Falling Fertility

Published on February 2nd, 2010

Congratulations on The Economists very informative article, "Falling Fertility," of October 29. The article does seem, however, somewhat naive in its optimism about the prospect that technological fixes can undo the accelerating environmental and economic damage inflicted by the current world population let alone that damage caused by a future population of a few billion more. Such naivete is found in paragraphs like the following:

"Neo-Malthusians think the world has too many people. But for most countries, the population questions that matter most are either: do we have enough people to support an ageing society? Or: how can we take advantage of having just the right number for economic growth? It is fair to say that these perceptions are not mutually exclusive. The world might indeed have the right numbers to boost growth and still have too many for the environment. The right response to that, though, would be to curb pollution and try to alter the pattern of growth to make it less resource-intensive, rather than to control population directly."

In the 1950s when I was beginning my education as an environmental scientist, the technological fix was often decried as a bandaid that did nothing about the real problem over the medium and long term. Now technological fixes seem less criticized and quite de rigeur. Perhaps this has been because in the 1950s environmental scientists, the truth-tellers of the time, were poverty-stricken and outside the establishment. Now, with billions of dollars of jobs, grants, contracts, consulting fees, etc. available to them, they have less time and inclination to speak truth to power. "Yes, give me my $500,000 contract and I will give you a technological fix in a year. If it doesn’t actually work, well perhaps with a contract extension or new grant, we can fine tune it." Rewards can be high for those willing to shut up and play the optimistic technocrat.

Direct and minimally coercive efforts to greatly reduce world population levels considerably are badly needed if we ever want to give most of humanity the opportunity to have a standard of living like that of the average European or American. Curbing pollution and reducing per capita resource consumption cannot, by themselves, get us very far along that road. As Garrett Hardin pointed out in his 1989 essay "There is no global population problem", each country has the obligation to develop its own population policy because this cannot be effectively or ethically done by any supranational entity. If poor policy or no policy results in a grossly overpopulated nation, the consequences must be borne by that nation. Other countries have no obligation to absorb the excess population via migration when it would cause damage to its own citizens and environment. The time for "tough love" arrived some time ago.

Stuart Hurlbert
Emeritus Professor of Biology, San Diego State University, San Diego CA
Board Member, Californians for Population Stabilization

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