Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2012)
Life on the Brink asks the question, “Do humans have a right to take all resources of the earth?” The book reflects a universalist perspective that extends beyond humans to include all biological species. It is the problem of human overpopulation that threatens the existence of other species.
Is this assessment of human population fair? Is it necessary to include other species in our area of concern? If we include other species in our area of concern, should we treat other species as equal or unequal in importance in our behavior and public policy? Do other species have interests that should be recognized as rights that are enforceable within human institutions?
The authors of this collection include some 25 important and diverse environmentalist voices, including Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich and Richard Lamm. The several authors, with their several specific areas of expertise and concern over the effects of human population size, all agree on a common assessment that humans are a destabilizing cancer on the ecology of the Earth. The human swarm is overwhelming biodiversity through human appropriation of habitats and resources. Only human restraint can stop this, and restraint requires curbing human numbers.
Humans have a genetic compulsion to reproduce, but the earth is finite and humans cannot flourish (in land, health or biodiversity) without limits on human reproduction. To move this conversation forward, the editors have engaged the environmental community in the discussion. This discussion involves addressing racist, sexist, speciesist and colonialist views in us all.
Population growth is a major force behind all of the serious ecological problems of the earth (climate change, habitat loss and specie extinctions, air and water pollution, food and water scarcity). From 7 billion to 12 billion humans on the globe is not sustainable or compatible with human flourishing.
In history, humans as a species have shown self-control in modest quantity, but self-control is not presently engaged regarding human over-population. Unfortunately, the book is soft on suggestions for specific policy solutions to strengthen human self-control. The Chinese one-child policy hovers in the background.
A particularly challenging essay is that by Staples and Cafaro, “For a Species Right to Exist”, which makes the practical implementation of a universalist perspective concrete and practical. It is doable with the will, to the benefit of all species including humans. The editors provide a helpful index for the book, and modest endnotes and short bibliographies after each essay.
Queries for our readers:
The easy way is to dismiss or ignore the idea that human overpopulation is the problem and hope that it will fade away. However, if you are persuaded by these essays that human overpopulation is the problem, what is the Quaker universalist response? What is the Quaker universalist testimony about public policy to implement population limits? Is there a place for Quaker leadership?
Several suggestions include:
- Live simply, but propagate at will?
- National human population quotas that preserve the ratio of ethnic groups to the current status quo?
- Limit propagation to one child per woman, with saleable permits?
- Expand birth control technology research?
- Expand access to birth control tools to all?
- Curtail neonatal survival efforts by suppressing research and use of special measures for premature births?
- Promotion of abortion?
- Immigration is neutral regarding population, except for the need for birth control?
If Quakers do not like one or more of these suggestions, what can we say as effective alternatives to meet the goal of limiting human population?
Cafaro and Crist’s book is provocative, and it pushed my thinking toward 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
What can you say?