By Donella Meadows
–June 26, 1986–
The population of the world in 1900 was 1.6 billion. By 1950 it was 2.5 billion. Now it is 5 billion. By the year 2000 the earth will mostly likely have 6.1 billion people.
Some people — let us call them eco-freaks — consider population growth the world’s worst problem. It exacerbates poverty, they say, and degrades the environment. They think the highest priority on the social agenda should be to ensure that the next century does not produce another two doublings and a world of 24 billion people.
The Global 2000 report, written for the eco-freak Carter administration says:
“If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world’s people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.”
Then there are the people — techno-twits — who regard population growth as something to celebrate. They see it as a tribute to the success of the human race and a promise of even more progress in the future. There will be more people to invent things, work hard, push forward every field of human achievement.
That is the view of the Reagan administration, especially of Julian Simon, who is the chief spokesman for our government on these matters. It was Simon who articulated the U.S. position at the 1984 U.N. Population Conference in Mexico City. The developing countries, he said, need not worry about population growth. As long as they have modern technology and healthy private-enterprise systems, they can handle anything.
(The population of Mexico in 1900 was 15 million; by 1950 it was 25 million. Now it is 80 million, and by the year 2000 it will be 113 million.)
Simon, who calls the Carter administration study Globaloney 2000, sees a rosy future:
“The world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now. Stresses involving population, resources, and environment will be less in the future than now. The world’s people will be richer in most ways than they are today.”
The struggle between eco-freaks and techno-twits is not new, not polite, not scientific, and not an inconsequential academic squabble. When our government swings, as it has done over the past ten years, from the eco-freak viewpoint to the techno-twit, vast changes take place. Emphasis shifts from family planning to family wealth, from population education to technical education. We wage war on abortion instead of unwanted pregnancy. We stop preserving federal wildlands and auction off lumber concessions and mineral rights. We try to solve our problems not through compassion or conservation, but through growth.
The struggle between eco-freaks and techno-twits has been going on since at least 1798, when Thomas Robert Malthus observed that people keep multiplying but land does not. Malthus advocated sexual abstinence, never very popular as a political platform.
Modern technology has produced a more acceptable alternative, contraception. But that has not appeased the techno-twits. I remember the scorn of my economics professor, twenty years ago, as he pointed out how wrong Malthus was. Economics professors are still trying to bury Malthus. But, as eco-freak Garrett Hardin likes to say, anyone who has to be re-buried regularly after nearly 200 years can’t really be quite dead.
Deep emotions underlie the argument, and the words each side has for the other are not kind. I am privy to the talk of eco-freaks (being one myself), who consider the opposition to be greedy materialists, short-sighted, technocratic, and ecologically ignorant. The techno-twits accuse us in turn of being doomsayers, killers of the human spirit, family-destroyers. A recent privately-made TV show in Britain attacks family planners as racist, fascist, and out to “encourage boys and girls to have sexual intercourse, provided only that they don’t get pregnant.
Not polite, and not scientific. Much of the argument is buttressed by charts, data tables, and computer models. But the discussion is appallingly biased. Data are skewed to prove points, each side misquotes the other, and rhetorical overstatements abound. The National Academy of Sciences has appointed three prestigious panels to sort out the debate, in 1963, 1971, and 1986. They were supposed to be objective, but by knowing the political tenor of the time you could predict how the final report would come out (1963 and 1971 eco-freak, 1986 techno-twit).
Business-as-usual versus repent-and-be-saved. Forge-ahead versus preserve-and-enjoy. More versus enough. The debate is not even close to being settled. I used to be a fierce protagonist in it. Now I am more interested in the debate itself. It must touch some essential fears, dreams, or visions about the human condition, about what we are here for and how we are to define ourselves. It must arise from something fundamental but contradictory within us all.
What are they, those fears, those dreams? If you resonate with one side, why, deep down, do you? What really drives the eco-freaks and the techno-twits? How as a society can we contain, listen to, and learn from them all?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986