Small World: Traffic jams, long lines, higher taxes — why?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Why is it that one of the most damaging, wrong-headed ideas afflicting the world is so little discussed and so weakly blocked? I refer to the efforts — in many places successful — to prevent birth controls from being exercised.

As a consequence, the world’s population is zooming out of control. There’ll be well over seven billion of us on the planet very soon, 8.5 billion by 2030. In the United States, we now total 320 million souls and rising.

It used to be that those who thought about the crisis used the warnings of Thomas Malthus, writing in 1789, as their guide. He predicted that the growth in the number of humans would increase arithmetically while the food supply could not possibly keep pace. He saw famine coming in the mid-1800s. Holding to Malthusian logic in the last century, Paul Ehrich predicted global famine in the 1970s and 1980s.

Scientists and agronomists proved both wrong, however — at least in the near term. Medicines, vaccination and epidemic controls, plus the Green Revolution made the difference. New seeds were introduced and fertilizers and water were more intelligently applied (both using fossil fuels, however). Farmers learned to expand production. India, the scene of frequent famines, became close to self-sufficient.

But the world’s population continues to grow. And the world has learned there are damages other than famines that expanding populations can generate. While the number of souls has been increasing, the number of workers needed for production has been decreasing. Technology has kept up with, or exceeded population growth. The result is unemployment — especially among those youths who are least able to create productive lives for themselves and their families.

The result of high unemployment is political instability and illegal migration. Those African youth who try to make it across the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe and those Latinos who cross our southwestern deserts are the heirs of weak, failed or nonexistent birth control programs.

So who’s to blame? The answer is complex: Religious authorities, some governments and retrograde tradition. A few illustrations:

Iran, after the revolution and the war with Iraq, believed its population numbers were too low, reduced by the turmoil and deaths in the conflicts. Births were encouraged. The numbers zoomed upward. Then, Ayatollah Khomeini was persuaded to introduce limitations; soon the numbers declined in a demonstration unequalled in the developing world. Contemplating the expansion of the populations in his region, Khomeini’s successor Ayatollah Khamenei called a halt to limiting births and Iran’s population has resumed its upward growth.

Other nations have believed — wrong-headedly — that a large population equaled national power. They have been unwilling to accept evidence that a population dependent on scant resources is manifestly weaker and a danger to their own tenure.

Politicians can — and regularly do — make stupid mistakes, often when under the influence of religious leaders. Egypt, where the population in my experience increased from 22 million in 1964 to 80 million now, is such a case. The leaders recognized the dilemma, but were fearful of the mosque if they tried to mount a well-publicized and effective campaign. The result was for many crucial years a timid, publicity shy program. Did population growth reward the regime with the turmoil on the streets this decade? We don’t know, but it certainly produced a surplus of unemployed, unhappy youth.

Religious leaders who should know better are even more responsible. Most conservative faiths condemn abortion. There is no better means of avoiding that procedure than using safe and readily available birth control pills or devices. In essence, religious leaders who advocate large families are selfishly giving no thought to the larger society and the burden their sect places upon it.

If we truly want to protect energy resources and help avoid environmental degradation, we would be working hard to limit population growth. Not maybe the Chinese method of one-child families, but by making readily and cheaply available — especially for the poor — the means of limiting family size. Those who choose not to comply and harm their societies ought to be penalized by fines, in my view.

Unless we, citizens of the world, can get a handle on population growth, I predict other proposals — for example, carbon exchange — designed to protect us from eventual environment disaster will prove woefully inadequate.

We can’t control the sexual drive of our species, but we can limit the damage it does to our society.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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