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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

To Avoid Disaster, Limit Population and Consumption

Air Date: Week of
A crowded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Rich countries must reduce consumption and the world must limit population to avoid catastrophe. That’s the message of Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. He tells host Steve Curwood that does not mean misery but more time for people and pleasure.


CURWOOD: The conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth summit is just days away, and the journal Nature is publishing a series of articles to encourage progress. One examines the massive die-off of species. Another concludes that human activities are pushing planetary systems towards a tipping point, with irreversible changes that could derail civilization.

The solution, claims a third article co-authored by Paul Ehrlich, is to rescale civilization to protect the natural environment and to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Paul Ehrlich is a professor of biology at Stanford University and author of the classic book, “The Population Bomb.”

EHRLICH: People are slowly beginning to understand what is a very fundamental issue, namely that we cannot continue growing, that basically we’ve got to rescale society to a lower level or we’re not gonna make it. And that’s why it’s very depressing when you hear the President get up and say that what we need to do is grow at three and a half percent a year more and, of course, all you have to do is know a little bit about compound interest or exponential growth to know it’s totally impossible.

CURWOOD: So, Professor Ehrlich, you say we need to rescale civilization. What do you mean by that?

EHRLICH: Well, what I mean is that we have got to do basically two really important and extremely difficult things. One is dramatically cut back wasteful consumption on the part of the rich and transfer some of that consumption to the poor who are not able to consume enough.

The other thing we need to do is already underway, and that is reduce the human birth rate to the point where it’s slightly below the human death rate, and hold it there for a long time so that we can gradually reduce the size of the human population to one that’s sustainable in the long run.

And the win-win way to at least get started and maybe accomplish it all, is to give women equal rights to men, everywhere, equal opportunities, equal pay and so on, and that probably alone could do the job. We do know that the more rights women have, the better off we all are.

CURWOOD: So now let’s talk in more detail about population. The key is equity for women—give me some examples, please.

EHRLICH: Wherever women have gotten closer to equal rights and job opportunities, and access—which is very important—to modern contraception and, where necessary—and we hope it’s not often necessary—backup abortion, birth rates have come down. And they’ve come down dramatically, for example, in the Catholic countries of Europe.

And that of course is a wonderful thing, because what you want above all, in considering that we’re concerned with both consumption and population size, is when you can shrink the size of the very rich populations that are super consumers. You’re getting a twofer.

CURWOOD: Now you talk about women in this article, not just in terms of fertility and population, but you point out that there’s a relationship between gender, gender equity, and forest protection. Can you say more about that?

Paul Ehrlich is president of the Center for Conservation Biology and professor of population studies at Stanford University. (Stanford University)

EHRLICH: That’s mostly a correlation. I can hypothesize on why it happens; I think women are very much more concerned with health, with the health of their children, with the future of their children, where their resources come from, particularly in poor countries where often the resources are drawn rather directly from the biological resources from our natural capital. And therefore where women have a say, they do more than the men often do, which is argue over how to divide up the land as the population grows.

CURWOOD: So we’re still gonna end up having more people living on this planet in the foreseeable future, so what you do to take care of the natural capital, that is, nature that takes care of us, is important. And in your article you say that to do that, we might want to follow the example in China. What’s that example?

EHRLICH: Well, China, for example, has a large portion of its country now put aside, with the government paying attention to the ecosystem services that are supplied by their natural capital. They’re using new software, actually developed at Stanford by Gretchen Daily’s group, to actually evaluate the tradeoffs in all sorts of places, between things like preserving biodiversity and yet keeping the farming productive.

CURWOOD: By the way, Gretchen Daily is one of your co-authors on this paper.

EHRLICH: Yes, she certainly is. She’s the brains, I’m the voice.

CURWOOD: Your formula is, okay, we need to take away what rich nations consume and such, that means you’re saying to your typical American, guess what—you’re gonna have less.

EHRLICH: No, that’s wrong. What you’re saying to the typical American is, you’re gonna have different. That is, we’re gonna rebuild the country over the next 70 years in the reverse of what we did in the last 70 years, and instead of designing it around automobiles, we’re gonna design it around people. So automobiles will be reserved basically for one really important function, and that is for teenagers to make love in. But you don’t have to have engines, gasoline, kinds of things.


EHRLICH: So you get rid of the whole commuting thing, and everybody has a more relaxed life, everybody has more time to drink wine, make love, enjoy the flowers, and so on. The idea that what human beings basically are is consumption tools, and that what we need to do is always get more stuff—some stuff is really important.

But, you know, what’s an important item for everybody? It’s the refrigerator. We all like cold beer, right? But you can build a refrigerator that’ll last for a hundred years, it doesn’t have to have all kinds of fancy bells and whistles and a new version every two years. There’s all kinds of things we can do that would make our lives fundamentally better.

While we have gotten more crap, we have gotten less time. We just haven’t given enough thought to what people are for, and how we can design a nation, and a world, in which people would have much, much better lives, and still not have all the huge inequity issues that I’m afraid are going backwards in many places in the world today.

CURWOOD: Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Biology at Stanford University and co-author of the article, “Securing Natural Capital and Expanding Equity to Rescale Civilization—” that’s a mouthful—in the journal Nature. Thank you so much Professor.

EHRLICH: It’s been my great pleasure.



Paul Ehrlich’s Home Page


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