Saturday, September 28, 2013

Political coalition possibilities, population edition

Chris Mooney, who interviewed David Frum and me a few years ago, has a thoughtful article in Grist: "Can we finally have a serious talk about population?" (Note to Chris: When you have a chance, update the Grist bio that says you are host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.) It includes some discussion of Alan Weisman's book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Long excerpt from the article:
Weisman is well aware of the controversy his book invites. In particular, political libertarians are very fond of refuting the concerns of population crusaders, from the Reverend Thomas Malthus to the ecologist and Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, with the claim that human ingenuity has a history of proving them wrong. The key episode: the Green Revolution of the late 1960s, led by plant geneticist Norman Borlaug, in which dramatic new agricultural technologies and crop strains were credited with averting what might otherwise have been mass famines. 
But Weisman has his response ready (he chronicles Borlaug’s life and triumphs in the book). “Everybody says that Norman Borlaug, the great plant geneticist, he disproved Malthus and Ehrlich forever,” he explains. “It’s kind of cherry-picked, because the part that they neglect to add, Norman Borlaug’s Nobel acceptance speech, he didn’t sit there congratulating himself — as he was congratulated by others — for saving more lives than any other human in history. He said, ‘We have bought the world some time, but unless population control and increased food production go hand in hand, we are going to lose this.’” 
So what’s Weisman’s solution? Importantly, he is no supporter of coercive population control measures such as China’s infamous one-child policy. Rather, Weisman makes a powerful case that the best way to manage the global population is by empowering women, through both education and access to contraception — so that they can make more informed choices about family size and the kind of lives they want for themselves and their children. 
“The libertarians are going to like the solution that ultimately comes up,” Weisman says. “And that is, letting everybody decide how many children they want, which means giving every woman on Earth — and then every man, because male contraceptives are coming — giving them universal access to contraception, and letting them decide for themselves.”
Me: The above interests me greatly, partly because of its non-coercive solution but also because of the discussion of Borlaug, whom I'd long seen touted by libertarians without memorable reference to his population concerns. I checked Borlaug's 1970 Nobel speech, wondering whether Weisman's characterization was correct. It is. Excerpt from Borlaug:
Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the "Population Monster". In the beginning there were but two, Adam and Eve. When they appeared on this earth is still questionable. By the time of Christ, world population had probably reached 250 million. But between then and now, population has grown to 3.5 billion. Growth has been especially fast since the advent of modern medicine. If it continues to increase at the estimated present rate of two percent a year, the world population will reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2 additional people are added to the world population. The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3, and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and 2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The ticktock of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?
Me: So, here is a political alignment that might have some resonance going forward: Libertarians who accept that fast-rising population is a problem; and environmentalists who advocate non-coercive ways of dealing with that problem. Some points of agreement: (1) Limit subsidies for child-rearing (and thus rankle some conservative natalists); (2) Oppose efforts to stamp out or severely curtail genetically modified foods (and thus set yourself against the left-wing anti-GMO campaigners).

If that political coalition takes hold, count me in.

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