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This Is The Way The World Ends
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
The recipe devised for feeding the underdeveloped countries requires fertilizers as well as insecticides. While the fertilization problem may have seemed simple to the demographers of twenty years ago, new problems have now emerged. Fertilizers are nitrogen and phosphorous compounds stretched with inert fillers. The fertilizers do not remain in the topsoil into which they have been folded. Rainfall and irrigation leach them down into the aquifers and ultimately into the streams and rivers. These compounds are equally effective in stimulating plant life in water, where the resulting growth slows stream flow, affecting the oxygen-bearing capacity of water in which the decaying vegetation competes for dissolved oxygen with human and animal wastes and aquatic animals. Ultimately, the water becomes unfit for any but the simplest forms of life. The sad condition of Lake Erie is a famous case in point.
Another problem arises from the need to transport bulky, heavy fertilizers to these countries, which so often lack the mineral resources and/or the electric power for local high-volume production. The tonnages to be carried and the distances over which they must move, according to Professor Georg Borgstrom, of Michigan State University, present a logistical challenge greater than all of the war transport of World War II.
It is, of course, possible that technological achievements yet hardly dreamed of might enable men in the near future to supplement their food intake by artificial photosynthesis or by turning inedible organic compounds—lumber, for example—into edible form. But unless one is willing to hazard, at least in theory, the future starvation of the race (preceded, no doubt, by political turmoil on a colossal scale, supplemented by war), the only reasonable alternatives are stopping population growth or minimizing by rigid controls the demands made by a larger population on dwindling resources. Or both.
What can be done to arrest further growth of population? One thinks immediately of education and propaganda to encourage voluntary limitation on family size. So far no one knows how this job should be done, or how effective it might be, or what demographic changes it might entail. Furthermore, there would be strong resistance to the mounting of such a program at governmental expense, and not only because of the Roman Catholic Church. Racial and class considerations intrude. Malthus, in his day, was greeted with virulent criticism by liberal champions, who claimed that his advocacy of limits on population growth obscured his real intent: to prevent the dilution of concentrated wealth among growing numbers of children of the poor.
Similarly, within the United States birth control and family planning have been criticized by some black leaders as a masked attempt to stunt the growth of black population—and political muscle.
Is there any simple way out? The most direct way to reduce the birth rate would involve compulsory measures: sterilizing mothers who have produced two children, for example; or implanting, as has been suggested, some hormonal device in each male at birth that would keep him sterile until he obtained a temporary neutralizing agent, to be dispensed by the state only to those who have fewer than two living offspring. Such denial of choice could scarcely be imposed by a freely elected government until the population had already reached disastrous levels, which is another way of saying that free men would accept such a limitation on their families only after it had become futile.
It is possible to dream up part-way schemes—such as the denial of the sixhundred-dollar tax deduction for any child after the first two. But would such an attack succeed in reducing average family size? Nobody knows; it is safer to predict, however, that in a free society there would be a reaction against any official policy that discriminated so clearly in favor of the rich. The population-control measures suggested—a mixture of tax incentives and education—bulk very small against the natural fecundity of a healthy species living in acceptable conditions. In short, stabilization of the population by adjustments in the birth rate would be chancy, unpredictable.
If population growth can scarcely be curbed by the means at our disposal, man’s efforts to preserve his environment depend on lowering the demands made by each of us. While most people talk as though the environment were simply to be preserved by a process of teaching good manners to anonymous corporations, this is the easiest part of the job. If, taking the United States as our first target, we decide that the continued construction of electric generating stations threatens the atmosphere and the waterways, a limit must be placed on their construction. But if the population keeps growing, such a limit can exist only if the population is prepared to cut back its per capita use of electric power. In the United States, 90 per cent of the new power production since 1940 has gone to feed increased per capita appetites, not to provide electricity for new population.
But should the electricity allowance vary, depending on the appetite for electric power in different consumers? That hardly seems fair. How else could it be managed? How could any limit be set on the use of electric power in industry, especially if industry were constantly expanding its manufacturing processes in order to provide products for a growing population?