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Catastrophe By The Numbers
In terms of consumption and pollution, America is the most overpopulated nation on earth. We think we can afford it—but we are leading the world to
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Of course, events in the world at large may preclude the climax of this spoilage. Despite our poor, the average American can purchase nine times as much in the way of goods and services as the average Latin American, and more than twenty times as much as the average Asian or African. And the have-not peoples are ill content with this dispensation. There has been let loose in the world a so-called “revolution of rising expectations.” Actually, those expectations only aim at revolution. They amount to a demand, affecting billions, for the health and comforts the West has shown to be attainable. We might ask ourselves what course those billions are likely to take as they see the disparity between what they have and what we have grow wider—as it is doing—and if they see no prospect of substantial relief from their poverty under the institutions they are accustomed to. At the same time we might ask ourselves what the consequences would be if their expectations of the more abundant life were met: what overwhelming demands would be made on the resources of the globe, and what damage done to the environment of life if the incomes of the disadvantaged billions should approach our own and all peoples began to live on the American model—felling forests for paper as we do, burning fuels and pouring pollutants into the air and the rivers and the sea as we do, and consuming an equivalent share of the earth’s minerals. “The ecology of the earth,” says Harvard nutritional expert Jean Mayer, ” —its streams, woods, animals—can accommodate itself better to a rising poor population than to a rising rich population.”
What remains clear is that the higher the rate of population growth among the economically laggard peoples—and, to repeat, it is now the highest in the world —the slower any improvement in their lot is likely to be, and the more costly to the earth and its ecology would be the dramatic improvement we have taught them to expect. Year by year the alternatives ahead grow more dangerous. With a continuation of present rates of world population growth, either progress or lack of progress in satisfying the wants of the multiplying billions will alike become ever more hazardous, ever more certain to be destructive of world order.
How vast a human multitude the planet can feed is moot. Fanatic agriculturalists speak of 50 billion and more and present us a graphic picture of the world’s forests being “sheared off at ground level” by “a huge steel blade … pushed by a heavy crawler-type tractor” to provide farm land. That forests are indispensable in preserving watersheds and water tables and tempering climates, that the need will be for more forests in the future to provide lumber and pulp, does not seem to concern them. But at least they point up the insanity of devoting our energies, not to creating conditions in which man’s potentialities may be realized, but to converting this splendid earth into a dreary food-factory to provide a mere subsistence for overflowing billions with whom no one in his right mind could wish to see the planet burdened.
The nightmare that the population explosion has in store for their descendants has been persistently pictured for the American people. Congress, no longer palsied before native obscurantism or the medieval theology of the Vatican, has—admirably—appropriated substantial funds for research into human reproduction and for the dissemination of information on contraceptive techniques. Yet the public on the whole continues to show itself passively or actively on the side of catastrophe—not on the side of its prevention.
In the face of all warnings, we Americans brought over 3.5 million new human beings into the world last year, to send the population of the United States up by 1.5 million. And with each of these added lives representing a burden on the earth equal to a half dozen or more Asians or Africans, we should perhaps not expect those unenlightened folk to be much moved by our exhortations to them to reproduce less. A Gallup poll in November a year ago showed that 41 per cent of Americans considered four or more children ideal for a family, the percentage being 50 among Roman Catholics, 56 among Negroes, and higher than average among the poor—47.
Admittedly, there were once good reasons for large families. At the time of the American Revolution, only half of the children born lived to sixteen. Most of us were farmers, and on the farm children were an asset. In any case, land and resources appeared inexhaustible. Let it be acknowledged too that while times have changed drastically, asking couples to limit the number of their children is asking a great deal. Watching a human personality gradually take shape, one that you have helped bring out of nothing, is an incomparable satisfaction. Children lend a kind of charm to life that nothing else can.