Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Population problem misread from start

Here is an article I submitted to my local newspaper as a guest editorial. They published it Friday the 13th :).

Population “Bomb” May Not Be What You Think

By Arden Sleadd

Is the human race the “global equivalent of a swarm of locusts destroying and devouring everything in its path”, as one writer to the Courier described? I wonder, does she live in Oregon? When I look out my window I see towering 100-foot pine and fir trees between my neighbor’s acre and mine. No visions of swarming locusts, that.

Population growth has been getting a bad rap. Paul Erlich popularized the Malthusian theory that population would exceed the earth’s sustainability with his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, and since then environmentally-conscious folks have regarded humans as weeds, consumers and destroyers. Never mind the fact that nearly every prediction made in Erlich’s book failed to come true. Most notably, the “hundreds of millions of people” he predicted would die of starvation due to overpopulation in the 1970s and ‘80s, didn’t. Still, the overpopulation myth has become so embedded in our thinking that any facts to the contrary are ignored.

While it is true that population has grown more in the last century than at any other time, this is more a result of longer life spans than of high birth rates. Quality of life has improved, food production has improved (also defying Erlich’s predictions) and people are generally healthier. This is a good thing. However, it is also true that the number of children in the population has been steadily dropping. We are aging at a precipitious rate. The implications are not pretty.

While an educator, I first heard about the world’s “birth dearth” in 1988. This very real trend, also dubbed the Demographic Winter, has been gaining steam for at least three decades.

I quote from the website “Worldwide, birthrates have been halved in the past 50 years. There are now 59 nations, 44% of the world’s population, with below-replacement fertility. Sometime in this century, the world’s population will begin to decline. At a certain point, the decline will become rapid. We may even reach population free-fall in our lifetimes. For some countries, population decline is already a reality. Russia is losing three-quarters-of-a-million people a year. The term ‘nuclear winter,’ popularized in the 1980s, alluded to the catastrophic environmental impact of a nuclear war. The long-term consequences of a demographic winter could be equally devastating.” (emphasis added)

Imagine a world in which 80% of the population is in retirement age, and 20% are working or in childhood. Imagine hospitals and nursing homes bursting at the seams with old people, and not enough young doctors and CNAs to care for them. Imagine thousands of old people dying in their beds and left there for days or weeks because there is so few people remaining to carry them out, or who even know they’re dead. Imagine the rampant disease that would result. Imagine ghost-towns full of McMansions going back to the coyotes. The population bomb is coming, but it may not play out the way you think.

One letter to the Courier has attempted to paint population growth as analogous to lily-pad reproduction. Since it actually takes two humans to produce one new one, this analogy presumes a human birth-rate at a constant of 4.0, or double the replacement rate, along with a death rate of zero. The truth is that population growth has proven to be linear, not exponential. The U.S. fertility rate is currently only 2.1, or just enough to maintain our current population. Western Europe’s birth rates are much more dismal—Italy is at 1.2, Spain at 1.1, and so it goes. The governments of these countries are very worried, and are offering large sums to induce women to have more children. Few are taking the carrot.

Recent data shows the primary culprit of resource waste has not been overpopulation, but family breakdown. Divorce causes one household to become two, resulting in more capital destruction and consumption, to the tune of $112 billion a year, according to a recent study. If we really care about being “green”, we could start by keeping our love alive and our marriages intact.

Not all humans behave alike. While some are over-consumers, most people learn to produce or contribute at least as much as they consume over their lifetimes. The key is training our young people to be responsible and caring, and the onus is on parents to be diligent in their training.

How should we be truly “green”? 1. Get married and stay married. 2. Have children (at least four, to make up for lost time). 3. If it’s too late for you, adopt a few. 4. Devote your life to loving and training your children (and grandchildren) to be good stewards of our planet. 5. Treat flora, fauna, and humans alike with kindness, and 6. Work sacrificially for those who cared for you.

It may not be the easy road, but it is the high road. The future of our civilization depends on it.

Arden Sleadd is a home-educator, mother of five, grandmother of one, and former school teacher. Her blog is She and her husband founded Covered Bridge Family Ministries ( They reside in Grants Pass, OR.

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Peggy said...
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