Quaker Universalist Conversations

Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation — A Review

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.

Life on the Brink, University of Georgia Press, 2012Is 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:

  1. Live simply, but propagate at will?
  2. National human population quotas that preserve the ratio of ethnic groups to the current status quo?
  3. Limit propagation to one child per woman, with saleable permits?
  4. Expand birth control technology research?
  5. Expand access to birth control tools to all?
  6. Curtail neonatal survival efforts by suppressing research and use of special measures for premature births?
  7. Promotion of abortion?
  8. 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?

Comments

I have not read these essays, but this review seems to suggest that they support a very evil fallacy: Humans are not just mouths. We are not merely consumers. We also have immense— if not infinite —potential for creativity and co-creative symbiosis.

Several times throughout the short history of our species, we have transformed Malthusian catastrophes into new symbiotic harmonies. There was not enough arable land on earth to support population growth in an economy based on medieval premises, but human innovation and human paradigm shifts changed the game; in 1650, the world supported just 500 million people— the overwhelming majority of whom subsisted on less than $1 a day. Today we have over 7 billion and only 17% live on less than $1 a day. Eradicating that dire poverty is within reach.

If George Fox was right and the universal saving Light shines within every person, then the guidance and power to transcend the current Malthusian crisis is in hand— it just can’t come from Malthusian thinking.

Yes, we need to think bigger, beyond the myopic views of tribal, national, or human survival. We need to embrace the larger economy of life on earth as we seek to develop new economies that unleash the dynamic potential of innovation, trade, trust, and sanctity of life, to create greater symbiotic harmonies. What is appalling about the public policy ideas in the queries above is that they demand a totalitarian superpower that would somehow manage the human herd— without regard for local knowledge, local interests, or local leadings from the Spirit.

The Malthusian catastrophes of human history have been averted not by totalitarian power, but by an upward spiral of liberalism which holds the freedom of individuals and societies of friends in sacred trust.

I realize I didn’t answer the challenge: What effective alternatives are compatible with a Quaker universalist testimony?

To me that testimony must include humanizing human life and life on earth. I have nothing against improving birth control technology, access, and education, but the other measures strike me as terribly dehumanizing. Part of it may be that I am one of the people who wouldn’t exist under such a population-limit regimen: I was born premature and struggled through five weeks of intensive care. My parents wanted me to live, and I cherish my life. Just like I wanted my daughter to live when she was in intensive care as an infant, and now I see her growing into a creative force beyond anything I could have imagined.

We can’t hallow life on earth by demeaning human life and freedom, much less can we honor the impulse of Quaker history toward emancipation and the mutual creative interchange of free people by subjecting the human family to herd management.

I think the answers to this quandary are diverse— they depend on the dynamic coordination of local knowledge and decentralized leadings of free people all over the world. It cannot be overstated that the critical knowledge necessary to address the negative consequences of human population growth, as with the critical knowledge necessary to solve any pressing global problem, does not cohere anywhere for a policy-making body to consider impartially.

That knowledge belongs to countless individuals and societies of friends everywhere who are pushing the boundaries of science, technology, engineering, social entrepreneurship, trade, education, and governance— in order to innovate new ways of learning, connecting, collaborating, cooperating, as well as new ways of exploring, understanding, modeling, and living in a cosmos. The transformation of knowledge into wisdom takes place not in a parliament or executive board room, but in the myriad incidental interactions of learning people. Wisdom happens among friends, meeting.

One of the core principles of social problem-solving given in In William Ury and Roger Fisher’s book Getting To Yes is to “separate the people from the problem”. Since the time of Thomas Malthus, “overpopulation” is commonly framed with the assumption that people are the problem. But I think that people— creative, conscious people who cary an indelible measure of divine Light —will be the solution.

Friend John,

Your eloquent response to this review speaks so clearly from the Spirit that I wish merely to excerpt some key statements, in order to lift them up. Thank you for blessing us with these thoughts.

Several times throughout the short history of our species, we have transformed Malthusian catastrophes into new symbiotic harmonies…. [If] the universal saving Light shines within every person, then the guidance and power to transcend the current Malthusian crisis is in hand—it just can’t come from Malthusian thinking….

The Malthusian catastrophes of human history have been averted not by totalitarian power, but by an upward spiral of liberalism which holds the freedom of individuals and societies of friends in sacred trust….

To me that testimony must include humanizing human life and life on earth…. We can’t hallow life on earth by demeaning human life and freedom,…[or] by subjecting the human family to herd management.

[The] critical knowledge necessary to address the negative consequences of human population growth…does not cohere anywhere for a policy-making body to consider impartially…. [It] belongs to countless individuals and societies of friends everywhere….

The transformation of knowledge into wisdom takes place not in a parliament or executive board room, but in the myriad incidental interactions of learning people. Wisdom happens among friends, meeting.

One of the core principles of social problem-solving given in In William Ury and Roger Fisher’s book Getting To Yes is to “separate the people from the problem.”…

I think that people—creative, conscious people who carry an indelible measure of divine Light—will be the solution.

Blessings,
Mike Shell