount of power must be doubled. The capacity of the transport system must be doubled. The number of trained doctors, nurses, teachers, and administrators must be doubled."14

Concern was expressed about Kenya at that time (1968), when its doubling time was twenty-four years. Now the population has doubled. But, in spite of substantial outside aid (hundreds of millions of dollars annually),15 Kenya's per-capita standard of living has remained roughly the same, as measured by GNP. But even that is a very deceptive measure. Per-capita food production has dropped almost 30 percent since 1972, and the needed food has been imported, some as aid, some with borrowed money. Annual food aid in cereals went from 4,000 tons to 209,000 tons between 1975 and 1984.

The explosive growth of the population has led to the increasing subdivision of Kenya's farms, and their average size is already too small to absorb efficiently the efforts of a single family. Yet today the average family farmer faces the prospect of further dividing his little plot among four sons, since the average family size is about eight children. Deforestation and soil degradation have added to the woes of the poor, causing firewood to become increasingly scarce and making crop yields increasingly hard to maintain.

The situation is exacerbated because much of the best land is used for producing cash crops such as coffee and tea, which are exported -- improving the balance of trade, but doing little to help the average Kenyan who does not get his or her share of the cash. Nairobi, the capital, has been growing at about 8 percent a year, twice the national rate. People forced off subdivided farms stream into the city, seeking employment and becoming enmeshed in an increasingly unpleasant, burgeoning, crime-ridden set of slums. In 1976 there were 400,000 unemployed Kenyans; today there are about 2 million (out of a work force of perhaps 10 million).16

There have been some important improvements in the [212] quality of life in Kenya, however. Infant mortality rates have dropped substantially, and literacy rates and school attendance have climbed. But, with too few jobs to offer to graduates and a deteriorating resource base, the nation teeters on the edge of disaster. It has not managed to maintain its quality of life through the last population doubling. Fortunately, since 1985 the birthrate has begun to fall and the growth rate has eased a little.17 But the momentum of population growth guarantees at least another doubling and a continued flood of young people into schools and the labor market for the next few decades. Kenya has no choice but to continue its struggle for development, but it is further behind the eight ball than in 1968 and has even farther to go.

Kenya is hardly alone in Africa; it is merely an extreme example. The population of the entire continent is growing at almost 3 percent per year, with a doubling time of twenty-four years. The average death rate for the continent is still 15 (for West Africa, 18), as contrasted with an average of 10 in Asia and 8 in Latin America. Even more indicative of Africa's deteriorating condition, infant mortality in the poor nations of tropical Africa hovers around 120 per 1,000 live births18 -- a stunning contrast even to the average of 84 in poor nations as a whole, let alone the 10 in the United States and the 6 in Sweden. Thus there is still substantial room for death rates to drop -- if the trends followed in poor nations on other continents are followed.


There are about a billion Moslems in the world, mostly concentrated in a narrow belt running from the Atlantic Ocean through North and Central Africa, the Middle East, and on through Pakistan. The belt is broken by India, but picks up again in Bangladesh and continues with little interruption through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and the southern Philippines. With an average completed family size of about six children, Moslems are reproducing faster than any other major religious group, despite death rates of almost 14 per 1,000 and tragically high infant mortality rates that reach about 150 per 1,000 live births in West Africa.19 [213]

There are differences of opinion on how much being Moslem in itself contributes to high birthrates. But the generally low status accorded to women in contemporary Islamic societies no doubt has much to do with both high birthrates and infant mortality rates. That low status deprives women of the control over their own lives and reproduction that demonstrably lowers both of those rates in other societies. Historically, Islam, while supporting a superior position of males, provided legal rights and security in society to women far beyond those of the animistic religions it replaced.20 Unlike Catholicism and many other Christian sects, it has never offered any moral objection to contraception. Since there is no central Islamic religious leader, there is no official Moslem view on population control, but rather a diversity of views emanating from various officials and religious leaders. Some relatively modernized Moslem nations, indeed, have established strong and fairly successful family-planning programs, notably Tunisia, where both birth and death rates are significantly lower than in neighboring nations. It seems reasonable to accept the view of sociologist John Weeks that it is not Islam itself that is causing high population growth rates in Islamic nations, but poverty and the inferior status of women in these traditional patriarchal societies.


In Latin America, the situation is not as grim as in Africa, but it's bad enough. Population growth rates are high in Central America and tropical South America -- an average 2.1 percent per year for both (doubling time thirty-three years). Some of the symptoms of overpopulation resemble those seen in Africa, especially the decline of per-capita agricultural production, the overemphasis on producing cash crops and beef for export (with the cash going mostly to a few rich people), the lack of concern for the nutritional needs of the people, and the burgeoning slums and overnight shantytowns surrounding major cities.

But, while the African nations have simply outstripped and seriously degraded their resource base, with little or no modernization of agriculture, Latin America's problems, for the [214] moment, stem more from misallocation and inefficient use of resources. Continued population growth at present and projected rates, however, will soon enough put them in Africa's position, especially if deforestation and land degradation continue at current rates.

Latin America's advantages are many; it has relatively high literacy rates and at least the potential for developing good basic health-delivery systems; here again the problem has been one of misplaced priorities. In many countries, especially Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, a modern developed sector exists, with the necessary cadre of educated people. But tradition (especially in regard to the status of women), political instability, and the influence of the Catholic hierarchy21 have hindered social progress, especially in areas relevant to controlling population growth. Recent United States policies, particularly in Central America, have also been unhelpful in this respect.


Remarkably little has been accomplished in population control in the twenty years since The Population Bomb appeared. Global population growth has slowed a little, but nearly all of that slowdown is due to fertility reductions in two principal regions: China and the industrialized nations, especially the West. A few other developing nations have achieved significant fertility declines, but most are growing as rapidly as before.

Far too much time has been wasted waiting for what was long believed to be an automatic demographic transition -- a decline of birthrates as a result of industrial development. And far too many development advisers have grossly overestimated the carrying capacities of less-developed regions. While reducing birthrates seemed to them a worthy goal because it improved people's health and well-being, they assumed that limits to growth (including both population growth and economic expansion) would be encountered far in the future, if ever. Only now events are showing how wrong they were!

Faith in the demographic transition as an inevitable consequence of "development" has proven to be a snare and a delusion, in part because development was viewed as [215] synonymous with industrialization. Since fertility reductions occurred in Europe and North America more or less in tandem with industrialization, it was blithely assumed that the latter caused the former. More recently, a closer examination of both processes revealed that in fact industry per se had little to do with it.22

Indeed, the "just aim for development and the population problem will automatically take care of itself" proposition will not bear close scrutiny. Fertility rates generally are lower in more developed nations, but so are rates of illiteracy and malnutrition.23 Would those who recommend waiting for the demographic transition to solve the population problem also advise taking no direct action to educate or feed people while pressing for economic development? Of course not, because they know that literacy and a satisfactory diet can be achieved by appropriate programs in the absence of high levels of per-capita income, and there are no taboos against such efforts (as there often are in the case of programs to decrease fertility).

According to demographic-transition theory, as per-capita incomes rise there is a tendency to substitute consumer durables (automobiles, refrigerators, TV sets, etc.) for children. But if population growth among the poor prevents that rise in income, the demographic transition simply wouldn't occur. And if incomes rise in spite of population growth, what exactly are the terms of exchange between goods and children? Will the average Indian have to consume as much as an average Canadian before Indian fertility rates will drop to the Canadian level? The result, if a rich level of consumption were achieved by the world's 4 billion poor, would be environmental catastrophe. We cannot escape from the iron grip of I = PAT.

In recent decades, those wed to demographic-transition theory have had to ignore fertility declines that occurred in some developing countries with little or no industrial development (Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, and China, for instance) and failed to occur in others that had made progress in industrializing (Brazil and Mexico). The connection between per-capita GNP and fertility was essentially nil, although development experts had asserted for years that the way to reduce birthrates was to increase the average income.24

Part of the answer was that the benefits of industry and [216] increased incomes had not been equitably distributed within the societies in question.25 It turned out that other factors were much more important in the fertility equation and, not too surprisingly, they are related much more directly to women and families than to overall development. The critical prerequisites to reduced fertility are five: adequate nutrition, proper sanitation, basic health care, education of women, and equal rights for women.26 The first four factors help to reduce infant mortality, allowing a reasonable expectation that a given child will survive to adulthood.

Female education is an especially interesting and in some ways the most unexpected finding. Women will apply even a few years of schooling to improving life for their families by providing more nutritious, balanced meals, better home health care and sanitation, while men usually use an education to earn a better income.27 Improving the home situation reduces infant and child mortality, making women and men more receptive to the idea of smaller families. And the women's education makes them more open to contraception and better able to employ it properly. Finally, when women have sources of status other than children, family sizes decline.

These factors relating to women explain in part why China's "birth planning" met with greater success than India's family-planning program. They also provide welcome clues on how to improve other flagging population programs.


Now we know that population growth in poor nations can be ended humanely, but is it too late? Despite the time that has been lost, the developing nations are ahead of the rich ones in at least one important respect: most of them have committed their societies to reducing birthrates. Nearly all developing nations now have family-planning programs, and many of them have set a goal of ending population growth (but, except for China, not shrinkage -- yet).

There is, of course, great variation among nations in the degree of commitment to their family-planning programs. But in recent years the commitment has tended to deepen, [217] especially as other countries have witnessed the proliferating environment/resource problems plaguing Africa south of the Sahara. Most important, government officials in the affected African nations have begun to shake off their deep-rooted traditions and take population control seriously.

Meanwhile the United States and most of the other developed countries remain in a demographic dream world, failing to recognize the impact of our gross overpopulation on our own nations' environments and resources, and on the planet as a whole. There is no hope whatever for saving civilization unless the rich quickly wake up to Earth's peril and begin to institute programs aimed at speeding population shrinkage and more sensible policies of resource utilization at home.

People in poor nations are very aware of our role in generating the global environmental threats that loom over us all -- of our profligate use of energy and other resources. They can hardly be expected to listen to us telling them they must have fewer children if we still have no population policies whatsoever except to restrict immigration.

So rich nations need to establish population policies and make it clear that stopping growth is the first goal, followed by population shrinkage as soon as possible. They could also usefully launch a wide-ranging public discussion, with participation by scientists who are familiar with global problems and limitations, as well as social scientists who can contribute ideas on how effective social policy can be developed.The central question is what kind of society each should have one or two centuries from now.28 These discussions could be a beginning of planning to realize those goals. The discussions should involve many countries, including at some stage the developing nations.

A model for this process might be the international effort to address the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, one of the simpler problems in the whole knotty complex connected to overpopulation. The discussion of ozone depletion began among scientists and widened to include the environmental community, and then policy-makers. At first it was limited to Western nations, then expanded to the Soviet Bloc, and finally to the developing countries.

Even when the developed nations put sensible population [218] policies in place, they will be obliged to expand their assistance to poor countries, both to help curb their population growth and to achieve sustainable development. As is surely clear from the foregoing, the poor can't do it without help; even the highly regimented Chinese require technological aid from rich countries if they are to have a chance for even moderate progress in development. And why should the poor go it alone? The rich played a major role in putting the poor in their present dilemma. Moreover, the rich stand to save their own hides by helping to resolve it. The flow of aid from rich to poor right now is disgustingly small. The record donor, Norway, gives just 1.12 percent of its GNP, the Netherlands 0.98, Denmark 0.89, and Sweden 0.87. Among Western nations the United States is tied with Ireland for most niggardly: we give only 0.2 percent of our GNP.29

In recent years, Japan's foreign-aid contributions have risen dramatically and have broadened in scope as well. Originally, most Japanese aid went to neighboring Asian nations and was targeted for industrial development. More recently, donations have gone to other poor countries and have included rising amounts for environmental protection. The Japanese now are way ahead of the United States in foreign-aid generosity in proportion to their wealth and may soon close the gap in dollar amounts.

In population assistance, the largest dollar amount given in 1989 was by the United States -- $197.9 million. That's about one-third the cost of a single, militarily useless Stealth bomber. Nations like Norway and Sweden give proportionately much more population aid.30 That aid, properly given and targeted, is the most necessary of all -- although it is only a small percentage of all economic-aid donations. Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowan had the courage to say it right out: "It's time to face facts: Third World aid without birth control is like trying to pour water uphill . . . The reason for the absence of honesty on this issue is no secret: most officials panic at the thought of the political backlash from the Catholic Church in poverty stricken areas of the Third World."31

When industrialization began in Europe, obviously there was no competition from other regions, nor was Europe anyone [219] else's source of raw materials or sump for surplus production. When the United States and Japan emerged as industrial powers a century ago, the world was still spacious enough for the newcomers to follow the European pattern. They therefore also sought to bottle up large pieces of the nonindustrial world as resource and marketing preserves. The "Third World" of today, by and large, consists of those formerly bottled-up lands whose infrastructures were formed not primarily for their national or regional benefit, but to serve the metropolitan industrial powers.

In short, citizens of rich nations will now have to pay for their greed and several centuries of their forebears' greed. But by paying the price, they will be buying a livable world for their children, grandchildren, and all their descendants.


Although our basic focus in this book is on the population element of the I = PAT equation, we must at least outline the most critical steps necessary to limit affluence (or at least those aspects of affluence that depend on material consumption) and to reduce the environmental impacts of the technologies that provide the goods consumed. These steps would help move rich nations like the United States toward sustainable development; fortunately, many of them could be implemented quickly.

Energy conservation should top the list in the United States and numerous other nations, especially in the Soviet Bloc (where there is less financial incentive for individuals or commercial enterprises to conserve). The West would certainly serve its own interests by sharing conservation technologies with the East.

Of course, stringent conservation of fossil fuels should be undertaken while humanity builds a bridge to a future that does not depend on burning them at all. That time is coming soon under any circumstances; to destroy much of the world to extract and burn every last available bit of fossil fuel would be insane. The United States could start by gradually imposing a higher gasoline tax -- hiking it by one or two cents per month [220] until gasoline costs $2.50 to $3.00 per gallon, comparable to prices in Europe and Japan. The higher fuel price would create a powerful incentive for people to buy and drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and use energy-efficient alternative forms of transportation. It would make driving safer once the majority of automobiles were smaller, help preserve crumbling highways and bridges, reduce air pollution and acid precipitation, and slow global warming -- among other benefits.

Naturally, some adjustments would have to be made. For example, provision of more company-van pools, better bus service, and modern light rail transit systems could help get people to work who could no longer afford to commute by car.

Many other forms of energy conservation could be put in place as well -- all of which should be familiar to anyone who remembers the energy "crisis" of the 1970s. Between 1974 and 1980, a series of incentives and programs were set up by the federal and many state governments to encourage conservation. Unfortunately, most of them lapsed or were terminated during President Reagan's tenure.

A good example of how small changes in technology could make large differences in environmental impacts can be seen by considering the Reagan administration's relaxation of automobile efficiency standards that had already been met by Chrysler. If the regulations had been left in place, in a decade or so the amount of gasoline saved would have been equivalent to the entire amount of oil estimated to underlie the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That single step could have made unnecessary the threatened desecration of one of the last truly wild places on our planet, part of a precious heritage that should be passed on unspoiled to future generations.

The incentives and programs for conservation and the development of renewable energy sources should be reinstated and strengthened with additional new policies to accelerate the switch to energy efficiency. Enormous opportunities still exist for better insulation and more efficient heating and cooling of homes and commercial buildings. Business travel can be minimized; electronic communications can be substituted in many situations (for example, conferences by satellite TV). Other opportunities are obvious: more durable and energy-efficient lighting fixtures, TV sets, cooking appliances, and refrigerators.32 [221] There is also enormous scope for recycling of materials.33

Another example of a broad-spectrum cure that requires changes in both consumption and technology is reversal of present trends of deforestation. Preserving forests, especially tropical forests, is essential to keeping Earth habitable. It would yield many other benefits, from supplying humanity with new foods and anticancer drugs to keeping flows of fresh water dependable.

Replanting forests would help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow the global warming. Indeed, restoration of vegetative cover and regeneration of forests everywhere should be near the top of the human agenda. This move is needed for other important reasons besides retarding the buildup of CO2. Halting and reversing desertification, slowing the horrendous global rate of agricultural soil erosion, protecting agricultural productivity, and providing sources of fuel-wood for poor people are among the enormous benefits that would be realized.

But to reforest much of the planet would mean, among many other things, giving up the use of tropical hardwoods, eliminating oversized newspapers, finding some way to market and ship small items without using layers of plastic and cardboard, and decreasing the flood of paper that now issues from computer printers and copying machines.

Much more reading material could be delivered electronically, if problems of convenience and readability could be solved. Computers and electronic mail (E-mail) can avoid some paper use; fax machines may prove to be another paper/energy-conserving mechanism (no envelopes, no need to fly letters around). Perhaps some sort of "magic slate" device could be developed that could be repeatedly reused for preliminary drafts of documents that account for much paper consumption.

In developing nations, the fuelwood crisis can be ameliorated by the adoption of more fuel-efficient stoves, developed and introduced with local participation so that the stoves meet local needs (proper cooking temperatures for local dishes, light for evening gatherings, etc.).

Some cures must be employed even though they may [222] involve the deployment of more expensive or less convenient technologies than those in use today. For instance, the development of energy-mobilizing technologies that do not deposit CO2 in the atmosphere must be promoted. Especially promising are solar cells to produce electricity and its use to produce hydrogen as a portable fuel. A possibility that should remain in the potential "mix" is a future generation of nuclear-power reactors that are designed with safety as a primary consideration and that produce a minimum of nuclear waste.

To reduce emissions of methane (another greenhouse gas), cattle herds could be reduced, and the consumption of alternative foods to beef encouraged. Similarly, manufacture of the CFCs that cause destruction of stratospheric ozone should be phased out as fast as possible. Less damaging substitutes are available for most uses, though they may be a little more expensive. Research should be continued to find substitutes that have no effect on the ozone layer. The risks of continued damage to the ozone layer are too severe to allow minor cost considerations to cause the continued injection of the worst CFCs into the atmosphere.


Population control -- let alone the alleviation of global environmental problems -- will not be easily achieved in a world plagued by racism, religious prejudice, sexism, and gross economic inequality. The notion that numbers give strength is strongly ingrained -- often leading to fear of being outreproduced by other groups. White racists rail against too many babies in black ghettos. In Northern Ireland, the Protestants worry about Catholic birthrates; in Israel, the Jews are concerned about burgeoning numbers of Arabs; and in South Africa, different racial groups worry about increases in the others.

To resolve virtually any element of the human predicament, xenophobia must be overcome. Worldwide cooperation will be required to address effectively the consumption and technology elements of the human environmental impact -- of the I = PAT equation. The list of tasks is daunting: the rate of [223] climatic change must be slowed, its effects minimized, and general global environmental deterioration -- especially the extinction of populations and species of other organisms -- reversed. That is the only way that nations can find anything resembling security for the future.

In essence, the movement toward regulation of the global commons must be revitalized. Successful international regulation has historically been achieved by bringing it in through the back door -- by creating agencies to regulate in areas where national governments had no jurisdiction, such as the Law of the Sea. The latter has had some success as individual nations have taken responsibility for managing resources in adjacent waters.34

Unwillingness to surrender national sovereignty has always been the main stumbling block to establishing a world government. But far more international regulation and management of international commons now take place than most people realize. Most of this is accomplished through a complex maze of trade, political, monetary, and other kinds of agreements and through the activities of the United Nations' many agencies and some other independent ones such as the World Bank. In addition, much is done, if not always for universal benefit, by private organizations ranging from multinational corporations and the global stock-market network to nongovernment organizations like Planned Parenthood, Oxfam, and CARE.

Through these, an incipient world government does exist, but it is radically different from national governments, since it lacks central administrative or legislative bodies. Administrative functions are carried out through a diffuse system of more or less separate agencies. These have only indirect power to influence nations, although international peer pressure often works, reinforced by retaliatory actions by other nations against recalcitrants.

A World Court also exists, but it too has no power to enforce its decisions. Unfortunately, the two superpowers, whose observance of decisions would have the most influence on other nations to do the same, have been among the worst scoff-laws. Recently, though, the Soviets have announced their [224] intention of abiding by the court's decisions, and the United States has been showing signs of being more cooperative. In time, a tradition of observing World Court decisions and international regulatory sanctions could be built into a true governing system worldwide. But it won't be easy; the level of social development and "internationalism" varies enormously among nations.

The population/environment/resource/economic superproblems that loom in humanity's future demand a stronger, better-recognized, and better-respected system for managing the global commons. It may not be possible -- or desirable -- to create a strong centralized world government patterned after national governments, but a great deal of scope exists to build on the present model of diffuse, semi-independent agencies with different (though often overlapping) responsibilities, which tend to solve problems through consensus and international agreement.

A Global Commons Regime, using the Law of the Sea as a model, might be established to regulate human interactions with the atmosphere. Such a regime would, of course, have to be given some authority over such diverse activities as agriculture, the clearing of tropical forests, the generation of power, the use of internal-combustion engines, the manufacture of chemicals, plastics, and hair sprays, and the disposal of toxic wastes.

There is no guarantee that an effective Global Commons Regime could pull humanity through the coming crises; but it seems certain that without such a broad-gauge effort to deal with global population/environment problems, civilization will collapse. In the face of the common threat to all nations and peoples, the political quarrels now expressed in minor wars and revolutions, and even the competition between the East and West blocs, pale by comparison. One could hope that the overwhelming need to collaborate in averting the worst consequences of these superproblems could impel nations to forge new alliances and find avenues of cooperation, and to find peace. What needs to be done will require an effort that is nothing less than monumental. But the benefits for all of humanity, if the atmosphere/ocean commons could be cooperatively monitored and protected, would also be monumental. [225]

A central problem facing us now is finding ways to convince national and international leaders and the world's people that opportunities for action to assure global environmental security are fast slipping away. To repeat the old saying, it's the top of the ninth and humanity has been hitting nature hard. But we must always remember that nature bats last!


1. An excellent description of the attitudes of peasants in India is given in Mahmood Mamdani, The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste, and Class in an Indian Village (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1972). This book, although lacking a broad grasp of population problems, gives much insight into the failures of India's family-planning programs.

2. For an in-depth discussion of the myth that some groups of people are intrinsically better than others, see P. Ehrlich and S. Feldman, The Race Bomb: Skin Color, Prejudice, and Intelligence (New York Times/ Quadrangle, New York, 1977).

3. "China on the Population Question," China Reconstructs, vol. 23, no. 11 (1974). This journal is published for foreign readers in English and several other languages by the China Welfare Institute to present official views of the PRC.

4. The degree of voluntarism is a matter of some debate, and there is no doubt some sterilizations were coerced. It is difficult to evaluate, since the society had determined that sterilization should take place after a second child (or after the first, if one had signed up for the one-child program). When the rules were broken, forced sterilization was the punishment.

5. In calculating per-capita production, economists had been using too small a divisor.

6. Qu Geping, "Over the Limit," Earthwatch (supplement to New Scientist), no. 34, p. 2 (1989). Dr. Qu is vice-chairman of China's Environmental Protection Commission and administrator of the National Environmental Protection Agency. We suspect that,his estimate of China's long-term carrying capacity is high, but since the nation appears doomed to grow to at least twice that number, the point will be moot for a very long time.

7. Some of the mathematical implications of the one-child family in China are explored in J. Harte, Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving (Wm. Kaufmann, Los Altos, Calif., 1985), pp. 216-23. A great deal of information on China's demographic situation can be found in People (International Planned Parenthood Federation, London), vol. 16, no. 1 (1989).

8. The trend clearly is in the wrong direction, since in 1989 it is moving toward coercing pregnant poor women to bear their children whether they want to or not. George Bush's veto in October 1989 of a bill to provide abortion services to poor women who are victims of rape and incest underlined the Supreme Court's retrograde action in this area.

9. Even using official figures. One Chinese scholar, Prof. He Bochuan of Zhongshan University, Guangdong, thinks that there is serious underreporting of births because of the one-child policy, and that China's population in 1989 may have been 1.2 billion (reported in K. Forestier, "The Degreening of China," New Scientist, July 1, 1989, p. 53).

10. United Nations, Demographic Yearbook: Historical Supplement (UN, New York, 1979). This is the basic source of the pre-1977 demographic statistics used here and below.

11. For a summary of information on family-planning goals, see P. R. and A. H. Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment: Issues in Human Ecology, 2nd ed. (Freeman, San Francisco, 1972), Table 10-4.

12. B. Crossette, "Why India Is Still Failing to Stop Its Population Surge," New York Times, July 9, 1989.

13. United Nations, Statistical Yearbook, 1985/86 (UN, New York).

14. Population Bomb, p. 18.

15. WRI and IIED, World Resources 1988-1989 (Basic Books, New York, 1988). The following statistics in this paragraph are from the same source.

16. Based on numbers cited in "Kenya Faces Burgeoning Workforce," Popline, May-June 1989.

17. J. Perlez, "Birth Control Making Inroads in Populous Kenya," New York Times, Sept. 10, 1989.

18. These are Population Reference Bureau figures based on official statistics. But such statistics are very uncertain in most of the Third World, and in Africa in particular. For example, Dr. Muriel Wilson wrote to us about census-taking in Nigeria (letter of March 17, 1989): "... attempts to count the numbers are only rough estimates, varying between 100 million, and at least 130 or 140 million, depending on who is doing the estimating. Census takers told me that in the 1970's they had tried to do local counts, and the Heads had said there were about 30 people in their area. When they discovered that the census was not for taxation purposes, but were advised that areas with more than 35,000 population were eligible for a new hospital, they changed their tune, and agreed that yes, there were at least 35,000 people around . . ."

19. J. Weeks, "The Demography of Islamic Nations," Population Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 4 (December 1988).

20. Weeks, p. 7.

21. See, for example, Penny Lernoux's "The Papal Spiderweb," The Nation, April 10 and 17, 1989. While the hierarchy has been a retrograde force, many individual priests have been supportive of both individual rights and the limitation of families.

22. E. van de Walle and J. Knodel, "Europe's Fertility Transition: New Evidence and Lessons for Today's Developing World," Population Bulletin, vol. 34, no. 6 (February 1980).

23. It is a proposition based on confusing correlation with causation. Fertility today tends to be lower in nations that are more developed -- or, more technically, fertility and development are "negatively correlated." But that does not mean that development causes birthrates to fall, any more than falling birthrates in China over the last decade have been caused by you personally growing older or by the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere -- even though Chinese fertility is negatively correlated with both your age and atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Similar points could be made about the observed negative correlation between level of development and rates of malnutrition and illiteracy. Many hunter-gatherer societies, such as Australian aborigines (about as "underdeveloped" as one could get), suffered less malnutrition than one finds in the U.S. today. China's illiteracy rate is about as high as Brazil's, even though by conventional measures Brazil is roughly six times more developed. Clearly, observed correlations of such social factors with levels of development as defined by economists tell us little about underlying mechanisms.

24. N. Birdsall, "Population Growth and Poverty in the Developing World," Population Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 5 (December 1980).

25. Ehrlich, Ehrlich, and Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment (Freeman, San Francisco. 1977), p. 781; see also J. E. Kocher, Rural Development, Income Distribution, and Fertility Decline, Population Council Occasional Papers, 1973; J. P. Grant, "Development: The End of Trickle Down?," Foreign Policy, no. 12 (Fall 1973), pp. 43-65; A. Sweezy, Recent Light on the Relation Between Socioeconomic Development and Fertility Decline, Caltech Population Program Occasional Papers, series 1, no. 1 (1973).

26. P. Mauldin and B. Berelson, "Conditions of Fertility Decline in Developing Countries, 1965-1975," Studies in Family Planning, vol. 9, no. 5 (1978), p. 104; "Status of Women Key to Future," Development Forum, May-June 1989 (reporting on the UN Fund for Population's State of the World Population Report 1989).

27. Recent research has demonstrated that this effect holds in developed nations too. In the U.S., a study reported in 1989 that husbands of educated women in the U.S. are likely to live longer and have fewer heart attacks than men with less educated wives.

28. Something like this was originally envisioned as the next step after global distribution and assimilation of the Global 2000 Report (Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. State Department [Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1980]), produced at the request of President Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan tried to suppress the report; as of this writing (July 1989), George Bush has shown no sign of understanding the need for such planning.

29. These OECD statistics (from the Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1989) will come as a surprise to many Americans long taken in by tales of our generosity -- which always focus on the record absolute amount we donate (almost $10 billion annually). Information on Japan from C. Foy, "Whither the Japanese Surplus?," OECD Observer, no. 158 (June-July 1989), pp. 23-27.

30. "Aid to Population Programs," Population Today (published by Population Reference Bureau), vol. 17, no. 3 (March 1989), p. 5.

31. Quoted in World Development Forum, vol. 6, no. 20 (Nov. 15, 1988).

32. Sometimes these might require sacrifices of "performance." For example, with the banning of CFCs for use in plastic foams and cooling systems, more efficient and durable refrigerators might not only be more expensive but have smaller capacities relative to their outside dimensions. Paying that price may be necessary to keep society going.

33. See, for example, D. Hayes, Repairs, Reuse, Recycling: First Steps Towards a Sustainable Society, Worldwatch Paper 23 (1978).

34. Much of the material in this section is based on P. R. Ehrlich and A. H. Ehrlich, "The Environmental Dimensions of National Security," delivered at the Pugwash Conference, Dagomys, USSR, September 1988.