November 13, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

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World citizen # 5,235,825,466 to the world: “World, come in please, are you there?”Computerized voice response:  “Please hold, our lines are experiencing a high volume of calls at this hour …”

Given that there are now seven billion of us, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I mean who am I other than the five billion, two hundred and thirty-five million, eight hundred and twenty-five thousand, four hundred and sixty-sixth person on this planet. The world, it seems, doesn’t have time for all of us. Nor, frankly, does it have the room.

According the United Nations, Oct. 31 marked the birth of the seven billionth member of our harmonious human society — the one that by 2030 will be consuming the resources of two earths if current trends continue. As Paul Gilding, an Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, puts it: “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem.” Population control is back. Or at least should be.

Let’s be clear: Having fewer babies is not the only solution to this crisis. Reducing our individual use of resources should also be something we aim for. Households can make smarter, more environmentally friendly and less harmful decisions. Reducing our own carbon footprint is, many scientists and researchers agree, an indispensable part of what we have to do to avert a full-scale climate and resource crisis. Yet those same scientists are increasingly talking about population control as a necessary measure to curb greenhouse gas emissions, reduce deforestation and avert ecosystem fragmentation.

But this issue is not purely environmental. China’s environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, recently said, “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediment’s to [China’s] economic and social development.”  The mention of China here should give some people pause when it comes to population growth. Their coercive one child policies, while effective, were, well, coercive. Stories abound about communist party officials forcing women to have late-term abortions and threatening to abduct and murder young babies.

India is another example forced population control resulting in sickening and inhuman policies. During the 1970s under Indira Gandhi, India initiated a forced sterilization campaign where whole villages were sterilized and where people living in slums in were given plots of land outside of the major cities in exchange for their ability to reproduce.

Population control has a history of treating humans like animals — something we should avoid at all costs. That history, though, was largely enacted in poorer, developing countries –– and, often, it should be added, at the behest of Western policy makers influenced by Paul Ehrlich’s famous book, The Population Bomb. The idea was that the “population explosion” occurring in third-world countries would create food shortages and even a mass starvation event.

It might frighten some that Paul Ehrlich, the man behind some of these abhorrent policies (albeit indirectly), has now turned his gaze to the United States. He admits the problem is that “there are too many rich people.” Translation: the U.S. needs to reduce its birth rate.

“Uh Oh. Now they’re coming for us! This looks like the 1970s all over again. The elitists are forcing us to relinquish our freedom to have babies!!” That is one possible reaction. One that was arguably voiced during the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood during the budget debates this past summer. Granted, hidden behind the drubbing P.P. got was the pro-choice, religiously motivated claim that abortion should be illegal. Either way, though, family planning is a taboo subject in the United States.

Such overreactions are unhelpful and do not allow us to have a civil conversation about an important issue. On some level, Ehrlich is right. He is backed up by quite a bit of evidence too. A study published in 2009 by researchers at Oregon State revealed that a child born in the United States means the emission of 160 times more greenhouse gases than a child born in Bangladesh. The problem isn’t there; it’s here.

But before you conclude that we should just change our consumption habits, the same study found that “reducing car travel, recycling and making homes more efficient would have a fraction of the impact on emissions that reducing the birth rate would.”

Pretty convincing when you consider that demographers have shown that reducing the birth rate in this country from 2.0 children per woman to 1.5 children per woman would result in a 33 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by century’s end. Even more convincing when you know that nearly half of all births in the United States result from unintended pregnancies.

Family planning, if not strict population control, should be allowed back in the conversation. Environmental groups should get over their fears of promoting it as a solution in the United States. Most importantly, we should stop deluding ourselves that recycling and turning off the lights will be enough to avert climate and resource catastrophes.

If the latter are things we want to avoid, we will have to sacrifice some of our future, currently non-existent, children. I’m sure they won’t mind.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco