Earth Notes: Mercy for Humanity

By Sally Chappell

1968 was a volatile year, notable for the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Less notable was the founding of the Club of Rome and the publication of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich (Anne Ehrlich was the co-author but uncredited). The first Club of Rome meeting led to its initial report, The Limits to Growth, instigating immediate and ongoing debate. Fifty years later, the assassinations are easily remembered and memorialized, but the anxiety generated by adherents of populationism (the ideology that attributes social ills to the number of humans) has incrementally seeped into our collective unconscious changing the cultural and political landscape of the world. How has overpopulation angst been manifested in the last 50 years as human numbers increase alongside environmental degradation?

The increased prevalence of legal abortion worldwide has been a major outcome. The invisibility of a growing embryo or fetus makes it an easy target for elimination of unwanted pregnancies and also makes possible a reduction of wanted pregnancies among poor women when the economic means of support for their babies is unavailable. “Nipped in the bud” could be a description of this tactic to reduce human numbers. Additionally, an antinatalist movement has begun among people of childbearing age with the intent of being child-free through sterilization for environmental reasons.

Badly behaving humans have been another target for elimination. According to, the death penalty has existed in human history as far back as the 18th century BC. By 1966, support for the death penalty here in the United States was at an all-time low with only 42 percent approval. Since then, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972 but reinstated it in 1976. Presently, the general population is showing little tolerance for the right to life of those convicted of murder despite a secure prison system here in the United States.

Immigration is a hot issue now, and has always been an issue in this country. Recent policies to discourage migration to the United States have drawn outraged criticism from human rights advocates. Many migrants are fleeing certain death in unstable Central American countries in which the United States has been the primary destabilizer. In other cases, the inability to earn a living forces people northward as the climate becomes more disrupted. We all carry mental images of destitute people in lifeboats crossing the Mediterranean Sea as well as rows of tents in refugee camps in Africa and Asia. Here in America, some people would like to turn the United States into a gated country. Is there much moral distance between killing people and allowing them to die through neglect or a refusal to help?

In a 1974 article in Psychology Today, Garrett Hardin presented his thesis, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” in which he argued against foreign aid, immigration, and food banks. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA are all political heirs of Hardin’s philosophy, according to Ian Angus and Simon Butler in their book, Too Many People?: Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis (2011). I keep recommending this book to people I know, but as soon as I tell them that the authors are socialists, enthusiasm wanes.

Nevertheless, Angus and Butler effectively argue that environmental destruction is not caused by our increased human numbers or migrants seeking relief but rather other factors including military operations and large-scale industrial ventures promoted by those with the power to control resources and capital. They outline the rift in the environmental community with the Ehrlichs on one side and Barry Commoner’s alternative view on the other with the publication of his book, The Closing Circle, in 1971. The controversy they sparked continues to this day.

Populationists maintain that it is human numbers that cause detrimental effects on the earth. The IPAT formula (impact = population x affluence x technology) devised by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren is too simplistic to explain human population’s effect on the environment. As Patricia Hynes points out in Too Many People?, “IPAT is based on a ‘singular view of humans as parasites and predators on the natural environment’ — it assumes that human activity always harms the natural world. There is no way, using IPAT, to account for people who devote themselves to ‘restoring and replenishing their local environment as they use it, and guarding it from maldevelopment projects.’”

We must uphold the vision that it is possible for humans to have a positive effect on the earth. Demographers predict that the 7.6 billion people now living will expand to 9 or 10 billion people by mid-century and then contract as birth rates continue to fall around the globe. The worry about “too many people” could be transformed into opportunity. Sustainable, small and mid-scale agriculture can employ people while feeding the world as Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins explain in their book, World Hunger: 10 Myths.

We can be inspired by modern prophets. Ecotheologian Thomas Berry (1914-2009) proclaimed that “the foundations of the Ecozoic Era have been established in every realm of human affairs…The distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by the more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing organic-based Earth community.” (The Great Work, 1999) Native American ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer envisions in Braiding Sweetgrass, “We are dreaming of a time when the land might give thanks for the people.” Paul Hawken proposes, “We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it.” (The Ecology of Commerce, 1993, as seen in Center for Action and Contemplation)

May our children and grandchildren reap the benefits of these visions by 2068.

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